Three days in Wonderland

Mt Rainier, glaciers, alpine forests, and a trail through the heart of it all

16-18 Aug 2015


No run has reshaped the borders of my soul like circumnavigating Mt Rainier. No run has infiltrated my dreams like spending three days just running and not much else, in the middle of the longest summer in the Pacific Northwest's recent memory. No run has made me fall so deeply in love with the magical combination of mountains, wilderness, and summertime.

Like all of our great long runs, Ann researched and planned this one. She discovered that most people run the 93-mile Wonderland Trail clockwise, and that we could split the route into three days with a cushy hotel stay each night. We, however, would run the route counterclockwise to start with the longest day of running first. We had a beer with our friend Heather McGrath, who had run around Rainier the previous year, to hear more about her trip, get tips, and make sure that our plan wasn't too crazy.


Enthusiastic and overdressed at our Mowich Lake start

The perfect August weekend came to us when my in-laws offered to take my kid to the coast for a week, starting Saturday, 15 August. That gave us Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to run with only two vacation days used. Then we both signed up for a work training on Wednesday and Thursday that let us recover, safely away from the temptation of the gym (and have access to lots of free food all day!).

With the dates in place, we worked on getting together gear. This was our first time running multiple days in a row and needing to bring food for all of our meals for those three days. Having never been on a wilderness backpacking trip, this was new for me. I did a lot of research and purchased a meal sampler from Outdoor Herbivore. When it finally arrived it made the whole upcoming adventure feel more real.

Packing gear was another surprisingly new experience. Gathering clothes for a day-long wilderness adventure, or a race we have to travel to, has become much easier with time. You can always pack multiple options so that you have the right apparel for any weather eventuality on the day. But you really can't bring three different options for tops and bottoms for each of three days when someone else is helping to lug your bag around a mountain!

Some gear, like a hydration pack, I only have one of, so I knew I'd just have to make do with a stinky pack. Luckily I do have two bladders and hoses, and I brought both in memory of the infamous incident the night before Tarawera. We also needed after-running gear like compression socks, flipflops (thank you, summertime), comfortable clothes, and regular travel things like toiletries. Overall, I was shocked at just how much stuff we needed to bring, but we did a thorough job editing it down to what we really needed (and really didn't forget anything).


Day 1

Ann's husband, John, was our infinitely patient crew, driving us first to spend Saturday night in Puyallup before waking up early to drop us off at Mowich Lake for our start. It was cold and windy, and people were just waking up from the campground as we found the trail sign and dropped onto the trail, gloriously downhill, headed south and counter-clockwise, to the sole park lodge at Longmore. We were off!

Our first water crossing as the sun rises

Blueberry bushes lined either side of the forested trail, and I enjoyed grabbing the largest, darkest berries to eat. That is, until we passed lots of people coming the other way who kept talking about seeing bears. Suddenly, smelling like bears' favorite treat didn't seem like such a good idea, and the tall bushes obscuring the switchbacks became ominous hiding spots for lurking carnivores.

Most of the water crossings were like this

Every time we passed people, I obsessively asked them if they had seen bears-- and if so, where. Most were seen around Klapatche, and as we neared the area my stomach was filled with dread I refused to voice. Just as with the dangerous washouts on the Loowit Trail around Mt St Helens, I pushed the danger from my mind and tried to continue free of any thoughts at all. We came to dried-out Mirror Lakes and passed through without seeing a single bear, even in the distance. A weight lifted from my body.

A pause to take in the views

Our first stop of the day was just after a lovely voluminous waterfall, thundering into a canyon. There was a stone wall that made a perfect bench for us to rest and eat. Soon after, the trail climbed up to a dead forest, now more of an open meadow with our first view of the radiant, snowy peak of Mt Rainier. From there, the trail meandered up the tops of ridges with jaw-dropping views of valleys on either side. I lagged, staring and taking photos of everything, including Ann just powering up the inclines.

A jaw-dropping view

Eventually we headed down again on the mostly-rocky trail. Every time I saw a washout in the distance and feared the trail would dump us out to traverse it in whatever way possible, I was relieved that we would safely skirt the obstacle the long way around, all the while enjoying great views of it. After the first day, I came to trust the Wonderland Trail. It took care of us: it was well-marked, well-maintained, never felt unsafe or too technical, and had great, stable bridges across all moving water (with one notable exception-- see White River ending day 2).

An ochre valley, made fascinating by the dynamic light from cloud cover.

After a long, rocky descent we were back under tree cover, and came to a long, skinny suspension bridge over a gorgeous river valley with an ominous sign that only one person should cross at a time. We took our second break on the far side of the bridge, enjoying the views. I had recently filled my hydration bladder with water from a stream and attached my inline filter, but no matter how hard I tried I was unable to get much to drink. It was here that Ann took a look and tried to fix it for me, but after many attempts we decided to roll with it: I would sip what I could, and drink from Ann's pack when I needed. That made for quite a sight, I'm sure.

