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Comin’ ‘round the Mountain: How Long Does It Take to Hike Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland Trail?

Good question. Let’s break it down:

The distance: No one really knows the exact distance of the Wonderland Trail, a classic American footpath that circles Mount Rainier, the fifth-highest peak (14,411 feet) in the Lower 48. Estimates traditionally range from 90 to 95 miles. A park official tells me that "99.9% of the time" Rainier rangers tell visitors it's 93 miles long.

PD

One of two fine new guidebooks devoted to the trail, One Best Hike: Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail by Douglas Lorain (one of the country’s top trail guide authors), cites an information sheet the National Park Service once distributed at Rainier. It claimed a precise 92.172 miles (or 148.336 kilometers).

Lorain points out that washouts and subsequent reroutings leave the trail in a state of near-perpetual flux, so who really knows? But based on my own observations during a WT hike earlier this month, 92 miles sounds about right.

Mileage calculations on trail signs and the park's Wilderness Trip Planner (PDF) do not always agree; small variances (a few tenths of a mile) are not uncommon. Just be ready to accept the fact that the WT will put at least 90 miles on your pedometer.

The grunt factor: That same information sheet Lorain mentions calculated that a hiker will experience a cumulative elevation gain and loss of 22,786 feet while hiking up and over Rainier’s lumpy, volcanically dispersed ridgelines. That translates into a heap of huffing and puffing, even for hikers who step out with an above-average fitness level. Sustaining a consistent pace on the WT’s daunting uphill pulls is beyond the reach of nearly all mortals.

PD

So what’s the right number? Traditionally, as Lorain points out, trips last 8 to 13 days. I took 12 when I first hiked it in 1999, Mount Rainier’s centennial year.

This year, I thumped my chest and declared I’d try do it in 5 days. Yet after a 15.5-mile Day One (from Longmire to Nickel Creek camp) and a 20.6-mile Day Two (to hiker walk-in sites at White River Campground), I was on the hunt for a ranger so I could extend my permit by another day. (WT hikers are duty-bound to camp in designated campsites—each one has a pit toilet; handy—or in a pre-determined wilderness zone.)

Six days, for me, seemed just right. If you’re like me—a grinder of a hiker who prefers to spend your daylight hours in motion, not gazing over a lake—15 miles a day (roughly a 6-day pace) is not too extreme.

PD

Yet the steep elevation changes hikers face, particularly on the east and west sides of the mountain, cause most backpack-hauling hikers to downshift to a slow trudge on uphill gassers. Was anyone else out there as nutty as I was?

I decided to ask around as I hiked, since I was traveling counterclockwise on the trail and most people hike clockwise. I heard target times from as low as 30 hours to 3 days (all claimed by trail runners) to as high as 12 days. I heard every number inside that span. Except for 4. No 4-day speed hikers passed my way during my 6-day tour.

(Park officials tell me that they maintain no records on WT speed attempts, but confirm they have heard the same story I've heard—that the fastest trail runners have zoomed the entire Wonderland Trail in a single trip in less than 24 hours. That's moving.)

Terry Summers of Tacoma, Wash., told me as he was heading up Emerald Ridge on the mountain’s west side, that 12 days suited him fine. (That's him in the photo below on the left.) “I just want to sit and enjoy the sights sometimes,” he said. Excellent decision. I had a great experience on my 12-day meander in ’99. Lots of time for exploring and pondering.

Then I bumped into a likeminded soul, Ky, just south of Panhandle Gap (around 6,800 feet) on Rainier’s east side. His goal: 5 days and out. His approach appealed powerfully to my trail-athlete instincts.

PD

Ky and I reconnected on the west side 3 days later. He was still on pace to finish in 5. By then I was on the 6-day plan, which for my conditioning and frame of mind was just about ideal.

It permitted me to hoof it hard in the viewless forested sections (though Rainier’s tall forests are often quite lovely) and have time to soak in the sights.

“I’m moving pretty fast,” Ky told me, “but I’m doing all right.”

Another young dude, Ian Surber of Seattle, was aiming for 6 days when we met near Skyscraper Pass (close to 7,000 feet on the mountain’s north side), and he was still on pace 3 days later on the west side, near Emerald Ridge.

