Trek: Mount Rainier, Wonderland Trail
Destination: Washington State, USA
Length: 93 miles, 12-14 days
Rising from its lowland valleys like a vision, looking in fact like a paper mâché stage prop, Mount Rainier shows more local relief than Everest. Even from Seattle, 50 miles away, the mountain moves people. The Wonderland Trail offers hikers a truly intimate connection with Rainier as it makes a complete circuit of this magic mountain through the moody, spectacular wilderness at its feet.
To hike all 93 miles of the Wonderland is to take in the majestic nuances of Mount Rainier’s domain. The cathedral-like ancient forests of Douglas fir and western hemlock, the expanses of lovely alpine meadows (locally called “parks”), the high volcanic ridges, and the 35 cubic miles of ice draping the rocky flanks of the mountain combine for a landscape unique in the Lower 48.
Just be prepared to do a little work. Distinctive radial ridges called “cleavers” emanate down from high on Rainier right into the backcountry surrounding the mountain. These ridges create serious topography, a successive series of obstructing ridges set above valleys deeply dug out by raging glacial torrents. These defining features require multiple ascents above 7,000 feet, taking the hiker into a high, austere alpine wilderness of ice and rock where summer is an infrequent visitor. The necessity of going up and over these serial ridgelines means that the backcountry traveler who makes a complete circuit of the Wonderland Trail will gain more than 20,000 feet of elevation in 90 miles.
Logistics: Seattle is the gateway to Rainier, the airport in fact is just an hour and a half from Mount Rainier National Park. A true circuit hike, the Wonderland Trail offers flexibility: you can start anywhere, and finish anywhere. I recommend starting at the park headquarters village of Longmire, where you’ll pick up your permit. The trail is hikeable from June through September. Most hikers do the Wonderland in 12-14 days, a span that allows for a relaxed pace, some time to appreciate the scenery and a rain day or two. Reserve your permit in advance through the national park.
Adventure journalist Peter Potterfield has hiked more than 10,000 miles in search of the greatest backcountry routes on the planet. As he researches his iconic hiking books, such as Classic Hikes of the World, Potterfield is always on the lookout for the best hikes on all seven continents. Here, just months before the release of his next book, Classic Hikes of North America, Potterfield offers up his current list of favorite hikes.