Ann running up a ridge toward the peak

A few hours later, we were closing on Longmire Lodge and the end of our day. We ran in strong and giddy with the joy of a day full of relishing every moment of a gorgeous trail. John met us at the lodge, already checked into our room. We quickly fixed and ate a hot, dehydrated camping meal on the front porch before getting too cold and going inside to enjoy a beer and fries in the dining room.

View upriver from the near side of the suspension bridge

The hot shower was heavenly, but neither of us had a good night of sleep. Thirteen hours of running made me scatterbrained, so it took me longer than it should have to organize my gear for the next day. Then I couldn't remember if I had taken my sleeping pills, but couldn't find them anywhere. Just a couple of hours later, tossing, turning, and staring at the ceiling proved that I definitely had not taken them. I dreaded the alarm and running a full day on two hours of non-consecutive sleep.

A perfect scene: a well-marked sign, a cabin, the mountain.


Day 2

On day two we woke up much later, packed everything for John to take down to the car when he got up, and took off toward White River. Oh and I found those sleeping pills I had forgotten to take, tangled in the blankets on the bed. We were definitely a little worse for the wear, but soon warmed up to it as the sun rose.

Good morning, mountain

The first section of the day followed Steven’s Canyon Road quite a bit, running right along for a while and crossing it three times. We had the option for a tiny detour to Narada falls, enjoying the cascade for a few minutes before continuing on to Reflection Lakes. Here we ran on a sidewalk and took photos of the mountain reflected in the water. Then the trail headed down into the cool, lush Stevens Canyon along the creek of the same name.

Miles of stairs set into the trail

We crossed the road a final time at Box Canyon, which confused us way more than it should’ve. Suddenly we were on a big swath of pavement with no signs at all, bumbling around for quite a while before following a likely path and getting back to the Wonderland Trail.

Reflection Lakes-- appropriately named

The next section, Cowlitz Divide, was probably my favorite of the whole trail. Don’t tell Ann, because it was nearly 15 miles of uphill along a deceptively steep, endless ridge to the highest point on Wonderland. The wide-open views, the endless blue sky, the vast stretches of forest, the ridges rippling away on both sides like waves, the other snowy Cascade peaks winking snow in the clear distance... yes I could go on forever. Climb, altitude, stunning beauty: it was slow going and we stopped a bunch.

Long ridge climb on the Divide, with Mt Adams keeping watch

At one point we got the only reception we’d have on the whole trail and had fun sending selfies with the mountain to our husbands. There’s a short downhill to Indian Bar where we stopped to eat and refill our water. I had switched to my back-up water purification method: iodine tablets. I set timers for the 30-minutes to let the tablets do their work, which made for a thirsty climb. As we crested the final section of the climb to Panhandle Gap at 6,800ft (the highest point on the Wonderland Trail), we could see the most stunning waterfalls plunging from underneath the edge of a glacier, hundreds of feet down the next ridge over. I couldn’t stop staring, dumbstruck.

Ann is queen of this rave run

The landscape up there was utterly barren, rocky and alien. The trail down the other side of gap looked like a thread through gravel way into the distance, but as we got close it was always wide singletrack and stable. A trio of small, barren lakes, each a different hue, lay below us like a paint palette. Fryingpan Glacier’s tentacles snaked through the rocky peaks, appearing temptingly close and feeding a raging creek.

Mountain selfie with phone reception

The final section of the day was a grand downhill stretch along Fryingpan Creek, through the popular campground at Summerland. We saw plenty of dayhikers as we shuffled tiredly down towards White River. At some point I was enjoying the downhill, whooping it up and getting a bit ahead of Ann. There were tall grasses and shrubs on either side of the trail, making a chute effect. I saw a fluffy tail sticking out onto the trail from in the bushes and stared as I sailed past.

Gearing back up at Indian Bar

My brain couldn’t register what the creature was from its dark, shaggy backside. A tiny bear? Someone’s dog? Then it hit me: it was a porcupine. Right on the trail. But wait, did Rainier even have porcupines? I wasn’t sure, but turned around to warn Ann just as she passed it. I asked her if she saw it, she said “What?” because she hadn’t. When we got to our hotel that night I looked it up and it was, indeed, a porcupine. I’m glad I didn’t realize what it was while rushing past or else I would’ve been scared of getting quilled. It didn’t seemed bothered by us at all, though.

Stairway to Ohanapecosh Park

Here my memory is vague from the long day of mindblowing beauty and just being tired. I remember getting a second (third? fourth?) wind and pretending I was a robot, striding steadily through a darkening forest. We passed an Asian couple with bear bells on their daypacks. And then, as we turned with the trail to follow along White River, we left a major road-fed trailhead behind and we were alone again. We saw bear scat, fresh, lots of it. I started to freak out about bears again, but I wanted more than anything to reach our end point, the White River campground.

Massive glacier melt waterfalls

Suddenly we realized the trail wasn’t ahead of us. We picked out its obscured turn towards the river and broken drop into the water. The bridges were knocked down and underwater. A panic crept over us before we realized that there, crouched on a pile of rocks-- somehow in the middle of the very wide and very raging White River-- was Ann’s husband. Rather than wait in the parking lot, John met us right there, having crossed the broken bridges to make sure we knew where and how to get across.

