The Wonderland Trail is a true gem of the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of the most iconic trails in the region, and with very good reason. Simply put, the Wonderland Trail should be on every backpacker’s bucket list.
The Wonderland circumnavigates majestic Mount Rainier over the course of 93 miles. The route is very challenging, with over 23,000 feet of elevation change, but the rewards are plentiful. With breathtaking glacier views, wildflower-filled meadows, pristine alpine lakes, and miles of lush rainforests, the ever-changing landscape of the Wonderland will not disappoint. Permits for this very popular hike can be secured in advance through a yearly lottery system, though the park does save some permits for walk-in travelers.
In 2016 no advanced permits were issued, so all permits are being given on a walk-in basis. First come, first served. So, 2016 may be a good year to attempt this glorious beast of a hike!
- Distance: 93 Miles
Average Hiking Time: 9-12 Days
Elevation Gain: 23,000 feet (that’s a lot)
Best Travel Time: July through September
Awesomeness Level: High
Majestic Mountain Views
Well Marked & Maintained Trails
Big Climbs & Descents
Seasonal Bugs & Snow
Involved Permit System
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL
In general, July through September is the best time to travel to this area.
Snowpack is a key factor for trip planning in the Pacific Northwest. Some years a heavy winter snowpack and early season storms will keep trails covered into July. On warmer years with lighter snowpack, June backcountry trips are quite feasible. The same is true for autumn hiking, some years early snowstorms make this area inaccessible and other years it’s stable into October.
July and August are usually great for wildflowers, but that’s also the time when mosquitoes will be the worst. Use a combination of permethrin on your clothing and a small amount of 30% DEET on exposed skin for full protection. Mid-August through September can also be a good time to visit this area because crowds and bugs will be diminished.
There is a year-round possibility of snow, rain, and stormy weather in this area. So pay close attention to the weather forecast before your trip and be prepared for changing conditions.
Total Distance - 93 Miles
Total Elevation Gain - About 23,000ft
Overall Difficulty - Strenuous
The difficulty of the wonderland trail should not be understated. It is a common error for hikers to plan too many miles between campsites along this challenging route. When that happens, hikers put themselves at greater risk of injury and could have to cut their trips short. So know your limits and plan accordingly. Difficulty depends on your experience, physical fitness, pack weight, & weather conditions. Those are the areas to pay close attention to before your trek.
This is not a technically demanding hike, but there are lots of big climbs and descents along this trail. In fact, it’s very rare that you’ll find yourself walking on flat terrain along the Wonderland. Just check out the jagged elevation profile to get an idea. I would highly advise getting into good shape before attempting this trail. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very doable hike and it’s well worth it, just don’t expect a stroll in the park. You should also complete a few short overnight trips to dial in your gear. Check out my gear guide for my top lightweight backpacking equipment recommendations.
Permits are required for overnight trips on the Wonderland Trail and they are almost always in high demand. Permit requests are usually taken in March and it’s highly recommended that you apply for your itinerary. Wonderland Permits are handed out on a lottery basis, so there are no guarantees. Some walk-in permits are reserved on a first come, first served basis as well, but it’s better to have an advanced reservation.
*In 2016 no advanced permits were issued, so all permits are being given on a walk-in basis.
Additional permit info and application - Mount Rainier Backcountry Permits - National Park Service
There are 18 designated backcountry camping areas along the Wonderland Trail. Camping along the trail outside of these campsites is not allowed. When you apply for a permit you’ll have to choose the campsites that you’d like to sleep at.
Each backcountry campsite has a few separate locations for tents, a pit toilet, and a bear pole for protecting your food at night. The campsites are well maintained and almost all of them are close to a water source.
Campsites along the Wonderland are almost always full, so expect to be camping with neighbors nearby. Also, the campsites are often in sheltered locations, so don’t expect sweeping views from your tent either.
Additional campsite info:
Most people hike the Wonderland in around 10 days, so planning one or two food drops to reduce pack weight is very common. There are four locations where you can cache food along the Wonderland, but two of them (Sunrise & White River) are right next to each other. You can ship food drops to these locations or drop them off in person.
Longmire Wilderness Information Center
Mowich Lake Patrol Cabin
Sunrise Visitor Center
White River Campground
Make sure to follow the rules for food drops closely. For example, you’ll need to pack your food drop in a hard plastic container with a detailed label and you won’t be able to store fuel with it. Find more information and full instructions on the NPS site.
“Fires, pets, bicycles and other wheeled devices are not permitted in the backcountry at Mount Rainier.” Please visit the National Park Service regulations page to learn more about important considerations for your trip. Please follow the rules so we can keep our wild spaces pristine for many years to come. Leave no trace y’all.
MAPS & GUIDEBOOKS
Wilderness Trip Planning Map - This basic map from the National Park Service will give you a general idea of campsite locations and distances between them.
Green Trails Map 269S - Mount Rainier Wonderland - This is a fantastic map for hiking the Wonderland Trail. It’s a detailed topographical map that’s ideal for use along the trail.
Hiking the Wonderland Book - A complete guide to the Wonderland by a Washington native that’s hiked the trail seven times. An excellent source of information.
Plan & Go Wonderland Book - A comprehensive guide that contains everything you need to know for hiking the 93-mile Wonderland Trail.
Backpacking Washington Book - This book has a section on the Wonderland and a bunch of other great backpacking locations around Washington. I highly recommend picking up this book if you like backpacking in the PNW.
Water is usually plentiful along this trail and is easily accessible from lakes and streams. Carry plenty of water to get from one source to the next and a lightweight water purifier. Have a look at my water purification page for my top water filter recommendations.
The Wonderland is well marked, so it’s unlikely that you’ll need to break out your navigation skills on this trip. Still, you should always bring a topographical map and compass into the wilderness and know how to use them. If you need a refresher, have a look at this video I made to teach backcountry navigation skills.
BEARS & FOOD STORAGE
There are black bears around Mount Rainier and it’s not uncommon to see them. For that reason, food storage is a very important considerations in this area. All of the established backcountry campsites have a bear pole, which makes storing your food really easy. Simply bring a waterproof sack for your food and hang it on the bear pole at night. You’ll also want to hang garbage and smelly products, like sunscreen and bugspray.
I’m Dave Collins, the guy behind CleverHiker.com. I'm an experienced backpacker and thru-hiker who likes to pack light. I generally hit the trail early, take plenty of breaks, and make sure to enjoy my time on the trail. I hiked the Wonderland Trail in 5 nights and the pace was perfect for me, but that’s far faster than I would recommend for most hikers. I keep my pack weight really light, I’m generally in pretty good shape, and I really love to hike.
Lightweight backpacking gear has been a complete game changer for my wilderness adventures. When I pack light, I enjoy hiking more and I cover miles a lot easier. I usually carry a base weight around 10 pounds, but I'm not willing to cut out camp comforts either. I like plush sleeping pads, storm-proof shelters, and tasty warm meals just as much as the next guy. So I focus on finding ways to increase my comfort and decrease my pack weight. I built this website to help teach others to how to do the same.
I hope this guide helps you plan your trip along the Wonderland Trail. If you do, you certainly won't be disappointed. As always, please leave a comment below if you have any recommendations, questions, or suggestions. Thanks!
For more popular CleverHiker content, check out the following links:
Disclosure: The trust of my audience is of the utmost importance to me. That’s why I only recommend equipment I love from companies I trust. I have not been paid to review any of the products listed in this post. This page contains affiliate links. Check out my terms page for more info.