On February 27, 2018, I emailed my good friend, Rachel, with two article links and a message that read “HELLO. So yeah… just gonna leave this here….”. The subject of the email read “Wonderland Trail – Rainier National Park”, signaling that one day we’re both going to hike this together. Two years later, with some luck and lots of planning, we had the privilege of hiking 93 miles around the massive stratovolcano of the Cascades.
Hiking the Wonderland Trail was my “big trip” of the year. It’s one of the few things COVID didn’t completely ruin. We brought face coverings and tried to social distance as much as we could. It wasn’t hard since there weren’t many people on trail. We applied for our permits in March and most of us were awarded with our choices. The trick is to be flexible and apply with different itineraries and dates to maximize your chances. We had a slight modification to our chosen itinerary and ended up doing the thru-hike in 9 days.
We went in August to avoid rain and snow as much as possible. Unfortunately, that also meant mosquitoes would still be out and yes, they were HORRENDOUS. Overall, we lucked out on weather. Besides the first and last days, we had mostly sunny days and clear skies. We were just happy to not have to deal with rain even though we were prepared for it. Preparation is key!
We started from the southern part of the loop and went clockwise. We heard that the “most beautiful” part of the trail is towards the northeast/east part of the loop so we wanted to experience that towards the end of our trip.
Day 1 – Box Canyon to Paradise River – 9.1 miles
I was quite nervous the night before, but was filled with excitement when we rolled up to trailhead. It was quite chilly in the morning and I remembered we all threw on more layers, ate some bars, took photos, and off we went. We almost started off at the wrong trailhead, but thank goodness we double checked our map.
It was mostly cloudy throughout the day so we weren’t able to see Mt. Tahoma (aka Mt. Rainier). Highlight of the day was seeing unexpected waterfalls along the way and crossing this sketchy landslide. We cut in and out of the main road and got to camp around 1pm. There wasn’t much to explore by camp, so we sat by the river and listened to each other read this cheesy romance novel that Rachel brought for entertainment.
Day 2 – Paradise River to Devil’s Dream – 9.4 miles
Highlight of day 2 was definitely seeing Mt. Tahoma for the first time in the morning. We were so excited and in awe of her beauty. As we started to make our way into the wilderness, mosquitoes started attacking us. This began the many nights we hung out in our tents from when we set up camp until nightfall. They sure know how to feast.
Day 3 – Devil’s Dream to Klapatche Park – 10.9 miles
By day 3, I was starting to feel like we were getting our groove on with our usual morning routine of taking down camp and eating breakfast. Going into this day, we knew it was going to be a tough one and oof, was it hard. This was arguably the hardest day on trail as it was a constant drop down then up, then down then up, like a “W” shape. Talk about really testing both our physical and mental limits. We also got absolutely DESTROYED by mosquitoes throughout this entire day, especially passing Tahoma Glacier and refilling our water by St. Andrews Lake. It was bad… so, so, bad.
Even though this day was tough, it was also one of the prettiest days on trail. This section was quite scenic with Mt. Tahoma peeping in and out of view, wildflowers everywhere, and Tahoma Glacier glistening in the distant. I was excited to get to camp, not only because I was exhausted AF, but also heard that Klapatche Park is known to be one of the most beautiful campsite with Mt. Tahoma right in view. It definitely lived up to its reputation especially during sunset as the mountain lit up in red, orange, and purple. Just stunning!
Day 4 – Klapatche Park to Golden Lakes – 7.6 miles
Day 4 was our shortest day of the entire trip. Knowing that, we got a little big headed and thought it was going to be a pretty chill day. It actually ended up being more uphill than we were anticipating as we winded through wooded forests. Eventually, it opened up and we saw Mt. Tahoma and then our campsite by Golden Lakes.
Out of the multiple lake and creek jumps throughout the trip, Golden Lakes was my favorite. It’s probably because there were finally no mosquitoes (at the moment) and it was the first time I could clean myself and my clothes. Rachel and I jumped in twice – the second time being completely naked. I felt so happy and free.
