The Wonderland Trail, Mt. Rainier National Park

Greetings, dear Pickles and Passionfruit followers!

We landed back in the USA mid-December 2021, overwhelmed repatriating to a country that is different than 6 years ago, attempting to see family between covid surges, and hustling to get a new roof on our 96-year-old house, so our insurance company wouldn’t drop us.

Just some of the reasons we haven’t shared our bittersweet farewell to Taiwan blog post yet. We promise to get to it. In the meantime, we got inspired to share a recent USA adventure, like this one!

In mid-April I got a call from Kari B. / @womenstravelguide. Kari and I met living in Boston 20+ years ago and have had many adventures together, some of which have been published in her work. She was then and still is an Adventure Travel Writer and Photographer, writing regularly for the Boston Globe and Washington Post. We were due for another adventure which was seredipitously sparked by her name being selected for an early-access lottery wilderness permit to hike The Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state.Like all her other invites, I immediately said, “YES?

Old friends, new adventure!

The Wonderland Trail is 93 miles (150 km) long and encircles Mount Rainier. It is known as a strenuous hike with lots of climbing or descending the ridges around the mountain. It winds through old growth forests (which is stunningly the entire park because no commercial logging has ever taken place within its boundaries), big valleys, wild flowers, black bears, lowland and sub-alpine forests and meadows, crystal clear cold rivers, massive waterfalls, snow fields, glaciers, and darling chubby marmots!

Darling, right?

This would be the longest backcountry hiking trip we’ve ever embarked on. We started training in the Columbia River Gorge, with weighted packs and hiking poles, got a sort of, “OK” from my physical therapist (hip & foot woes), and then did a deep dive into making our gear as light as possible for what would be a 4-day, 5 night hike in one of the most beautiful places in the PNW. We officially had a …

Summer Vacation!

The trailblazers included: Kari, Grace (her 13-year-old daughter), Sam (her 11-year-old son) and us. While we committed to hiking 1/3 of the trail, they were going to circumnavigate all of Mt. Rainier, hiking the full 93-miles (it will end up being over 100 due to the route though). Those three are still hiking as we write this, on day 8 of 10 nights. Total badasses. Weeks prior to this trip, Kari told us she “broke the kids in” on a 4-day remote, backcountry hiking trip, which included gnarly river crossings in the North Cascades. As promised, these kids were ready to go, with A+ attitudes, smiles, and young knees and backs that can hike for miles! Uncle Scott and Aunt Sarah are proud of these two, and we hope they’ll drag us along on their next adventure.

Logistics

After you are selected for the early access lottery for the Wonderland Trail, you are provided a time slot to go online and feverishly piece together an itinerary that hopefully won’t kill you. This takes both time and research; connecting available campsites going either clockwise or counterclockwise around Mt. Rainier, counting miles between camp sites, learning if certain areas are safely passable due to snow, if any foot bridges are out which would then require timing river crossings early in the day, so water flow isn’t high and dangerous (a concern for Kari later on the hike), understanding the elevation gains/losses per day that will hopefully leave your knee tendons intact. Kari did all this, and we greatly appreciated all of it.

Our Route

THIS BEAUTY! Only 2.5 hours from our house.

Starting at the GREEN pin: we hiked from White River, to Summerland, to Nickel Creek, to Snow Lake, and finished at Longmire. Kari, Grace, and Sam’s itinerary continued on, circling back to the beginning at White River. The itinerary included some long days, and some of the most beautiful camp sites!

 

Gear Party

Kari’s trail name is Turbo, something she earned on her previous Wonderland Trail circumnavigation with nine other feisty mamas in 2016 (that adventure was published in the Boston Globe, February 2016). On this trip she earned the surname Lux for Luxury because she’s a serious gadget head. It comes naturally with her adventurous career, so it made sense she and her daughter Grace would make a trip from the Seattle area to talk about gear, review gear, approve gear, reject gear, research new gear, debate pros and cons of bringing deoderant, and eat yummy PDX food truck grub. Oh, and catch up after 6 years! We both made exciting adjustments to our gear, setting us all up for success and comfort, although we drew the line at carrying TWO hammocks.

