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
- Permits: Required
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Awesomeness Level: High
- Majestic Mountain Views
- Massive Waterfalls
- Wildflower Meadows
- Immense Glaciers
- Easily Accessible
- Well Marked & Maintained Trails
- Little Solitude
- Big Climbs & Descents
- Seasonal Bugs & Snow
- Involved Permit System
- Restricted Campsites
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.
We prefer lightweight backpacking because it’s more comfortable and it allows us to cover more ground with less effort. For recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and Top Picks page.
WHAT TO PACK
TENT: We used the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 tent on this trip. We love its combination of low weight and livability and that's why it's one of our top picks on our best lightweight backpacking tents list.
WATER PURIFIER: We used the SteriPEN Ultra as our main purification method on this trip. It's lightweight, works fast, and doesn't require any pumping/squeezing or chemicals. Check out our best water purifiers list for our other top recommendations.
SHOES OR BOOTS: We wore Saucony Peregrine 7 trail runners (men's and women's) on this trail and they were excellent. If you prefer boots, make sure they’re lightweight and break them in really well before your trip. Here’s why we prefer hiking in trail running shoes: 5 Reasons to Ditch Your Hiking Boots.
HEADLAMP: A small headlamp like the Petzl Actik is an affordable, bright, and lightweight option.
FOOD: When backpacking the Wonderland Trail you'll have to carry all your food. 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. For some suggestions on common backpacking food options, check out our backpacking food video.
Here are some of our favorite hiking/backpacking clothing items from our Top Gear list.
- 1 Rain jacket shell - Patagonia M10 / Rab Kinetic Plus
- 1 Pair rain pants - Mountain Hardwear Stretch Ozonic
- 1 Down jacket - Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody
- 1 Fleece jacket - Extra warmth under your down jacket that will be warmer when damp and better to hike in.
- 1 Pair hiking pants or running tights
- 1 Pair hiking shorts - Nike dri fit running shorts
- 1-2 Hiking t-shirts - Nike dri fit t-shirts
- 1 Long-sleeve shirt - Nike dri fit quarter zip
- 1-3 Pair underwear - ExOfficio boxer briefs or or ExOfficio women’s briefs
- 2-3 Pair socks (add thin sock liners if using boots) - Balega running socks for warm weather & SmartWool mountaineer socks for snow.
- 1 Pair long john bottoms - long john top optional for nighttime use.
- 1 Warm hat
- 1 Sun hat
- 1 Pair gloves or mittens
MAP & COMPASS: We always hike with a topographical map and found the Green Trails Map 269S - Mount Rainier Wonderland to be a great resource throughout our trip. In addition, we always hike with a compass.
FIRST AID KIT: Always bring a small personalized first aid kit. We used the .5 Ultralight Kit and added extras, like painkillers and personal medications.
SUN PROTECTION: Sunglasses (polarized recommended), sunscreen, and spf lip balm are an absolute must.
POCKET KNIFE: We brought along a small Swiss Army Knife, which came in handy here and there.
- SMALL TOWEL: the Nano pack towel is great.
- CASH and ID
- PERSONAL TOILETRIES
- HAND SANITIZER: Always apply after using a bathroom and before eating.
- WET WIPES: These can be useful for cleaning up after hiking.
- INSECT REPELLANT: At higher elevations insects weren't a problem for us at all. For lower elevations, a 1oz bottle of DEET will do the trick.
- CAMERA: The Sony RX100 is our go-to camera for lightweight backpacking.
- Wilderness Trip Planner & Campsite Map - National Park Service
- General Wonderland Trail Info - National Park Service
- Apply For Permits - National Park Service
- Caching Food and Fuel - National Park Service
- Elevation Profile Map - National Park Service
- Hiking the Wonderland Guide - Wonderland Guides
- Wonderland Trail Itinerary Planner - Wonderland Guides
- Wonderland Trail Photography & Guide - Take a Hike Photography
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!
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