For hikers in the Pacific Northwest, the Wonderland Trail is a rite of passage: a challenging, stunningly beautiful 93-mile trek that circumnavigates Mount Rainier. Along the way, you’ll pass a dizzying array of landscapes: vast canyons, lush valleys, rushing waterfalls, creeping glaciers, meandering rivers and glassy lakes, with the imposing peak of Mount Rainier ever-present in the background.
The trail takes you through dramatic changes in altitude, testing your physical and psychological fortitude as the miles add up. Here’s what to expect as you prepare to make the life-changing journey along the Wonderland Trail, one of the best hikes in Washington.
Wonderland Trail at a Glance
- Distance: 93 miles, with several options for side hikes from the main trail
- Total elevation change: 23,000 feet (highest point: 6,800 feet; lowest point: 2,450 feet)
- Duration of hike: 9 to 13 days
- Availability: Summer and fall
- Permit required: Yes
When to Hike the Wonderland Trail
Hiking season in Mount Rainier National Park begins in mid- to late July, when most of the snow pack has melted, temperatures are comfortable and precipitation is at its lowest. If you begin your hike any earlier in the year, you may encounter strong wind and rain, mudslides from snow melt and high river levels.
Trails are most crowded in mid-August, when the weather tends to be nice and wildflower blooms are at their peak. However, this time of year is also high season for mosquito and fly populations, so be sure to pack plenty of insect repellent and possibly a mosquito net for your tent or tarp.
After Labor Day, crowds decrease significantly. Trail conditions are usually excellent: the snow has all melted, rivers have returned to normal levels and muddy areas have dried. However, autumn rains will soon be on their way, and nights may be cold enough to necessitate a three-season sleeping bag. Still, daytime hiking temperatures are usually ideal, and the cooler temperatures will eliminate most of the pesky insects.
By mid-October, the National Park Service closes several of the park’s main roads and trailheads, reducing your options for travel and caching food. Severe weather is also a strong possibility, making it nearly impossible to safely navigate the Wonderland Trail.
Getting a Permit for the Wonderland Trail
Given the trail’s popularity among hikers in the region, the park service limits the number of permits it issues during the season, with reservations assigned by lottery when demand exceeds availability. Your best bet for securing a reservation is to request a permit during the priority reservation period from March 15 to April 1. After April 1, the park awards permits randomly from those received during the priority window until all campsites have been booked. Requests received after April 1 are filled in the order they are received, but there are rarely any slots remaining at that point.
The park does hold a small number of permits each day for walk-in requests. If this is your angle, you’ll need to be at the front of the line at a Ranger Station the morning you want to start your hike. Your odds for obtaining this permit are relatively low, but they increase a bit after Labor Day when schools are back in session and crowds thin out a bit.
Permits starting on weekend days are in high demand, so if you can start your hike on a weekday (Monday through Thursday), you might have a better chance of receiving a permit.
If you fail to get a walk-in permit, consider a day hike. You’ll still get to see many beautiful areas of the trail, and no permit is required. Access to the trail is available in multiple locations throughout the park.
Planning Your Hike
On average, hikers take 10 days to complete the full Wonderland Trail. The park service permits up to 14 days to make the trek, so if you’re not a seasoned hiker, be sure to allow yourself some extra time when planning your itinerary. Even outdoor veterans can be surprised by the toll the rough terrain and constant elevation changes can take on the body and mind.
Starting Point and Direction
When you apply for your permit, you’ll need to submit an itinerary to the park service, including where you plan to start your hike and whether you plan to travel clockwise or counterclockwise around the mountain. Most hikers opt to go clockwise, but the main consideration is the distance you’ll need to hike to get to your first campsite.
Below are some of the most popular trailheads for starting the hike:
- Longmire: This is the most common starting point for Wonderland Trail hikers. It can be quite busy, but also offers the most by way of resources, including nearby hotels and car camp sites. It’s also a reasonable distance to backcountry camps in either direction once you start the hike.
- Sunrise: This trailhead has ample parking, but it’s a roughly 10-mile hike to the first campsite at Summerland if you’re traveling clockwise. Traveling counterclockwise, the Granite Creek campsite is about 5 miles away.
- White River: This trailhead is located near Sunrise but offers limited parking. If you can start here, you’ll reduce the time it takes to reach Summerland by about an hour.
- Box Canyon: This is the closest trailhead for hikers arriving from Yakima, but no services are available here except for a restroom. Starting here also provides the opportunity for placing an extra food cache at Longmire to reduce the weight of your pack.
Food and Fuel Caching
Food caching (storing food at designated locations along the trail) can help you cut down on the weight you have to carry on your back for the duration of the hike. During the primary hiking season, food cache storage is available at the Longmire, Mowich Lake, White River and Sunrise. Caching food means you’ll only need to carry three to four days’ food supply at a time. However, keep in mind that the roads connecting to the Sunrise and Mowich Lake trailheads often don’t open until late July and may close as early as mid-September, so be sure to check road status beforehand.
Food caches may be delivered to the designated sites in person or shipped ahead of time. The park service recommends the delivery date be at least two weeks prior to the date you expect to pick it up during your hike. Shipping instructions are available here. Food caches should be stored in rodent-proof, hard plastic containers such as utility buckets with secure lids.
Fuel caching is also available at the same locations as food caching, but it must be delivered in person, as shipping fuel is prohibited. If your hike falls late in the season, you may be able to obtain surplus fuel from the park service at no cost. Fuel may also be available for purchase at the Longmire general store or the Sunrise day lodge, but be sure to call Rainier Guest Services beforehand (360-569-2275) to check their inventory.
- Gas: The steep hills inside the park may put a dent in your car’s fuel efficiency, and there are no gas stations located inside the park, so fill up in one of the surrounding towns—Ashford, Packwood, Cliffdell, Enumclaw and Buckley—before you enter.
- Groceries: The Longmire General Store and Sunrise Gift Shop carry a few staples, but if you require more supplies than a small snack or a souvenir, it’s best to stock up at one of the grocery stores in Ashford, Elbe, Packwood and Enumclaw.
- Hiking/Camping Equipment: If a critical piece of equipment—such as a water filter—breaks or gets left behind, you can secure a replacement at one of the outdoor stores in Ashford (Whittaker Mountaineering), Puyallup (Sportsman’s Warehouse) or Tacoma (REI).
- Connectivity: Cell phone service and Wi-Fi are not available in Mount Rainier National Park. Your best bet for cell service is to drive to the neighboring communities of Crystal Mountain, Morton, Packwood or Enumclaw. Free Wi-Fi is available at the Copper Creek Inn and Base Camp Bar and Grill in Ashford, Crystal Mountain Resort in Crystal Mountain and a few local businesses in Enumclaw.
Final Thoughts on the Wonderland Trail
The Wonderland Trail is a dream destination for avid hikers, with its challenging terrain and varied but uniformly stunning scenery. Along the 93-mile route, you’re sure to catch glimpses of nature’s beauty around every turn, and you’ll probably make some new friends along the way. Start planning the details of your trek well in advance with the information provided here; you’ll lay the groundwork for a hiccup-free trip—and have resources at the ready in case everything doesn’t go quite according to plan.