Emerald Creek Ridge

The Wonderland Trail is 150 km of mostly single track that circumnavigates Mount Rainier with over 7,230 metres (23,700 feet) of cumulative elevation gain (plus equal loss of course). It’s normally done as a 10 day hike, but many will run it over 3 days with support from crew who can meet runners at several drive-in campsites along the way.

My friend Adam and I figured we would try to tackle it completely unsupported, meaning we would have to carry all of our food, cooking and camping gear, in around 40 hours. This presented some unique logistical challenges that would require quite a bit of planning and research into some new equipment.

There are some great trip reports and comprehensive hiking guides online, so I’m going to focus below more on the logistics of running the trail unsupported, for those who might consider doing the same.

Watch the video above of our trip from my YouTube channel.

The Planning

The first thing we started to nerd out on was our packs. We needed something large enough but still form-fitting enough to allow us to run comfortably, so ideally in the 15-20 litre range. We both decided on the Salomon Agile 17 litre, a stretch-fit pack designed for running with one main compartment, mesh side pockets along with pockets on the waist harness, and Salomon’s usual ‘4D pole holder’ for our running poles – yes, running poles. We then added the Salomon Custom Front Pocket which is designed to clip on to the packs to add an additional 5L capacity, perfect for food and other small items that we’d need throughout the day.

I use poles whenever I go trekking, especially when carrying a pack, but I had never run with poles which it turns out take some getting used to. The Black Diamond Z poles seemed to be the way go at just 275 grams. They weren’t cheap, but I know I’ll get plenty of use from them in the future as I start to race in Europe.

Gear for the Wonderland Trail

15 lbs. and about 22 litres. Pictured is also a waist belt that I left at home.

Running throughout the night would mean missing a lot of the sights on the trail, which sort of defeats the purpose of travelling to run in such a beautiful location. On the other hand, stopping even for a few hours sleep would require a lot of extra gear which would take extra energy and slow us down, requiring more food, and so on. We decided to aim for 4-5 hours sleep, making do with a Penguin overbag and a shared lightweight Siltarp 2 Tarp which could use our running poles for support, along with NeoAir Xlite sleeping pads. Including the ground sheet from my tent, guy lines and pegs, this all weighed in at 1,950 grams and would take about 5 litres of space.

InReach SE tracking along the way

InReach SE tracking along the way.

I’d be running in Salomon EXO Short and Shirt with arm warmers and a visor, along with a waterproof shell just in case. For spare clothing at night, I packed a highly compressible down jacket, merino wool tights, gloves and a beanie.

I needed a new headlamp for my upcoming 100 miler, so I splurged on a Petzl Nao with the belt kit and a spare battery. Add to this a Snow Peaks stove and small fuel canister, GSI cup/pot, a spork, first aid kit, knife, matches, a Power Pond 1C to recharge my Suunto Ambit 2 while on the run, a GoPro, my Delorme inReach SE, and I was just under my target of 15 pounds. This included about 6,000 calories worth of Clif Bars, Shot Bloks, and Energy Gels for on the run, dehydrated food for dinner and breakfast, along with a few other snacks like dehydrated fruit and some nuts.

Water would be extra, but using a Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter and some chlorine tablets, and given how much water there was en route, we’d only have to carry up to a 1litre at a time.

Getting There

We’d be heading counter-clockwise from Longmire which seems to be the most popular option and is about a two hour drive from Seattle. Longmire is a village with all of the amenities you’d need, including a lodge with a restaurant and hotel. We decided to rough it at the nearby Cougar Rock Campground.

We arrived a little after dark on Friday evening, setup our tents, and prepared our gear for in the morning. We booked the camping until Monday so we could avoid having to pack up in the morning and so we could just collapse on Sunday night. The goal was to be on the trail for day break to make the most of the daylight.

Day 1

We were on the move by about 6:30 am, by the time we finally got sorted in the morning, so the headlamps were put away after about 15 minutes. After just an hour we saw a bear in the distance, followed by some very brave deer on the trail a few minutes later. So far so good!

The first leg clockwise from Longmire to Devil’s Dream was beautiful and, after crossing the long suspension bridge over Tahoma Creek, it only got better from there. Emerald Creek Ridge was an amazing section of trail. St. Andrews lake was a particular nice spot to stop to filter some water. The packs were feeling great, the weather was perfect, and we were feeling strong.

On the climb up to Mowich lake, we finally ran into a group of runners we’d been expecting who were heading in the opposite direction. They were aiming to run it in a little less time than us but with support from friends who’d be waiting for them at a few spots along the way with hot meals and a few other luxuries. We were a little jealous of their lightweight packs!

It was quite surreal rolling in to Mowich past the hordes of picknicking tourists and day hikers. We took in the sunset over Mowich Lake and headed off to see if we couldn’t make it to the Carbon Glacier before dark. No such luck and, as we passed it in the pitch black and felt a cool breeze, we knew there was something pretty cool out there that we couldn’t see.

Our make-shift campsite

Our make-shift campsite.