Scott earned his trail before we even hit the trail, in our living room, when he proudly showed us his small crinkly camp pillow. Hello, Crinkles. This crinkly camp pillow decided to fail on day zero. Guess who had a backup pillow? Turbo Lux.

 

DAY 0

Camp essentials!

Hike preparation for many hikers often includes putting together what are called “food and fuel caches” and delivering them in person or by mail to a couple designated locations around the park. These are supplies one may need to refresh/restock while on trail because carrying 9-12 days worth of food is sort of miserable. Items are placed in labeled 5 gallon plastic buckets and handed to a park employee. Since Kari and the kids were hiking the entire trail, they prepared 2 cache drops of food, fresh clothes, socks, and cooking fuel, and would leave stinky clothes and empty fuel to pick up later. Kari and the kids spent a very long day delivering these caches, driving on the one small and winding park road. We met up at Longmire where we left our car (our end point) and all of us got in Kari’s zippy Mini Cooper and headed to our camp site located outside the park in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, called La Wis Wis. Ideally, we would have camped at our start point in the park at White River, but no spots were available. La Wis Wis is a pretty campground nestled among old growth trees, next to the Cowlitz River. Highly reommend.

DAY 1 – July 24

White River to Summerland
9.7 miles
2,232 ft. of elevation gain
6,207 ft. max elevation
4.5 hours hike time, 5 hours on trail

Fueled up on cheese the night before, we hit the trail in good spirits on Sunday. It was surreal to finally be ON TRAIL after talking and planning for 3 months!

The National Parks Fan Club
Slowly climbing to our camp site at 5,900 feet and feeling smaller and smaller. We humans are simply specs of dust in the natural world.
Summerland camp’s dining hall has sweet views as we prepared our homemade dehydrated spaghetti! Recipe at end.

DAY 2 – July 25

Summerland to Panhandle Gap to Nickel Creek
14.8 miles
2,577 ft. of elevation gain
6,961 ft. max elevation
9 hours hiking, 11 hours on trail

The views on this leg were phenomenally moonscapey big and snowy! These were LONG slow-going miles, step by careful deliberate step in our micro spikes, and often staying close together for safety. We were slowly climbing to the highest peak on the trail, Panhandle Gap at 6,750 feet (2,060 m). Afterwards, boobs and buns came out for our first glacial cold dip at Indian Creek. It was exactly what we all needed before we continued on in the heat for a 7-mile climb towards Nickel Creek. During this week there was a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest so even though you see lots of snow, it was unusually warm and rivers were flowing! The solar glare was intense so full sun coverage was necessary.

Kari standing near the Panhandle Gap (we momentarily lost the path around here).
We found the way to the Panhandle Gap and it was up and snowy. Only one of two nervy parts on the entire trail.
This went on and on…
We all wore micro spikes which helped a lot!
Indian Bar lunch & glacial water dip time!
Out of the snow and into the valley of wildflowers and waterfalls. P.S. That’s Mount Rainier’s tip top in the backdrop.

DAY 3 – July 25

Nickel Creek to Snow Lake
12 miles
2,802 ft. of elevation gain
5,104 ft. max elevation
6 hours hiking, 6.5 hours on trail

Old growth forests are super-sized
Another glacial dip to cool us down during what was a long, long hot day
Smiling because we’re almost at Snow Lake
Getting to Snow Lake just about broke us in the heat, but we made it and were rewarded with this glacial cirque sitting below Unicorn Peak at 4,685 feet (1,428 m). The irony of getting used to glacial water for a week came later when we got home during athe heat wave to find only hot water working in our shower.

DAY 4 – July 26

Snow Lake to Longmire
10.2 miles
802 ft. of elevation gain
5,234 ft. max elevation
4.45 hours hiking, 5 hours on trail

Thakfully, we woke up to fewer mosquitos than the night before making our hike out of Snow Lake and back to the Wonderland Trail more pleasant. Fortunately our climbing was done early in the cooler part of the day and then it was just a long gentle decent to the Longmire Inn where we had a soft bed awaiting us for the night.