Day 5 – Golden Lakes to Mowich Lake – 10.3 miles
We absolutely crushed this day as it was mostly going downhill and then up. Yo gurl got hangry, but pushed through ’till we made it to camp. Shout out to the crew for putting up with me saying “I’m hungry” like every 10 seconds throughout this entire trip. I’m just a growing girl!
Mowich Lake was unique in that it was a frontcountry campground which meant there were more humans there than our last 4 days combined. It was the first time that we’ve seen more than like 10 people at a time. At first, it was weird for me to be around “so many” people as I was used to our campsite being quiet and just the 4 of us. After airing our sweaty clothes and setting up camp, we jumped into Mowich Lake which turned out to be very cold, but felt so good.
Highlight of the day was hearing a tree snap in half and seeing it topple (don’t worry, everyone was okay), and hearing that a black bear took Rachel’s hiking pants that were left out to dry. Thankfully, Rachel had another pair, but isn’t that funny? Also, we picked up our resupply box and became animals as we savored the Hi-Chews and Skittles that Rachel threw in as a surprise.
Day 6 – Mowich Lake to Carbon River – 8.7 miles
This day was supposed to be longer, but due to the modification on our permit, it was cut short. It was a steep, steep, steep decent down to Carbon River. We encountered a creepy old man hiking by himself, but eventually lost him. We got to camp pretty early, jumped in the cold creek, and had a sad lukewarm dinner because the fuel canister I brought was a bust. It was completely new so I assumed it was going to work. Welp, learned the hard way there…
Day 7 – Carbon River to Sunrise Camp – 15.4 miles
Ugh, this was a long ass day. I remembered when we finally got to camp, we all just threw our stuff down and just sat in silence because we were so tired. It was pretty funny.
At the start of the day, we knew it was going to be a tough day due to length. We tackled this day head on and was determined to finish before sundown.
Even though I was mentally prepared for this day, I still struggled in keeping up with the group. After we passed by Carbon Glacier, it was pretty much just up and up and up for what felt like eternity. But, holy sh*t, when we finally got out of the woods, all that climbing up was so worth it. I remembered turning around and there she was, Mt. Tahoma looking as beautiful and perfect as ever. We were on a peak and saw the rest of the Cascades. I seriously could have cried from the beauty and relief knowing that it’s downhill for the rest of the day.
Day 8 – Sunrise Camp to Summerland – 9.8 miles
My feet were tired from the day before, but we ventured on with determination knowing that it was our last night on trail (sad face). Summerland is supposed to be another beautiful campsite with Mt. Tahoma in full view. We got to camp early and had our choices of campsites. It was so nice to just relax by the alpine meadow, enjoy the scenery, and chat with folks by camp.
Day 9 – Summerland to Box Canyon – 12.1 miles
We woke up so early to catch the sunrise and knock out our last day. We got up at 5am and it was foggy and drizzling on and off, so no sunrise sadly. I was pretty grouchy at the start of the day because deep down, I was sad that it was our last day on trail and didn’t want to go back to reality. But alas, all good things must come to an end as they say.
Panhandle Gap is the highest point on the trail at 6,800 feet. Just as we hiked over it, we were blessed with a beautiful scenery of the Ohanapecosh valley. With the low hanging clouds rolling in and out, it was so magical. It was also very quiet; we were the only ones there and we all just stopped and embraced that entire moment. I wished I could’ve stayed there and taken a time lapse of the clouds.
We couldn’t see much of the scenery after that as it was cloudy and foggy for most of the day. I was bummed, but grateful that for most of the trip, we were blessed with great weather. We found out later that there was a rainstorm coming in that weekend so even more happy that we were going to be off the trail this day.