“It’s doing pretty well,” he said, “but sometimes I’d like to look around a little more.”

True. My first moment of regret came when I passed through Summerland on the east side in the late afternoon, when lighting is poor on the mountain, and I still had 6 miles to go. A sleepover in Summerland, with the chance to see the mountain aglow in morning light, would have been a treat.

A few advice nuggets:

  • Know thyself physically. Recognize that flat sections of trail are rare, and your customary miles-per-hour gauge needs to recalibrated on the WT.

  • Have a solid grasp of your mental objectives, too. It’s fun to pursue a physical challenge, but a WT hike is for most people a once-per-decade or once-in-a-lifetime event. I arrived at gorgeous Klapatche Park, for instance, with only about 1.5 hours of daylight left. I would have enjoyed more time to gawk at the overstocked flower fields in those meadows.

  • Travel as light as you can.  My gear package was light, but I overdid it with my food stash, I’m embarrassed to say. I came home with a touch more than 4 pounds of uneaten food. That’s like toting an extra tent for 92 miles. Sheesh.

PD

When you have decided on the number of days you want to hike, which direction should you travel? Clockwise (which most hikers do) or counterclockwise?

In my 2 trips around the WT I've hiked counterclockwise both times and seem to like it. It keeps the mountain in front of me when approaching Indian Bar on the east side, and if starting at Longmire I blow through the semi-easiest, least dramatic section of trail (the south side) on Day One when my pack is heaviest.

It works for me, but I have to look over my shoulder at the mountain when hiking through gorgeous Moraine Park on the north side. So both approaches have their pluses.

PD

My basic gear list is below for the sake of people who are searching for ideas to trim pack weight. Note: I definitely benefited from 6 days of nearly ideal weather conditions. How ideal? I never once attached the rainfly on my tent.

Definitely check the tips found in Doug Lorain’s Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail (excellent side trip suggestions) and as well as the extensive trail detail and lovely photography found in another new WT guidebook, Hiking the Wonderland Trail by Tami Asars.

Asars lays out many suggested itineraries, clockwise and counterclockwise, for hiking trips lasting 7 to 13 days. For us 6-and-under types, we're on our own. That's OK. Anyone will find ample wisdom and inspiration lurking in the pages of both books.

So, what do you figure is the right pace on the Wonderland Trail for you?

Basic gear I carried:

file

All trail photos © 2012 T.D. Wood.

Posted on at 11:45 AM

Tagged: Mount Rainier, Mount Rainier National Park, Wonderland Trail, guidebooks and national parks

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Ann B Staff Member

Impressive, Terry!

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David Grayson

I wouldn't be embarrased to finish a weeklong hike with 4lbs of food. I think you would be grateful to have that food stash as a buffer if a summer snowstorm prolonged your hike by a day or two! That said, we each HYOH.

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Hi David. You're right, it's wis to tote at least an extra day's worth of food. It's one of The Ten Essentials, in fact (http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html). I just slapped my forehead when I finished up and realized I had that much food (lots of bars, even a bag of cholcoate chip cookies) still in my pack. It's reassuring to have lots of choices in your pack, which is one reason why I started with such a large stash of chow. I'll just try and be a little more selective on the next trip.

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Ohio PAL

I am not a hiker, but after reading this I might consider an adventure like this, however I would much rather stop and smell the flower and enjoy the views.
Congratulations Terry, this stuff isn't easy!!

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Even at my pace, I still had ample time for soaking in the views. I simply made time when the trail dropped into the trees, which is pretty often. You can also arrange shosrter trips on sections of the WT. People often hike the east side (between Box Canyon and Fryingpan Creek) in 2-3 days. That allows them to experience great campsites such as Indian Bar and Summerland plus the views from Panhandle Gap while carrying lighter packs. Make a plan; set a goal. It's worth it. You'll dig it.

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BigBlueSkiesAndABigWhiteDog

I am new to the hiking world and so ready to jump right in! Thanks for the ideas and inspiration! ESPECIALLY the recommended gear list and essentails - super helpful for us newbies!

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