It feels really good to be backpacking again. The woods feel natural, the scenery beautiful, and the tent homey.
Here I am, day 1 of the Wonderland Trail, the beautiful and rugged 93 mile trek around the base of Mount Rainier. I’m here because Mike Henrick reserved a permit back in March and booked it for 4 people for September 4-11. Around the same time, Jared and his friends Sid and Tyler had been thinking about hiking wonderland too. In August, when we came home to Seattle after the PCT, Mike invited Jared and me to join him! And we invited Tyler and Sid! Here we were, 5 of us planning to go, and that’s when disaster struck…
Injury claimed 3 of the 5 hikers. First, Mike’s knee went out. He had a nagging pain that got worse and worse until it landed him off the trail before leaving New England. The second man down was Sid. Sid fractured his femur- a hairline fracture – when he lifted too much weight a month or more before the hike. And the third to go was Jared. His feet began hurting the day he got back to Seattle in August. They continued to become increasingly painful. Turns out it’s plantar fasciitis and it landed Jared off the trail just days before the trip began. And then there were 2: Tyler and myself. Hike on!
Day 1, 13 miles
Longmire to South Puyallup
I wake at 5:45 am after unpleasant dreams about work, to my alarm going off in our Seattle apartment. I brush my teeth, throw on my hiking clothes, and grab the last piece of spent grain banana bread. I put on my pack and meet Tyler downstairs at 6:30. We drive the 2 1/2 hours to Ranier National Park while drinking coffee, eating egg mc muffins and we talk about the intense hiking schedule, the weather, and what we’ve packed to eat. Forecast: beautiful clear blue skies most days, potential rain on Monday-Tuesday. Ranier is out in all her glory too – such a clear day! We’re psyched to get out there and to have Jared and Sid supporting us on our trek – they’ll join us tomorrow night at our camp along the South Puyallup River and drive trailhead to trailhead to meet us with food and camp with us most nights (when camp is a short walk from the car).
We pull up to the rangers station just past 9 am. We wait while a ranger talks to a couple about hiking in the park for what seems like forever. Then we score our permit. Success! We pack our packs and are on the trail by 10:30 am.
The trail is lush and green. Ferns and moss and big conifers. The trail is easy walking – steep but wide and smooth. The air is so full of moisture that everything is steaming – mossy logs, patches of grass, the river, my pee. Lunch is an energy bar, an epic bar, some candy, and yogurt covered raisins. Several stream crossings. A wide river bed. Snack time and water fill. There are a handful of other hikers out today. We cross a huge, frightening yet awesome suspension bridge – spectacular views of the river and the glacially carved valley.
We quickly climb up to the crest of a moraine and the views are unbelievable – glaciers and crevasses, blue ice, black dirty ice, huge peaks, colorful gray and red and blue volcanic rocks, enormous orange and gray moraines, grassy slopes, etc, etc. The trail is rockier up here.
We descend back into the green woods past some hikers and before we knew it, we’re at camp: site #2 at the South Mowich River camp. Dinner of mashed potatoes with bacos and spam and peppermint hot chocolate with protein powder. Tyler and I chat about animal encounters and our plans for tomorrow (17-18 miles with a few steep ascents and equally steep descents). We hang our food bags on the bear pole and crawl into our tents. It’s fairly chilly and dark at 8 pm.
A little blogging, then off to sleep around 9.
Day 2, 16-17 miles
South Puyallup to South Mowich
I slept well last night. A few tosses and turns. Had to pee once in the night. I wake to my alarm at 6:30 and thus begins a long but not too terrible day. Eat some granola with milk and protein powder and drink my via with a little too much powdered milk. Tyler and I pack up and hit the trail at 8:10, power down the trail for 20 minutes, feeling great. Then realize shit! We’re not even on the trail! We’re on the South Puyallup trail that leads to Westside Road. Argh how did we do that? Where was the sign? We power back another 20 min and realized the sign was before the campsite. How had we missed that last night? Anyhow, at 9 am we were on the actual trail after adding about 2 miles on to our already long day.