Fryingpan Glacier and colorful lakes from Panhandle Gap, the highest point of Wonderland Trail

Then he drove us about 20 minutes to Crystal Mountain ski lodge, where we feasted on rehydrated pad thai from a bag, delighted in seriously hot showers, and then drank beers while listening to Rolling Stones songs in the awesome pub there (across the interminable parking lot and a bridge over a deep ravine).

John leading us across the partly-underwater but intact section of bridge across White River


Day 3

For our final day, we all woke up early and John dropped us off at the White River parking lot. The next time we saw him was back in Mowich before the long drive home.

First view of the mountain on day three

The first section was an open, sandy, almost desert-feeling uphill to Sunrise. We saw mountain goats at the top of the pass and tons of chipmunks everywhere, scurrying across the trail. The northeast side of Mt Rainier seemed less snowy, a wide gap between Emmons and Winthrop glaciers. I also learned that some of the rocky piles of scree weren’t that at all-- they’re glaciers under surfaced debris. Those hidden glaciers and the glacial cave maws opening to milky, raging creeks fascinated me all day. I never stopped taking photos and staring in awe. We crossed a wide, washed-out creek bed (and small creek) before another climb up to Mystic Lake.

Emmons Vista selfie

As we neared the lake and rounded into view I asked aloud “Why do they call it Mystic-- OMG!” It’s clear, placid, tropical-blue depths made for the prettiest water of the whole trip. We had a snack and rest there before reluctantly leaving the scene behind.

Alpine meadow downhill

Ahead we had a long descent along Carbon Glacier and Creek. One section, just under a mile or so, was so rocky, steep, and relentlessly baked by the sun that we could barely run despite the downhill. We finally made it into the shade of trees for another rest, after which we came to the twin of the suspension bridge from the first day. We started to cross but saw a printed sign on the ground held down with rocks. “WONDERLAND TRAIL CLOSED NORTH OF CARBON RIVER CAMP. PLEASE USE TRAIL ON EAST SIDE OF RIVER.” We got out the maps and figured out our route, me trying to quell the panicky feeling of having to detour and add miles on the final day of a 93 (now 95) mile run.

Crossing Winthrop Creek

The detour, the Northern Loop trail, took us across some dry washouts that were so gnarly with mangled trees, we couldn’t help but imagine what had happened there to cause such destruction. Finally we hit the intersection with Wonderland, back into the cool forests and on to Ipsut Campground. This was it-- the lowest point of the trail at 2,300ft and the start of our 5-ish mile climb to the end at Mowich Lake.

Climbing out of a gnarly washout

Up and up, we moved through forest landscape similar to our home trails in Forest Park, OR. I was too tired to take many photos. We enjoyed the cool, damp relief of various small springs trickling next to the trail. Glimpsing Ipsut Pass through the trees like a notch in the high ridge, it seemed impossible the trail would be able to wend up the steep sides. How would we get over? We marched on and on, the lush vegetation providing a guardrail on the otherwise severe switchbacks. I had to rest a few times and Ann was way ahead of me. Finally, we made it to the top-- only a mile and change down to Mowich!

Beautiful turquoise waters of Mystic Lake

So close to a popular area, there were many more trails and people, and we got a bit confused. We made it to the lake, and then got lost in the mess of tiny paths. We tried running up to the road, but ended up sticking close to the lake’s edge. Filthy, giddy, and very tired, we found the car-- but no John. We weren’t quite to the trailhead where we started, so we decided to go there to see if he was waiting for us. He wasn’t, but it felt like the perfect end. We sat at a picnic table and nibbled on snacks until John showed up.

Ann descending the hot, rocky trail

Gratefully, but still complaining about having to walk a ways back to the car, we followed him and settled in for the three hour drive back to Portland.

Carbon Glacier and Carbon River emerging from its cave

Near the lowest point on Wonderland Trail-- ready to climb switchbacks to Ipsut Pass

View looking down from lush Ipsut Pass

End at the start


Epilogue

It’s been two and a half years since this trip, but I still think about it more days than not. In some way I’ve feared that putting this all down would close the chapter I still enjoy revisiting in my memory. At some point I worried I wouldn’t remember it in enough detail-- but obviously I do! It was a stand-out adventure in my life, time spent with someone I love deeply and with whom I feel utterly comfortable and unstoppable.

We spent around 13 hours running each day, and I think the way the distance broke up was perfect, with the final day being the shortest (although ending with that climb). We had already planned and packed everything, and John took care of all of the logistics. We had hot showers, hot food and cold beer each night. We never felt particularly sore, didn’t face any injuries, never saw a bear, and despite a couple of detours, the trail was perhaps the best maintained and graded I’ve ever been on. Every bridge (except for White River) was sturdy and safe.

If you’ve ever thought about running around Mt Rainier or on the Wonderland Trail, do it as soon as possible. You can’t go wrong. Every part of it is gorgeous, and it’s time well spent. When I see Rainier from the car or airplane, her beckoning beauty makes me stop and stare with longing in my heart. I can’t wait run Wonderland clockwise and try some other loops in the park.
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