We began our Wonderland adventure traveling counter-clockwise on the north side of Mount Rainier from White River Campground heading toward South Mowich River. Filled with sweeping vistas, enchanting alpine meadows, photogenic lakes and a few hair-raising bear encounters to boot, this alluring section of the trail was the perfect introduction to the Wonderland—a magnificent visual feast from beginning to end. It had us at hello…
What follows is a detailed description of each day on the trail. We hope that this first-hand information will be valuable to those planning this hike. If that’s not you, we hope that you’ll enjoy looking through the photos anyway. Happy trails!
Day One: White River Campground to Granite Creek, 7.2 miles
With backpacks at maximum capacity and our eager legs unaccustomed to the heavy loads they would be hauling for the next twelve days, we started our first day on the Wonderland Trail with a bang. Leaving White River Campground, we faced a steep uphill climb eased by long switchbacks contouring the mountainside. This first section of trail climbed steadily up 1600 feet over 2.1 miles through old growth forest until we finally came to an opening where a tall, slender waterfall stood sentinel to our first views of the majestic mountain we would be circumnavigating. We took in this first sighting of Rainier, unaware that there was plenty more excitement in store for us just around the bend.
As we approached our first junction, we noticed a couple standing on the trail, motioning for us to approach cautiously. Of all the things I fretted over in planning our Wonderland adventure, ursine encounters were at the top of my list. You can imagine my delight when we finally got close enough to see that the spectacle was none other than a black bear—just off the trail.
Luckily for us, the bear was quite small, and he paid us no attention as he foraged in the meadow looking for tasty treats. By this time, it was midday and getting rather warm. Eventually, the bear wandered into the shade of a tree just off the trail and laid down to take a nap. Despite my fears, I have to admit that seeing a bear on foot two hours into our journey was pretty exciting, and I was certainly relieved that we survived our first bear encounter without incident.
From there, we followed the relatively flat trail to Shadow Lake where we enjoyed our first trail lunch in the company of frogs, wildflowers and reflections of the backside of Burroughs Mountain.
After lunch, the trail took us past Sunrise Camp, over several gentle passes and across a handful of small snowfields on the way to Frozen Lake.
From there, the number of dayhikers declined dramatically. We followed the trail along the contour below Burroughs Mountain and then made our way slowly up to Skyscraper Peak, a short, worthy detour off the trail where 360° views of Rainier, Mt. Baker, Grand Park, Berkley Park and the Mt. Fremont Lookout can be had from the 7078′ summit. The views from the top were fantastic in all directions and worthy of breaking out our hiking tripod to try our hand at some HDR photography of the area.
After taking in the gorgeous views, we had a pleasant downhill hike through the forest into some much-needed shade. After an hour or so, we arrived at Granite Creek, a small camp right off the trail and located close to a picturesque creek with mossy logs, rocks and falls. Isolated and located right next to the creek, Site #1 was the prime camping spot here, but, unfortunately, it was already occupied by the time we arrived.
We set up our tent in Site #2, a spacious flat site with sitting logs and a convenient flat rock that served as an excellent cooking table. This was our first night of backcountry camping, and we were pretty impressed with the amenities, including an outdoor privy and bear poles for hanging our food and toiletries.
We set up our tent and made sure to hang our permit on our tent fly for any passing ranger to see. Exhausted from our first day on the trail, we headed to bed as soon as darkness fell but were startled by a large male deer with an impressive set of antlers who wandered through our camp during the night. Very cool!
Day 2: Granite Creek to Mystic Lake, 5.5 miles
With only 5.5 miles to travel today, we woke up on the later side and broke down camp at a leisurely pace. We spent a little bit of time down by the creek trying to photograph the small, pretty waterfalls, but the sun was too high by the time we finally got there, making the scene too contrasty for good pictures. We had great light the night before and wished we had taken advantage of it then, but we were too exhausted when we arrived from our first day on the trail—a bird in hand, as the saying goes. We ran into several other hiking parties traveling in the opposite direction here and enjoyed hearing their words of wisdom about what we would encounter on the trail over the next several days.
We continued our pleasant downhill through the fern forest to a lookout to the Winthrop Glacier with its raging glacial run-off that becomes the west fork of the White River. Seeing a glacier up close and personal like this is mind-blowing. While the visible ice face is impressive in itself, it only hints at the massive glacier located below the rock-covered surface.