We cross the south Puyallup River, climb a hill in partial sun, snack on granola bars and Nutella on the ridge, and water up at Andrews Lake – an oh so picturesque lake framed by Rainier. We pass dry and gross Aurora Lake – which the Ranger had warned us about not relying on for water, then down, down, down the shady north facing hillside. A snack break in partial sun. We cross a river and I turned around just as Tyler falls down – right on an already huge wound on his hand, reopening it. Ouch. He bandages it and then we cross the the North Puyallup River, then once again up, up, up. Gradual enough but our tallest climb yet: 3-4 miles. We pass a couple who’d seen a bear minutes earlier but said it ran into the woods, and past a man touting the deliciousness and amazingness of the blueberry patch we’d just walked through, to Golden Lakes where I have an emergency bathroom run. We pass a woman who tells us “you’re going to south mowich? Oh that’s far. Ha, good luck”. Bogus. Then we walk along the ridge for a few miles through many spiderwebs, then down, down, down. We pass a chipper ranger who checks our permit. Then down some more. The down is really intense and seems to go on forever. Tyler and I fill our water at a creek before the very bottom and ate a few snacks to get us through.
At last the bottom! We emerge from the shady hillside into the beautiful sun covered South Mowich River at sunset. A spectacular sight. Just beyond is the South Mowich camp which we reach just before 7. We set up, I eat beans and rice and cheese, and we talk about how it’s already dark – Jared and Sid will probably not make it to camp tonight – and I’m in my tent around 8:40. I write a bit, and then at 9 pm I see the light of headlamps – Jared and Sid! They made it! Their 4 mile downhill hike to reach us must have been entirely in the dark. But they’re here! We chat for a bit then we’re off to sleep.
Day 3, 17 miles
South Mowich to Mystic
I sleep well next to Jared in the tent and wake to my alarm going off at 6 am. Snooze for a bit, then breakfast. I eat a granola bar with nutella and coffee. We all pack up, have a nice morning stretch, and leave camp at 8 am. We book it up our 4 mile hill to Mowich Lake to the parking lot at 10:30 where the car was parked with everything we could need. There was a group across from us frying bacon which was torturous. We relax, eat tons of jerky, and I eat ramen while the guys wander down to the lake and Sid jumps in.
At noon we are ready to start walking again, full and slow, up the hill past the clear teal waters of Mowich Lake to Ipsut Pass. Then begins our descent – down, down, down a steep and rocky slope in full sun. Ugh. Eventually we get back into the trees and the trail levels out a bit – and we’re in a near-rainforest. Everything is so green and moss covered. After the junction to the Ipsut Creek Campground, we walk along the huge Carbon River riverbed – a wide and rocky braided stream. We reach the lower crossing and are forced left, to a detour which adds 0.3 miles onto our day, because a section of trail is closed ahead. The forest is old and peaceful here. A trail runner passes us and tells us that there are two missing teenage boys – they were supposed to be in the back of their party but nobody can find them. We haven’t seen them but will keep our eyes out for them. We reach the suspension bridge, where the trail resumes – snap some photos of the dirt covered Carbon Glacier and drink some coffee to fuel us for our next steep ascent. The mother of one of the lost teenage boys comes by us and we, again, tell her we haven’t seen them, but if we do we will tell them to go back to Ipsut Campground.
The ascent is steep. And I’m tired. The coffee made me just mentally alert enough to realize just how slow I’ve been dragging myself up the hill. We pass Dick Creek camp. Tyler takes the lead and I huff and puff my way up. I grab the emergency Snickers out of my hipbelt pocket for one last energy boost. I huff and puff and chow down on my snickers – and totally feel like a fat kid. But eventually it kicks in and I have enough energy to force my legs to move. The grade of the trail tapers off a bit and we’re suddenly in a beautiful alpine meadow – Rainier is in the background, marmots are frolicking, the light is waning and golden. Tyler takes lots of pictures which buys me time to slow my pace. Then once again we’re climbing – just a little bit more – and I force my legs to go. We’re getting close to our camp at Mystic Lake. At the very top of the pass, we come across this old dude with a sweet english accent. I’m convinced he’s the ghost of John Muir. He informs us about the location of water in camp and encourages us on. Nice! Down we go. My knees are killing me. We walk by beautiful Mystic Lake and go down just a bit further to camp. We get there just before dark. This has been a long day and my legs are totally shot. We set up tents, I grab water, and we eat. I eat mac and cheese with tuna and crawl into my tent. I’m asleep at 9:15.
