Total Miles: 17.9
Sometimes out of the darkness, sometimes out of the clouds, it appears. Dominating a skyline of steel and glass from nearly 60 miles away, the icy icon that is Mount Rainier is a fixture of Seattle summers before vanishing behind a cloud veil of mystery for the remaining 9 months of the year. With the largest glacial system and the greatest prominence of any peak in the continental US, it’s hard to miss and wrapping around its flanks is a 90-mile footpath that affords backpackers a hike of incredibly rare intimacy with the glaciers, rivers, alpine meadows and all the many varied aspects of the mountain, each complete with its own character and mood. If there’s a trail more aptly named than this, I’ve yet to find it—the Wonderland Trail.
As Julie and I sifted through maps over a margarita and a bowl of guacamole trying to find a backpacking trip to squeeze into the 5-day window around the 4th of July, it wasn’t long before the possibility of a Wonderland Trail thru-hike had entered our thinking. Due to time constraints, the possibility of resupply was out of the question so by the time we had convinced ourselves that the snow levels would be manageable and that we’d have a good chance getting a first-come, first-serve permit, the plan was set. By late Tuesday evening, we were off driving towards the mountain and after a painless trip into the ranger station the following morning for a trail permit, we were ready to set off on what would be Julie’s first, Emily’s second, and my third thru-hike of this spectacular trail.
Not only did the weather forecast appear to be working in our favor for the next five days, all of the bridges across the glacially-fed rivers were intact, and the level of early-summer snow was sure to limit the number of other hikers on the trail. On the other hand, with only 5 days to work with and over 20,000 feet of elevation gain standing between us and our return to the White River from which we began, there was a fair amount of effort standing in front of us.
As it turns out, standing at a desk all day for work—as opposed to merely sitting at one—does not magically instill any particular level of athleticism or cardiovascular fitness. If it did, it probably wouldn’t have been nearly the slog from the car up to the highest point of the trail at Panhandle Gap, much of it over snow that continued without interruption for 8 miles. But it’s hard to argue with the scenery at every turn, from the lowlands…
… to the snow line drawn across alpine meadows…
… and higher still into a land cloaked in nothing but rock, snow, and ice.
When we finally reached the high, windswept saddle of Panhandle Gap, we’d left behind any hint of other hikers save for the footprints stretching out into the distant fields of snow and in exchange there began an alpine stretch of wilderness all our own.
Only the sound of the wind whipping across the gap—strong enough to convert me into a human map—broke the silence.
Long after the snow slog had sapped the energy from my legs and reduced them to their plainly out of shape form over the course of the next several hours, the unbroken fields of white began to yield to ever increasing patches of dirt as we descended along the spine of the Cowlitz Divide with Rainier now immediately behind us and the distant Mt. Adams rising immediately before. Just before reaching a trail junction less than 2 miles from our day’s end, something colorful wedged into the fissured bark of a nearby tree caught our eye. Nothing like anything I’d seen before, there it was—a small plastic gnome figurine complete with a tiny laminated set of instructions asking that he be carried to another spot on the Wonderland Trail and to be hidden again at a woodland location for another lucky hiker to find. Off we went with “Gnomie” to continue this little game of mountain hide-and-seek.