This year, my buddy Ben and I decided to attempt to complete the Wonderland Trail in 3 days. We managed to wrangle two other friends to join us, Wilson and Chris. All of us had run a fair amount of trails but nothing quite like a three-day wonderland push.
The Wonderland trail circumvents Mt. Rainier. It is about 90 miles with 24000ft of elevation gain throughout. The trail is well marked and known for offering stunning views of Mt Rainier from all sides.
There are three established, car-accessible campsites the trail crosses: Longmire, Mowich Lake, and White River. Fortunately, the three sites are spread fairly evenly through the loop. Those campsites meant that if we had friends willing to help us out, we could have access to tents, food, and equipment without carrying it at all on the trail. We were lucky enough to have Ben’s family stay at White River on Friday night and our friend Noah stay at Mowich Lake on Saturday night. Another friend, Lindie, offered to drive gear between White River and Mowich Lake. With those three awesome groups helping us out, we had enough support to attempt our run!
With the support crew to help us, we were able to run fairly light. We each had a hydration pack or small backpack with the 10 essentials. We also had a few water filters to share between us.
Day 1: Longmire to White River
Our first day would be about 32 miles with 8900ft of gain. A 5AM, Wilson, Ben and I departed Seattle and drove out to Longmire Trailhead. After about 2 hours, we pulled into the parking lot and met Chris, who had camped out the night before. We got our day hiker permits from the rangers there, got our gear together, and took our first steps on the trail.
The first 13 miles, from Longmire (2800ft) to Box Canyon (3000ft), were pretty reasonable. The first 5.5 miles were a gentle climb of about 2000ft over 5.5miles to Reflection Lake which had a fantastic view of Rainier. This was followed by a 7-mile mostly downhill section to Box Canyon (3000ft).
After Box Canyon, we began the biggest climb of the day up to Indian Bar (5100ft) Indian Bar was 8 miles further along a fairly exposed trail. We neglected to fill our water bladders at the last source before the main climb and were all out when we reached the top. We were all a bit torched at Indian Bar so we took a long lunch there.
Indian Bar was about 20 miles in, so we had another 12 to go after lunch. The first 2.5 after lunch was a tough 1500ft climb up to Panhandle Gap. Working out directly after a big meal is tough, something about blood being in your stomach instead of your legs. In any case, from Panhandle Gap (6700ft), we descended down to White River (4200ft) over about 8 miles.
The miles after Panhandle Gap had a bit of snow on them, even enough for some glissading! This was also the section where we ran into Kaytlyn Gerbin and Alex Borsuk, who were claiming the fastest female known time for the Rainier Infinity Loop.
All-in-all, it took us just shy of 10 hours to go from Longmire to White River, 7.5 hours of which we were moving. We enjoyed the company of friends, a few beers, warm food, and flush toilets at White River. Sadly, the river was way too cold for much bathing, but we made do with the sinks in the bathrooms. I usually don’t sleep great in tents but after a day like that, I had no problem getting some rest.
Day 2: White River to Mowich Lake
I woke up on the morning of day 2 feeling much better than expected. We had the shortest day ahead of us, with only 24 miles and 7100ft of gain to deal with. That being said, the first 2.5 miles were a lovely 2000ft climb up to Sunrise Camp (6250ft) to tire us out off the bat.
Following that we had some rolling hills and light elevation through Berkeley Park. This was one of my favorite sections of the trail, long sweeping fields with mist rolling in and out. We descended out of that area down to Winthrop Creek (4650ft), up to Carbon Pass (6000ft), and down a fun/steep descent to Dick Creek (4200ft). We were about 15 miles in at this point and stopped for a late lunch at Dick Creek. It was pretty cold and misty by then so we ate quickly and refilled all of our water containers.
After lunch, we descended to Ipsut Creek Camp (2300ft), the lowest point on the wonderland trail. On the way down, we ran into a buddy who was running the Spray Park loop from Mowich Lake. He finished up the last 8 miles of the day with us.