Day 4, 13 miles
Mystic to White River
Tyler and I sleep in – we wake around 7:30 am. It’s going to be a short day. I’m sore. I had work dreams again last night. This whole getting a job thing needs to happen. Sooner or later. Hopefully sooner. I eat granola with milk powder and protein powder, drink my coffee, and we walk back up to Mystic Lake to enjoy the sight for a few minutes. Then we break camp, I scope out the pit toilet – sweet this one has 3 walls and looks out into the forest.
We hike down 2 miles through the woods, over the Winthrop Creek river bed, and have a morning snack in the sun before we climb up again in the woods. The climb is steady and steep only in patches. Some nice views of the Winthrop Glacier. Past a labelled yellow jackets nest, fill water at Granite Creek, pass Granite Creek camp, and then we’re above treeline. Bam! Beautiful ridge walk. We can see Skyscraper Mountain, the Mt Freemont Lookout Tower, Mt Burrows and off in the distance Mt Shoeskin and Mt Baker – it’s such a clear and sunny day. We snack at the top and soak in the views. This area is crowded – tons of hikers and families – so we hike on to get past it all and back into the woods, past Sunrise Camp and down, down, down in the direction of White River Camp. We reach the bottom at 4:17 – so early!
At White River – a drive up campground with a handful of walk up spots for hikers – we see a father and son that Tyler and I passed on day 1, they’re hiking the trail counterclockwise. We set down our stuff and talk about how we’ll find Jared and Sid. In the meantime I check out the bathroom and amazingly happen to bump into Jared and Sid on my way there! They just showed up and were starting to look for us. Jared is eating an apple yum. We all congregate back in camp and they tell us about their night – they hiked into the hills about a mile, forgot to bring a lighter and so shared a cliff bar for dinner, practically froze, and then gorged on mac and cheese for breakfast. We relax, set up tents, and cook way too much food: mac & cheese, idahoan potatoes, ramen, rice, chocolate, m&m’s. I brush my teeth and am in bed around 9. My knees are still in serious pain – though not quite as painful as last night – and I’m worried that I might not be able to hike tomorrow. We have ~18 miles in store with plenty of climbs and descents. Sleep…
Day 5, 18 miles
White River to Nickel Creek
I wake at 6:30 am. I had been dreaming that I was training for a race – but instead of training, I had run into my friends Shawn and Christine and their baby Teddy so I was feeding them pie. Funny. I was nervous, but my knees were feeling better. I was able to elevate them some during the night. We eat breakfast – I have granola and coffee. And then Tyler and I are off. Jared and Sid will meet us at Fryingpan Creek to check on us in a few miles before eventually meeting us at Nickel Creek camp tonight. The trail is great. It’s relatively flat and just what my knees need. We all rendezvous at the Fryingpan Creek trailhead 2-3 miles in. We eat snacks, then part ways. Jared and Sid are off to Longmire to work and find showers. Tyler and I are going to hike! Stream crossing. More snacks.
Up in the woods to Summerland. Epic! Summerland is beautiful. It’s no wonder this is one of the first camps to book up every year. We watch a fat marmot, clearly used to the company of people, and take some photos before climbing up into a more epically beautiful landscape. There’s a rocky moraine, a teal glacial lake, blue volcanic rocks, purple dirt, white and brown glaciers (the Sarvent Glaciers), and we cross patches of snow. At the top of Panhandle Gap we soak in the unbeleivable landscape and eat snacks – this is the perfect time for an epic bar. We can see Mt. Hood and another snowy peak in the distance. We hike through Ohanapecosh Park, which is just rediculous – so beautiful. Even the moss here is another level of green. The glaciers and streams and green and endless views are very much wonderland-esque. The tall, skinny pine trees and huge glacial cirques that we pass as we make our way across a ridge (the Cowlitz Divide) remind me of being in a Brothers Grim fairy tale. Awesome. The walking down part hurts more than the going up part, but I do my best to bend my knees as little as possible. I taped my knees this morning and that seems to help. Ibuprofen is helping too. We walk down, down, down. Indian Bar camp is my favorite camp by far – there’s a native stone hut, a beautiful blue river, a cute wooden bridge, and amazing views of the Ohanapecosh Glaciers. We continue on down the trail. We pass lots of bear poop and clack our trekking poles together to scare away any potential bears. When Tyler and I reach the trail junction to the Cowlitz Divide Trail, there’s only 1.9 miles left to Nickel Creek!