From there we passed beautiful Garda Falls at over 200 feet high and took notice of how the moist air around the falls seemed to provide the perfect conditions for monkey flower to grow.
Before long, the trail brought us all the way down to Winthrop Creek. We crossed over a log bridge, trying to keep our focus on the opposite shore to avoid becoming dizzy by the rushing, silty water below.
We hiked along a ridge and through a moraine, enjoying the beautiful views of Rainier along the way. It was a steady uphill back into the forest until we reached Mystic Camp. Because of our short mileage, we arrived at camp on the earlier side and had our pick of sites. We chose pretty site #4 and decided to spend a bit of time plotting out the mileage and elevation gains/losses we would be encountering on the rest of the trip.
We were totally absorbed by what we were doing, so it was quite a surprise when Matt looked up and stated calmly, “There’s a bear in our camp.” I looked up from the map and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was Day 2 on the trail, and we were already experiencing our second bear encounter. And Matt was right; the bear was in our camp—not coming to camp—but already in the camp! She was grazing in the small meadow right in front of our site, munching on the grasses and flowers, no more than 20 feet away from us. And I say she, because she had two small cubs with her!
How long had they been there? How come we did not hear them approach? We hadn’t set up our tent yet, so we quickly grabbed our packs and headed back towards the trail to create a more comfortable distance between us and our furry friends. We called out to the bears to make them aware of our presence, but they were very focused on foraging and didn’t pay us a bit of attention. After a while, we grew more brave and pulled out our cameras to document the event before Mama Bear finally lumbered off down to the creek, cubs trailing behind her.
With a big sigh of relief, we started to set up our tent when it occurred to Matt to check out the situation on the backside of our site. Low and behold, there was a meadow there, too. Within a few minutes, Mama Bear sauntered right back up and foraged for a bit before laying down for her afternoon nap within spitting distance of our camp. Apparently this was familiar territory for her!
With a sleeping bear in camp, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the area. We took an afternoon hike to Mystic Lake and the ranger station located there, which must have the best front porch view in the whole state of Washington. We took a quick dip in the cold water for as long as we could stand it and communed with the frogs who were sunning themselves on the grassy shoreline.
We spent the rest of the day walking around the lake, exploring further along the trail and taking in the views in the late afternoon sun. Seeing Mt. Rainier in golden light was a dream come true—a perfect ending to an exciting day!
Day 3: Mystic Lake to Cataract Valley, 6.5 miles
We got an early rise this morning for the departure to Cataract Valley. Personally, I was eager for daybreak and was quite pleased with myself that I had managed to sleep at all during the night considering our campside bear encounter the day before. The morning was fairly cool, and we stopped to take some photos of the dew-covered flora around the lake before heading up to the pass below Old Desolate (7137′). On the way up, Matt picked up a hitchhiker who wasn’t much for conversation but seemed to enjoy the free lift.
At the pass (6000′), we followed a small footpath right next to the Mystic Lake trail sign that led to a beautiful seasonal tarn where the conditions were just perfect for some unobstructed reflection shots of Rainier. Although the scene was gorgeous, it was far from peaceful. We felt like we were being eaten alive by the abundant mosquitoes in the area. We photographed for as long as we could take it and then made a quick retreat towards Moraine Park.
From the tarn, it was a steady descent through the alpine meadows of Moraine Park. The park was in full bloom and was a feast for the eyes. There were beautiful wildflowers in every direction, and we even spotted some hummingbirds and butterflies flitting about. We especially enjoyed the large patches of avalanche lilies that lined the trail for much of the hike.
Back into the forest, we were delighted to find a beautiful, geometric waterfall flowing right over the trail. The neon green moss surrounding the chute was particulary striking, and we enjoyed the cool, refreshing air provided by the flow of the frigid water.
We had a quick lunch by the river near Dick Creek Camp. From there, the trail descended steeply to Carbon River along the east side of the Carbon Glacier with impressive views of the snout and the glacial river flowing out of it.
1.2 miles from Dick Creek, we came to the Carbon River Suspension Bridge, the first of two on our trip. Following the instructions posted at the entrance to the bridge, we took turns crossing the 205-foot long bridge one at a time and were careful not to cause any unnecessary movement.
Traversing the long, narrow wooden bridge made it easy to imagine what walking the plank of a pirate ship must be like. What a relief it was to finally reach terra firma on the other side!