After Ipsut Creek comes one of the gnarliest climbs of the loop. Ipsut Creek to Ipsut Pass (5000ft) is about 2700ft of elevation gain over 3.5 miles. We took it slow and steady and enjoyed some great views of the valley behind us as we got higher up.
Mowich Lake was just an easy 1.5 mile light downhill shuffle from the top of Ipsut Pass. Coming into camp and seeing Noah’s group all cooking and hanging out was a great sight. It took us just under 8 hours to get from White Rive to Mowich Lake, six hours of which we were moving on the trail. We had some great chili and mountain house meals for dinner. While Mowich lake doesn’t have running water or fire pits like White River, we were able to get a good cleaning in the lake.
Day 3: Mowich Lake to Longmire
Day 3 was by far the hardest day. Not only did we have 32 miles with 8000ft of elevation gain to get through, we also had at least 10000ft of descent to run. That much descent after the previous two days was just brutal on my knees and hips. Also, the elevation profile was mentally quite challenging. Then entire day would be spent going up and down four large peaks with very little flat or gentle slopes involved.
Things started off easily enough with a three mile descent to South Mowich River (2600ft). We were cooking pretty good on the downhill, trying to make some good time out of the gates. Climbing out of South Mowich River up to Golden Lakes (4900ft) felt very enclosed in the forest and dragged on a bit. Once we were up in the meadows around Golden Lakes our spirits rose, one of the two bigger climbs of the day was behind us! We saw our first and only bear up in the meadows, he was just a few dozen feet off the trail and completely ignored us as he ate.
Next was a descent out of the meadows down to North Puyallup River (3700ft) and a climb up to Klapatche Park (5500ft). This climb was the second out of four we had on tap for the day. We were pretty spent by the time we reached Klapatche Park so we stopped for lunch there along Aurora Lake. We were about 17.5 miles in at this point.
Time for another descent and climb! This time we came down to South Puyallup River (4000ft) and had a mercifully shorter climb up to Emerald Ridge (5600ft). Emerald Ridge was another highlight of the trip for me. All of the wildflowers were blooming and Rainier was poking out of the clouds just enough. Three of the four big climbs for the day were now behind us!
Descending off Emerald Ridge to Tahoma Creek (4200ft) was probably the low point of the trip for me. The trail was extremely rocky and technical, and my hips/knees were starting to go by that point. After a quick break at Tahoma Creek, we go through the last notable climb of our trip up to Devil’s Dream (5300ft). Once we reached Devil’s Dream, we only had about 5.5 miles of almost entirely downhill left to go. We were all hurting at this point but we got through it and ran the last 2 miles all together.
We took just under 10 hours to get from Mowich Lake to Longmire, 8.25 hours of which we were moving.
This trip was an unbelievable journey. From the the support crew, the trail, the physical challenge, and of course my running crew.
It would not have been possible without the help of our support crew. Because of them, we were able to run with just a few pounds of food and gear, have a change of clothes every night, eat all we wanted, and sleep in car-camping level accommodations. It was also a lot of fun and reenergizing to have fresh faces to hang out with every night!
The Wonderland Trail itself was a fantastic. It was well marked, had great views, and had great people on it. We enjoyed a range of views from clear alpine lakes, mysterious misty landscapes, high altitude snowy trails, to 360 degrees’ worth of Rainier views. I also know that if I ever do the trail again, the variable weather will make it a whole new experience.
Physically, this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Each day alone would have been plenty big, but the compounding pain over three days was something different. I was definitely trailed-out for a month or so following this trip.
I felt very lucky to have three buddies ready and raring to go on this trip. Doing this without company on the trail would not have been possible for me. A quote Chris shared with us was, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This resonated with me. The more I trails run, the more I realize that I get just as much out of the friendships made on the trail than the individual sense of accomplishment.