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Classic Hikes of the World: Wonderland Trail

By Peter Potterfield - September 2nd, 2005

  • Wonderland Trail
  • Washington State, USA
  • 93 miles, 12-14 days, strenuous

Rising from its lowland valleys like a vision, Mount Rainier shows more local relief than Everest. Even from Seattle, 50 miles away, the mountain moves people. The Wonderland Trail offers a truly intimate connection with Rainier as it makes a complete circuit of this magic mountain through the moody, rugged wilderness at its feet.

The simple desire to climb Rainier was the very thing that brought me from New Mexico to the Pacific Northwest decades ago. There I was, puking on the 14,410-foot summit with the other pilgrims who had climbed too high, too fast. Only later did I realize time spent in the backcountry around it can be even more rewarding that climbing to the summit.

To hike all 93 miles of the Wonderland is to take in the majestic nuances of Mount Rainier's domain. The 360-degree view of the mountain, under varied moods and changing light, is reason enough to come. 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 climbs 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 ridgelines means that the backcountry traveler who makes a complete circuit of the Wonderland Trail will gain more that 20,000 feet of elevation in 90 miles.

A true circuit hike, the Wonderland Trail offers unparalleled flexibility. You can start anywhere, though the park headquarters village of Longmire is the favorite. Most hikers do the Wonderland in 12-14 days, a period that allows for a relaxed pace, a little time to appreciate the scenery, and a rain day or two. You can do it all at once in a single push, do it in sections over several seasons, or do it over a decade in 2- or 3-day increments and see the mountain in different conditions and seasons. The trail is hikable from June through September. Seattle is the gateway to Rainier, the airport just an hour and a half from Mount Rainier National Park. If you choose to do the entire 90 mile circuit in a single push, reserve your permit in advance through the national park.

For more, visit: www.classichikes.com


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