The view was great, the mosquitos not. Camp site ammenties always included a toilet and bear pole to hang all food and toiletries each night. Black bears live here, not grizzlies.
Mosquito nets were one of the best gear acquisitions!
Narada Falls
Kari crossing the Nisqually River near Cougar Rock Campground
SUCCESS. We made it to Longmire smiling and injury-free! Where’s the cowbell???

DAY 5 – July 27


Our last night together we had a reservation at the National Park Inn at Longmire which meant showers + burgers + celebratory beers + beds! In total we hiked 47 miles and climbed a total of 8,400 feet over 4 days.

Cheers to National Parks and those that protect them and enjoy them!

Inspiring Shout-Out

The Hungry Hiker blogger was a positive influence on some of our gear upgrades (our super light water filtration system was great!) and what we ate on trail (delicious, healthy, lightweight homemade meals). These ALL hit the spot!

  1. Holy Molé Bars
  2. Dehydrated Backcountry Spaghetti
  3. Dehydrated Pasta Penne Alfredo
Holy Molé, these are good!

And while thinking about backpacking food I’m also daydreaming about dessert, so I made this. Not only is it lightweight, very sharable, not messy, it was served warm like a brownie fresh from the oven… I mean ziplock bag. BACKCOUNTRY WIN!

Almond butter, oreo, marshmallow, chocolate chip brownie in a bag! The only mistake was bringing just two. I’m a horrible Auntie.

DAY 6 – July 28

The send-off! Kari, Grace, and Sam recruited a new friend, Pauli, to fill our hiking boots for the rest of the journey. After they packed up for this second phase of the journey, we had fun weighing everyone’s packs on the lodge’s front porch. For context, I started out carrying 25 pounds with 1 liter of water and Crinkles weighed in at 28 pounds with water.

Turbo Lux’s pack weighed in at a robust 46 pounds and she was a-ok with that.
Back on the trail smelling fresh.

We sent Turbo Lux, Mountain Goat (Grace), Walkie Talkie or LBBP – Little Boy Big Pack (Sam), and Doctor Chill (Pauli) off into the wild, but only after we doused them with bug spray and hugs. Turbo Lux’s parting words… “What’s our next adventure going to be?!”

That was our big summer vacation adventure!

Love and adventures to all, Crinkles & Lady McGyver (who cracked our house’s plumbing code and got our cold “glacial” shower water flowing again).

Reflection Lakes (as advertised)!
The last greatest places on earth. A nod to Jack Heckles for knowing and sharing this. 💚

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4 thoughts on “The Wonderland Trail, Mt. Rainier National Park

  1. What a trip!!! So beautiful!!! I love reading about your adventures. Why didn’t I do things like this when I was young??? I have a friend in Calif. ( left during tmi) who stayed fit from biking, skiing, & hiking. They have this bike group going on trips in Europe, U.S. still at 75 to 80 years old… Her & four women friends a few months ago just went on a two or three day hike Near Ventura!! local for them. I’m looking at these women & thinking what is wrong with me!!! 🙂 Keep it up you two. Hope to see you someday, think of you often.
    Love, Momma Rowe

    1. Thanks Momma Rowe! You are perfect! Also, it’s never too late to get out. I will add that it helps to have a friend or two that are good at nudging one out. Kari is that friend for me and I love her for it even when I’m huffing and puffing up some mountain in a mosquito net. 😂 One of these days Crinkles and I will get back to PA for a friend and family tour. Remember, you have an open invite in PDX, always. xoxo Love you. Thanks for your sweet note.

  2. What a great time it looks like you all had. The pic of Kari standing near the Panhandle Gap really captures the scale of it all, doesn’t it! Wow. Great photos and narration! xoxox

    1. Thanks, T! I can’t wait to take you exploring in this park someday. It’s so pretty. The only down side is no Jeju dolphins swim in these glacial waters. XO!

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