After a few hours in the dark, we arrived at Mystic Lake around 11pm and setup camp. 76 km (47 miles) and 4,200 metres (13,800 feet) of climbing down after 17 hours on foot. Dehydrated Mac N’ Cheese never tasted so good!

Day 2

We woke up after about 4 hours sleep and again were on the trails by 6:30am after breaking camp. We figured we’d stop en route so we could make breakfast in comfort once it warmed up. The camp had been almost completely full when we arrived, so we were happy to have been leaving before everyone else woke up – in and out without almost anyone even seeing us!

The sunrise was pretty incredible as we passed Winthrop Glacier, the second largest glacier on Mount Rainier. We were feeling surprisingly good, given that we’d already run almost 50 miles in the last 24 hours.

From Granite Creek, the trail climbed in a series of long switchbacks before opening up in meadows and revealing some impressive panoramic views. The Northern Loop Trail passes through here on its way to the high plateau of Grand Park, visible in the distance – something for another day.

We ran into a couple of hikers who offered to take our photo. Up to this point, we’d be seeing small groups of hikers who were all out for at least a few days on the trail, but no day hikers yet, so there was definitely a sense of camaraderie amongst us. But as we ran through the large open meadows down to Sunrise, we began passing quite a few tourists who were pretty clearly just out for the day.

Sunrise looked like a nice campground but I could see it getting pretty crowded. This turned out to be nothing compared to White River Auto Camp which was a few miles downhill – taking a few minutes to bask in the luxuries of running water and flush-toilets was nice though.

As the hiking guide points out, “Summerland is a gateway to the highest section of the Wonderland Trail where it crosses Panhandle Gap at 6,750 feet. This is also one of the most visually impressive sections of the trail, offering expansive views of both Mount Rainier and much of southern Washington.” Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the most crowded.

As trail climbs, the highland meadows thin into glacial moraines and views that get better with each step. Once we passed through Panhandle Gap the crowds began to thin out and we had the trail almost all to ourselves again until we ran into our group of runner friends passing in the other direction for the second time. We had begun to worry, but they were looking good and were just a little behind schedule (they’d go on to finish in 35 hours). We gave them the good news that they were about to see what had to be the most epic part of the entire trail.

Bottoming out at 5,120 feet, Indian Bar campground was pretty nice for the few minutes we were there, where two creeks merge into a waterfall under the bridge near a small cabin. We had a bit of a climb ahead of us and things were starting to feel hard. It was hot, we were tired, and about the only thing keeping us going was the caffeine pills and Clif Shots. As we dropped another 1,500 feet to Nickel Creek, our legs and knees began to complain and we were about ready to finally be done.

The section of trail between Nickel Creek to Stevens Canyon was pleasant, but not nearly as spectacular as anything we’d seen so far, and the trails were quite crowded. We just focussed on moving forward, trying to ignore how surreal it felt to be running through parking lots and past tourists and a wedding photo shoot at Box Canyon, after what felt like a lifetime on the trails. We just had one last, big climb up to Reflection Lake before we could consider this thing in the bag.

By the time it got dark for now the second time since starting this journey, all we could think about was trying to get done before all of the restaurants were closed. We just had to put our head down and climb, one foot in front of the other.

We finally arrived at Reflection Lake which looks beautiful during the daylight from what I’ve seen in photos online. For us it was just a dark abyss, but it would signify that we were home free.

The last 5 or 6 miles down past Paradise River Camp to Longmire were our fastest splits yet. We arrived back at Longmire around 9:45 pm, 39 hours after leaving, with about 32 hours moving time – hungry, tired, and glad to be done.

The Recovery

The restaurant at the lodge had just closed for the night, but the waiter offered us a couple of leftover salads and a basket of bread which we promptly devoured, before cleaning ourselves off in their bathroom sink (they had hot water!). We managed to heat some food back at the campsite and to make it through about half a beer each before passing out.

The next day set the stage for pretty much what the rest of the week would look like – eating anything in sight and in large quantities. The entire week, I couldn’t seem to eat or sleep enough. The sleeping part I expected, but I was a little surprised to see just how calorie deprived I was. This is a good lesson for my first 100 miler coming up in November which will be fully supported, with aid stations fully stocked with hot food. Closer to 10,000 calories would have probably been more appropriate, but would have meant quite a bit more weight.

The packs worked out great though, and it’s nice to know that my Salomon Sense Pros will be so comfortable even after so many miles. I had a bit of tennis elbow from using the poles for so long as well. Next time, I’ll have to incorporate these sooner into my training if I’m planning on using them for such a long period of time.

Near the Panhandle Gap

Mount Rainier.

I’m looking forward to going back, probably to run the Wonderland Trail again but over 3 days and fully supported, and also maybe hiking it in sections and taking more time to soak it all in. It has definitely inspired me to do more long, unsupported adventure runs in the future, especially now that I’ve got the gear and a bit more experience under my belt.

Gear: Salomon Agile 17 litreSuunto Ambit2 Sapphire (HR), Delorme inReach SE
Clothing: Salomon S-Lab EXO Twinskin Short, Salomon EXO Zip Tee
Shoes: Salomon Sense Pro