Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wonderland Running

Reflection Lake
I have been dreaming about running the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier since moving to Seattle and learning about the trail. This year was supposed to be the year and I had planned to run the trail with three friends over three days in early August. Well the late snowpack blocked that plan, so I came up with a second chance, which was to run the trail with another friend, Bruce, in two days, Sept. 10-11. We had decided to start at Box Canyon and run clockwise, stopping at Mowich Lake where Bruce's wife would set up camp for us and get us re-fueled and ready to run the second half on Sunday back to Box Canyon.

We started at 5:45am in the dark from Box Canyon and now I wonder if we were running this section of trail the same morning that Joe got stalked by the cougar. Fortunately, we did not see any dangerous wildlife and the day started out well. We made a slight diversion from the Wonderland Trail at Longmire in order to fill up on water without having to purify it and then began what my guide book calls the pie crust section of the trail. As you can see in the elevation profile below, there is one climb followed by another and then another.

Each climb took us to a slightly higher elevation than the one before and we spent more and more time exposed in the sun. Unfortunately for a heat wimp like myself, the beautiful day we had was accompanied by temperatures in the high 80s which was more or less unprecedented in Seattle this summer. The heat combined with the tough climbing really took its toll on me and despite the stunning views of the mountain and its glaciers, I began thinking they had chosen the name Wonderland for the trail more out of wondering if people could survive it than for the sense of wonder the views inspired.

St. Andrews Lake

As we dropped down the last major downhill section of the day to the Mowich River, I began wondering whether I really wanted to run another day like this the following day. I sat by the river waiting for Bruce before starting up the final climb to Mowich lake and I could hear large rocks thudding against obstacles as the river swept them downstream. The power of the mountain, glaciers and rivers is amazing.

Suspension bridge over Tahoma river
We had to turn on headlamps not long before reaching the campground at Mowich and we were overjoyed to find camp set up for us including a shower tent! I didn't know such a thing existed, much less that it would be waiting for us. We got cleaned up and fueled, but ultimately decided we were not up to running another 40+ miles the following day with little or no option to bail along the way if things weren't going well. I think this may have been the hardest ~50 mile day I have ever done. 47 miles with 14,372 feet of climbing took us 14 hours and 9 minutes (Click here to see Garmin recording).

Puyallup Glacier
To see some of the section of the Wonderland Trail we skipped, we went back two weeks later to run the Northern Loop. I highly recommend this route as a great introduction to the Wonderland Trail that doesn't require any overnights or complicated logistics. We drove from Seattle on Sunday morning to the Sunrise trailhead at 6400 feet and started running just before 8am. The weather was forecast for rain and it had in fact rained the whole time we were driving from Seattle making us question whether we really wanted to run or not. About the time we started running, fully dressed in rain pants, jackets, hats and gloves, the rain stopped and we eventually got enough break in the clouds to see the mountain at times. We took the Sourdough Ridge trail for a mile or so to connect to the Wonderland Trail headed west. The Wonderland Trail gets much closer to the glaciers on the north side of the mountain than it does on the south and western sides. The trail goes right next to the Winthrop Glacier followed by the Carbon Glacier. Seeing both the upper icy regions of the glaciers broken by crevasses as well as the lower parts covered in dirt and rocks and ending in a river pouring out of an ice cave was spectacular. Unfortunately, I didn't bring a camera due to the poor weather.

Route map of the northern loop. Double click for more detail.
When we got to the Carbon River, rather than crossing the suspension bridge and continuing on the Wonderland trail, we turned right onto the Northern Loop trail and started heading back towards Sunrise. The first climb was killer! About 3000 feet of climbing and I made the mistake of trying to hike as fast as possible for about the first 1000 feet to try and stay up with Bruce, but I eventually realized that I was burning my legs out and we were not yet half way through the miles for the day. The northern loop trail has fewer views of Rainier and the glaciers, but there are two basins with lakes followed by the Grand Park which is an amazingly flat broad open meadow which just seems bizarre after all the glaciated river valleys we had been crossing all day. We passed numerous hikers on the Wonderland Trail, but not a person all day on the Northern Loop trail. It was a bit of a death march at the end as we climbed the last hill through Berkeley Park and back to the Sourdough Ridge trail. Overall, it was 33 miles with 10,363 feet of climbing which took us 9hr 43 min (Click here to see Garmin recording).

One of many bridges the park service establishes each year.
I'm not sure what my next Wonderland run will be but I know I will try to run some or all of it every summer. I don't think I could ever get tired of the scenery on the Wonderland Trail, even though you have to work hard to experience it. I think my next attempt will be to run the complete trail in three days. If you have enough cars and camping gear you could leave a car with camping gear at Mowich and then start at White River campground going to Mowich on day 1, on to Longmire on day 2 to stay at the Park Inn, and then back to Mowich on day 3. This should be feasible without recruiting crew assistance.

Online resources for running Rainier:

We benefited from Jason's description of how he did the trail in two days.
More detailed resources are available at the volcano running website.
Fastest known times are posted here.


  1. Holy crap man that looks awesome. May have to get in on some of that action next year.

  2. Just found your blog. Good stuff! Can't wait to keep reading...

  3. @Jason: I've enjoyed reading your blog and thanks for the writeup on how to do Wonderland in two days. Too bad we couldn't equal your feat! I'll be heading to your neck of the woods next to try R2R2R.

  4. Just read this blog for the first time. Mike is very diplomatic in describing the decision to bail on the 2nd half of the WT. The truth is that, though he had some doubts about continuing, he was physically good to go, while it was I who was the "weak link" in the pair and ultimately determined that we would not continue. Very glad we returned a few weeks later for the Northern Loop and again a year later to complete the WT in 3 days.