Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lazy Man's Guide to Running the Wonderland Trail

It may seem like a contradiction to refer to a lazy person running the 90 miles and over twenty thousand feet of climbing that make up the Wonderland Trail, but this is your guide if you want to run the trail and maximize how well you feel as you go, hopefully resulting in greater enjoyment of the amazing scenery along the way.

Map of the Wonderland Trail
There are three primary options for running the trail, starting with the simplest, which is to start at any of the trailheads and run continuously around the mountain until you return to your car, carrying all of the needed food and gear with you. Although the simplest option, this does not appeal to lazy runners like myself since it requires the most pain and suffering to finish and you would miss out on a good portion of the scenery as you run through the dark. The second option is to run the trail in two days which is what we attempted to do last year. This allows one some rest and recovery compared to the first option, but we started and finished the first day in darkness last year and it was a brutal day. Definitely not your truly lazy option. The lazy option, which we employed this year, is to run the trail over three days. Not only did we break it into three days, but we did the whole thing without any camping. The first day we ran from Mowich Lake counter clockwise to Longmire where we stayed at the National Park Inn, less than a 1/4 mile from the Wonderland Trail. We had mailed extra food and clothing to the hotel so we could resupply for day two during which we ran from Longmire to White River campground. But the truly lazy do not set up tents and camp. No, the truly lazy have their lovely spouse pick them up at the campground and drive to nearby Crystal Mt. Resort to stay another night in a hotel eating real food at a restaurant before sleeping and being driven back to the trail head at White River for the final leg of the run back to Mowich Lake.

Day 1:

We left Seattle just after 5am to drive to Mowich Lake where we started on the trail about 7am. The section of the trail from Mowich to Longmire is probably the hardest and was definitely the longest of the three days at about 34 miles. It is harder if you plan a route running from Longmire to Mowich than the counterclockwise direction we ran since it is net downhill heading south. Making sure to fill up with water can be critical in this day's journey. There is water available at Golden Lakes and St. Andrews Lake, but the key places to get water in my experience are just north of the North Puyallap River and just south of the suspension bridge over Tahoma Creek. Many of the apparent water sources on the map are direct glacial runoff streams which are too silty to purify and drink.

St. Andrews Lake and the western view of Rainier

Bear guiding us down the trail

The trail reaches its highest elevation of the first day in Klapatche Park which is probably my favorite section due to the views. Bruce got a surprise here when he turned a corner to find a black bear. By the time I caught up with him he was busy photographing it. It was also a lazy runner and wanted very much to stay on the trail. We walked behind it clapping and shouting. The bear was clearly aware of us and wanting to be rid of us, but not at the cost of spending extra energy moving without the trail. So we spent about 10 minutes walking behind the bear urging it along until finally it had enough and moved off the trail. We arrived at the National Park Inn after covering about 34 miles at 4:45pm and were quite happy to find our packages awaiting us and hot showers and dinner at the restaurant went a long way towards recovery.

One note if you are considering running to the National Park Inn with mailed supplies, it turns out that they do not have a means to ship your stuff back home to you. I had not been able to get a clear answer about this on the phone, so took clothing the first day that I was willing to throw away, but in the end the extremely nice desk clerk agreed to mail the box back to us on his own time. Thanks Andy!

Day 2:

The restaurant at the National Park Inn doesn't open until 7am so we had included granola for breakfast in our packages and we were ready to hit the trail towards White River campground promptly at 7am. Starting day two I was amazed to find that although my legs were tired and maybe a bit wooden, neither my legs nor feet were actually sore. This discovery made for a much better start to the day.

Southern view of Rainier from Paradise River crossing

I have to admit that the next section from Longmire to Box Canyon is probably my least favorite of the loop. The trail is pleasant and spends a lot of time along Stevens creek. However, there are fewer views of Rainier and much of the trail is close to the road. There are several places where one could obtain water from the creek, but the important water stop is at Nickel Creek at the beginning of the big ascent to Ohanapecosh Park. This climb takes you from the lowest point of the trail at 2600 feet just before Box Canyon to the highest point at Panhandle Gap. This was the biggest section of the Wonderland Trail that I had not seen previously and for now at least, it is my favorite. The views in Cowlitz Park, Indian Bar, Ohanapecosh Park and on both sides of Panhandle Gap were unbeatable as shown in the photos below.

