The Wonderland Loop
The last time I visited Mount Rainier was 1982. Then, it was a climb up to the summit via Liberty Ridge. It was all an adventure should be; physically bashing, visually stunning, and difficult enough to be entertaining. Thirty two years later and I guess it’s about time for another Rainier adventure!
The Wonderland Trail goes around instead of over. It is a 93 mile circumambulation of Mount Rainier. It climbs and descends over 45,000 feet, up and down endless ridges radiating out from the peak.
The optimum ultrarunning season is ridiculously short, from mid August to mid September. Even then, if the forecast is rain, just go back home. Paradise, on the south side of the mountain averages 53 FEET of snow annually. Late summer/early autumn frequently has a window of bluebird sky days. The scenery on those days is stunning, paralyzing; all you want to do is stop and stare. Then there is the wildlife. You will likely see black bear. There are lots. Other runners have been stalked by mountain lion. You may not see one but they will be watching. Gives you something to think about, running alone in the dark woods!
|Map of the Wonderland Trail|
Most hikers do the loop in 10-12 days, staying overnight in one of the 18 reserved trailside camps. Though it has been done in less than a day, two to three days makes for a more enjoyable run. A dependable crew and roadside campgrounds eliminates the need for an overnight permit. Road access divides the loop into about thirds; Longmire/Cougar Rock Campground (southwest side), Mowich Lake (northwest side), and White River/Sunrise (east side). So as to not overly stress my excellent crew/wife, Pat, I planned on a two day, counterclockwise jaunt. Day one; White River Campground to Cougar Rock Campground, 60-ish miles. Day two; Cougar Rock to White River, 30-ish miles.
|Sunrise on the mountain.|
I left our White River camp about an hour before daylight, singing “no bears out tonight”. The sun hit the upper mountain as I cruised the ridge beyond Sunrise Camp. Wow. On around to the north side of the mountain. My old friend, Liberty Ridge in the center of the north face.
Down the chaotic Carbon River, originating from the foot of the glacier. What a run! Stark mountain vistas contrasting with deep, verdant forests.
|Looking south at Liberty Ridge (center).|
|One of many falls.|
A turn to the south and I was on the long climb up to Mowich Lake. Then past the west side of the mountain; long, cruising downhills and longer, endless switchbacking climbs. I took many pictures, chatted with some amazing backpackers, and gorged on humongous handfuls of huckleberries. I also sidestepped several purple-stained piles of bear poop. Near sundown, just beyond Klapatche Park Camp, I rounded a corner and startled Momma Bear and Cub, stealing my huckleberries. She “woofed” loudly and fortuitously took off the other direction with baby in tow. It got dark. I got tired. My stomach rebelled at gels and electrolyte drink. The miles got longer. Finally it was the long downhill and into Longmire, then another mile to Cougar Campground, well past midnight. Pat was waiting with real food and a warm sleeping bag.
|West side of the mountain.|
A too short sleep, sunup, more hot food, and off again. Across logs spanning the Nisqually River, then up the buffed trail to the pass and Reflection Lake just beyond. What a privilege to be traveling by foot through such majestic country! Waterfalls, huge evergreen trees, moss covered hillsides. A big 1,500 foot drop down Stevens Canyon, knowing the elevation would need to be regained on the next climb. Pat jogged up the trail and ran back with me the last few miles to the car and road crossing at Box Canyon. We had a good aid station feed and rest, then I took off alone on the last leg of the loop. Another forever climb up towards Cowlitz Park. Once up out of the wooded canyon and on the ridge, the views were
amazing, my favorite of the entire trip. If I do go to heaven, let it be Cowlitz Park! One final canyon to drop into and climb out of at Panhandle Gap, then all cruising downhill past Summerland Camp. I rolled into White River Camp at dusk, glad to be finished, sad to be finished. Don’t know when, but I’ll be back! Just hope I don’t wait another 32 years.
|Spectacular Cowlitz Park|