The last mile on trail felt like forever. We were all so ready to be done and ready for delicious food. When I finally saw the trailhead sign, a wave of excitement and relief came over me. We all high-fived one another, hugged, and took photos. When we got to my car, I immediately took off my boots and just sat in my trunk. It felt so good to sit and be done, especially knowing that night we were going to be treated with hot, delicious food.
That night, we stayed at a campsite that Rachel booked for us early on and invited two of her buddies to come with the goods. We were waiting so patiently for them and when their car rolled up, we all literally screamed and I went straight for the chips. I ripped that bag open and stuffed 29470237842 chips in my mouth like it was nobody’s business. For dinner, we made bomb ass nachos, then sat by the campfire and sang songs. It was the perfect way to end an unforgettable trip. My heart was so happy and full.
The Next Day
You would think we’d want to be a potato after our long trek, but we actually had plans to do another long hike up to Camp Muir, which is one of the base camps to summit Mt. Tahoma. But weather didn’t allow us to do that, so instead, we walked around Paradise in the cloudy, rainy morning and I got my junior ranger badge (of course). Then off we went towards home for a well-deserved shower and rest.
It’s pretty surreal that we were able to do this backpacking trip, especially with COVID and all. I have this long, ongoing list of trails I want to hike and I always feel like I’ll never get to hike any of it due to many many reasons. I guess when you really want it and the stars align, you just gotta go for it, and we did!
I’m so so so grateful for this opportunity and humbled to have gone with the crew. Any experience is made better (or worse) by the people you’re with. There were definitely tough days and moments, but nothing like good company and beautiful scenery can’t fix. Hiking the Wonderland Trail was a great introduction to thru-hiking and I can’t wait to do more!
This is the biggest lesson I learned. I was dumb and did not take into account of just how many calories I would burn each day. I was burning a lot of calories and not intaking enough to replenish my body. I was starving every night and could not stop thinking about food. Trust me, the crew knew.
Wear breathable and lighter hiking shoes.
I wore my heavy, durable, leather Asolo hiking boots since they’ve been good to me on other backpacking trips. But the difference was that I was going for a much longer trip. Each time I took off my socks, my feet were sweaty. I found out that it’s because these boots were not breathable enough and having sweaty feet can be a big problem in the long run. This is why most thru-hikers hike in trail runners instead. Now I know!
Check to see if fuel works. Even new ones.
We learned it the hard way of not having a working fuel. Thank goodness for people leaving extra fuel at the resupply stations. Bless their souls.
Bring more toilet paper.
I mean I don’t mind using a leaf or rock if I have to, but it’s nice to wipe the booty in soft, white paper too.
Bring bug spray that works and anti-itch cream.
We brought natural bug spray without DEET for the environment and health, but it was useless against the mosquitoes. I really don’t want to use DEET, but I really wish I had it when they were feasting on our bodies. I also get terrible reactions and swell. I was itching nonstop for a couple nights, even waking Rachel up from time to time. Sorry Rachel!
Throw goodies in resupply boxes.
I did not know how much I missed junk food until we had a taste of sweetness from the Hi-Chews and Skittles. We saw people pull out wine and beer out from their resupply boxes at Mowich. Clearly we were doing it wrong. All of our resupply stations were by a developed area, so we definitely had the opportunity to go big. Next time!
Bring a fast water filter.
Especially when you’re getting attacked by mosquitoes. But in general, it helps to have a fast water filter when you’re tired, have a group, or need to get going.
Food will always be the hot gossip.
We noticed that no matter how hard we tried not to talk about food, eventually the conversation always leads back to it. Just embrace it so when you get the food you’ve been dreaming about, it tastes 10000x better.
Now, enjoy this wonderful video that Rachel made of the entire trip:
Thank you to the crew for all the preparation work and for this amazing experience. On to the next!
Note: When traveling in the outdoors, please follow Leave No Trace principles.
📍 Ancestral land of the Puyallup, Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Cowlitz, Squaxin Island, and Yakama nations
📷 Some videos and photos were taken and recorded by members of the crew