From there, the trail took us through mossy, fern-filled old growth forest to Cataract Valley Camp, gaining a steep 2000 feet of elevation in just 1.6 miles.
We arrived at Cataract Valley Camp (4620′) by 4:00 leaving plenty of time to relax, enjoy an afternoon coffee and photograph the impressive specimen of coral root orchid we spotted by the group site. A creek with clean water runs through the middle of this flat and pleasant camp, making it easy to filter water. To our surprise, we were the first and only hikers in camp that night!
Before starting this hike, we had been really curious about what the backcountry camps on the Wonderland Trail would be like. Here’s a quick video explaining all of the amenities that can be found in a typical camp:
Day 4: Cataract Valley>Spray Park>South Mowich River, 11 miles
We had an early departure this morning for our biggest hiking day on the trail yet. We began with a steep and steady climb through old-growth forest to the beautiful meadows of Seattle Park. We were lucky to find the meadow in peak bloom, and the profusion of wildflowers everywhere was quite a sight.
We wished we could have spent all day photographing the shooting stars, Indian paintbrush and monkey flower in bloom, but knowing we had a long way to go and a tough hike ahead of us forced us to put the cameras away and move along quicker than we would have liked.
Eventually the meadows gave way to high alpine landscape. The flowers became more diminutive, and the views kept getting better the higher we climbed.
Before long, a barren landscape of slate rock and snow fields stretched as far as the eye could see, and we prepared ourselves for what promised to be the most challenging hiking we had encountered thus far. After passing a few small patches of snow, we traversed several large snow fields with little trouble. Luckily, the snow was soft enough to dig our boots into and wasn’t slippery at all—a huge relief! The biggest challenge was spotting the cairns and painted rocks that indicated which direction we were supposed to be heading.
When all else failed, we followed the footsteps of previous hikers across the snow and eventually made it to the top of Spray Park (6800′) where, despite the persistent mosquitoes that did their best to destroy the moment, we enjoyed the phenomenal views that stretched before us in all directions. We learned later from a park ranger that the mosquitoes were particularly bad here because the snow had recently melted, creating the perfect conditions for a mosquito hatch.
The hike down through Spray Park was another highlight of the trek. Luck continued to be on our side, and we hit the meadows in full bloom here, too. Fields of lupine, bear grass, paint brush, columbine and avalanche lilies all competed for the attention of the many day hikers who ventured here from Mowich Lake. We felt like we were walking through a veritable flower factory. Despite the number of day hikers coming in from Mowich Lake, the meadows here were a memorable sight that should not be missed!
Here’s a quick recap video of our magnificent day hiking through Seattle and Spray Park.
After the meadows, the trail ducked into the forest for a long stretch of switchbacks down to Mowich Lake. We took a quick .2 mile roundtrip detour for our lunch at Spray Falls, where we were impressed by the very high falls that, as their name suggests, produce massive amounts of spray. Back on the trail, we enjoyed photographing some of the smaller, nameless falls we passed along the way.
From there, we bee-lined our way to Mowich Lake (4929′) to pick up our first cache at the lakeside Ranger Station. The ranger wasn’t on duty at the time, so we looked in the bear box to find the bucket of food that we had mailed off earlier in the summer. We enjoyed a can of Pringles (oh, the little joys!) before repacking our bags with our re-supply of food. Before heading back on the trail, we took advantage of the opportunity to splash our faces in the lake.
To get back to the Wonderland Trail we passed through the unimpressive campground found here. This site is a converted parking lot with gravel tent pads for car campers and a small overflow area for Wonderland hikers. After four days of enjoying the relative solitude of the trail, we were happy to skip this overcrowded campsite and start making our way down the final four miles to the South Mowich River camp (2605′). Although we were exhausted, we marveled at the massive trees that dominated this pretty stretch of trail. The sign pointing to the camp was definitely a site for sore eyes, and we were intrigued to see a shelter for one of the tent sites. The group staying there seemed quite pleased with their luxurious three-sided suite.
We were the last group of hikers to arrive in camp, so we got the least desirable site (#2), but, after our longest day of hiking yet, we were too tired to care. There was little rest for the weary, and, before long, it was time for the nightly camp chores. We set up our tent, stored our food and filtered water, before making dinner and heading to bed after a long, hard but glorious day.
An edited version of our adventure on the Wonderland Trail appeared in the third issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine. Check it out!