We completely refilled our water supplies at Indian Bar, but it turns out that there are plenty of snow runoff streams higher up in Ohanapecosh Park approaching Panhandle Gap so there is no need to carry so much water up from Indian Bar. There were a half dozen or so snow fields in Ohanapecosh Park leading up to Panhandle Gap, but the routes across the snow fields were well established with footprints and it was not difficult to navigate in running shoes without poles.

Cowlitz park

Bruce navigating snow fields leading to Panhandle Gap
Approach to Panhandle Gap.

Clouds gathering over Mt. Adams to the south.

Descent into summerland with Emmons glacier in background.
Day two finished with a long wide cushy downhill section of trail packed with dayhikers leading to White River campground where we arrived about 4:55 after covering 31 miles. We were extremely fortunate in our quest to be lazy that my wife agreed to drive from Seattle to the campground to pick us up and take us to a hotel in nearby Crystal Mountain so that we could enjoy a shower, nice meal at a restaurant and sleep in a real bed as opposed to camping in the campground in heavy rain.

Day 3:

I had not slept well during the previous night due to noisy hotel guests followed by a huge thunder and lightning storm. But I was very relieved that it was not raining as we drove back to White River campground for another 7am start. As you can see in the photo below, there was a lot of fog and heavy cloud cover so there are very few pictures from day 3, but at least we did not have to suffer through rain.

We spent day 3 under this cloud cover (photo from plane by Jen Edwards)
Last year when we ran the northern loop, I loved the scenery since the Wonderland Trail approaches glaciers much more closely in this section than anywhere else along the loop. The trail is also above 6,000 feet for an extended time so the views are expansive, or would have been if there weren't so much fog. I think this year that the trail we covered on day 2 through the Cowlitz Divide, Indian Bar and Ohanapecosh Park has now become my favorite but the northern section is a close 2nd. Unfortunately, I still haven't run the northern section on a clear day to fully appreciate the views.

Not too long after passing Sunrise Camp, we were surprised in the fog by another bear, this one quite a bit larger than the one we encountered the first day, but this bear had no desire to lead us along the trail and in fact disappeared into the mist before we could snap a photo.

The Winthrop glacier was hidden by the clouds and fog when we crossed Winthrop Creek, but we did get to see the end of the Carbon glacier as we descended down from Mystic Lake. The Wonderland Trail on the far side of the Carbon river was closed between the upper and lower river crossings, so we continued on the northern loop trail to the second river crossing where crossed over to rejoin the Wonderland Trail. The last climb up to Ipsut Pass is one of the steepest climbs of the entire journey, but it didn't hurt quite as badly knowing that it was the last climb.

Terminus of the Carbon glacier

View back down the route we climbed to Ipsut Pass
We arrived back at the Mowich Lake campground at 2:15pm to finish our journey. Running the Wonderland Trail can't be beat and I highly recommend the lazy aproach to this journey. In fact, if you don't want to run the entire trail, you can see some of the best scenery either by running the northern loop in a single 33 mile day, or the eastern loop (Fryingpan creek trailhead south on Wonderland to Cowlitz Divide Trail to Eastside Trail to Owyhigh Lakes Trail) in a single 34 mile day. I have never gone as far as we did on this trip for multiple consecutive days, and I was amazed at how well I recovered each day and I can only think that getting lots of food and good rest each night played a significant role in the recovery. We were very fortunate that nothing went wrong during the trip and we had excellent weather overall, particularly the first two days. The worst thing that happened was that after carrying a wall charger to re-charge my Ambit GPS watch each night to record our journey, I arrived home to discover that re-charging the watch apparently erases any previous recordings, so I ended up with data only for the last day.

Happy to arrive at the finish

For more photos, follow this link to the complete photo album.