So we cruise down through the woods and make it there just past 7 pm. Jared and Sid are there! And they have a chicken quesadilla with black bean salsa and cans of Ranier for us! Amazing! They forgot the ice for my knees, but they’re feeling better so I don’t think I need it. I change, we set up tents, and again gorge ourselves on too much food after Sid has a hilarious mishap trying to make potatoes and fry spam – somehow water gets all over his stove. We eat Idahoan potatoes, mac & cheese, ramen, and a double chocolate cheesecake backbacker’s pantry dessert (aka pudding). A mouse tries to steal our food. We divvy up the chores: Sid washes the dishes, Jared and Tyler hang the food, I bury all the potatoes and food we spilled. We go to sleep around 9 pm.
Day 6, 13 miles
Nickel Creek to Longmire
Our last day! My knees have had it. I can’t sleep very well but we’re all awake early-ish around 6:30 to greet the gray overcast misty skies. We eat some granola and coffee and are out of camp at 8. Down from Nickel Creek, over the box canyon (a really deep canyon), and to the car where I eat a granola bar and Tyler and I ditch what we don’t need and pick up food for the day and some warm gear in case the rain keeps up. Jared and Sid will go back to Longmire and work until we get there. Tyler and I hike on and we continue past the Maple Creek camp. We fill our water and Tyler’s foot gets wet. I spend the morning moderating my body temperature. Hat on. Hat off. Fleece on. Fleece off. Rain jacket on. Rain jacket off. We’ve been spoiled with the sun and have to adjust to this gray rain thing.
We climb up Stevens Canyon – past low fog and leaves starting to turn. There’s a really narrow section where we skirt a landslide. We climb up to Stevens Canyon road, the trail and road will parallel each other from here to Longmire, and I eat my last snickers. We thought the climb was over, but we keep going up. Past Louise Lake and Reflection Lakes (not much of a reflection today), to Inspiration Point, and then the rest is downhill! 5 or so miles to go! Tyler and I pass a nice family – a father in his 60’s, hiking with his 2 sons who are in their mid to late 30’s-early 40’s. They tell us about how they’re hiking clockwise, how they hiked counterclockwise 18 years ago, and the trail runner in his 60’s they just saw who is running the trail in 48 hours. Awesome. We sit on a log across from Paradise Camp and have our last snack break – I eat my turkey epic bar and some peanut m&m’s.
Then we’re over the river and through the woods, past the Carter Falls, past Cougar Rock Campground, and past many day hikers that smell so clean. A guy passes us who is about to set his personal record: 77 hours (just over 3 days)! And then we pass a couple decked out in their finest wedding attire – they’re getting married! At 0.1 miles from the finish, we joke about falling and injuring ourselves now. We half run to the finish where Sid is waiting for us! Finish at 2:45. 5 days, 4 hours, 15 minutes.
We’re done! We high five and bump into Jared on the sidewalk and then celebrate with warm, delicious coffee at the Inn, where I wash my face in the heated bathroom. It feels amazing. I can’t wait to shower. We swap gear between cars and then we’re off – driving back to Seattle to eat burgers. We get back to the city at 6 pm and Amy meets us at 8 oz for burgers and shakes. I eat brussel sprouts, an 8 oz classic burger + garlic roasted tomatoes and ale roasted mushrooms minus the bacon, 2 boneyard pale ales, and a vanilla shake. There’s no better way to finish a hike than with a burger.
Home. Shower. Success.