I’ve heard glorious tales from the Wonderland Trail since coming to Seattle, and after climbing Rainier last year, circumnavigating the mountain at some point was an inevitable necessity. The Wonderland Trail is an approximately 93 mile trail that circles Rainier and offers indescribably glorious views pretty much throughout, and rewards you with something like 22,000 feet of climbing in the midst of the loop. So we threw together some quick plans, pulled out some maps, and set out on yet another mountain adventure. Brock Gavery, Miles Ohlrich, and I comprised our small, lean team of 3, and after some exciting car troubles before leaving Seattle, we eventually got on the road down to Rainier.
We headed first straight down to Longmire, which we would be hitting the next day at around the 60 mile mark. After a bit of waffling trying to figure out what to do with our minimal drop bags of food resupplies, bivies, etc., we ended up finding a nice tree in the woods and just tied them up, well out of reach of very short baby bears. We said goodbye to the bags and headed back out of the park for the long drive back up and around to Mowich Lake (about 2.5 hours). After getting a nice relaxing and delicious dinner in our bellies at an inn in the woods, we made it up to Mowich Lake right around nightfall. I recognized the roads approaching the area but couldn’t seem to figure out when I’d been out there before, then eventually realized this was right around the start of my first 50 miler some years ago (the Rainier to Ruston race), so that was a fun memory. At Mowich Lake, we threw up our tents and crashed for a very short nap. After a few hours sleep, we were up and at ‘em at 11:30pm. I found a crumpled train ticket in my pocket and remembered the fun day in the park and on the train with my family in D.C. last weekend and smiled remembering my brother’s 3 year old’s supreme joy as we rode the train. We broke camp, Brock brewed up countless batches of Caffe Vita’s deliciously dark Luna
coffee in the French press as we all gathered our gear and made last minute adjustments. Right at about 1am, we were on the trail cruising along nicely in the cool night. The sky was clear and awash with a sea of stars, and the start of our adventure began under an already glorious backdrop despite not being able to see Rainier just yet.
We got in some solid running miles in the dark, but the majority was fairly slow going as we were all still pretty fatigued after such a short nap. The nighttime always proves difficult mentally, and this section held true, but we pressed on. We had only one short section where we lost the trail in a large drainage basin and stumbled around for a while in the rocks before regaining the trail proper and moving along. We moved steadily and seemed to hold on to our goal pace of 3 miles an hour despite occasional stops, getting water, etc. The sun began to creep up over the mountains around us, the headlamps switched off, and our spirits rose as we soaked in the spectacular mountain backdrop surrounding us. Just as the sun popped out in earnest, we fittingly reached Sunrise Camp and stopped for a short eating break. It was a quick cruise from there down to White River, where we put in a little bonus mileage trying to find the trail, but ended up back on course and moving right along.
On the long climb up to Summerland, Brock was leading our small tribe of 3. With our heads down slogging up the climb, one moment I could see Brock trudging onward just ahead of me and suddenly I saw him turn abruptly and run back at me looking none too calm. A beautiful big black bear was paying us a close visit and wishing us a good morning. He was right on the trail munching some leaves, and boy was he stout. Fortunately he seemed more interested in a vegetarian diet for the day. After making lots of noise (which he didn’t seem to mind at all…), he ended up crossing to the other side of the trail and munching on a tasty new tree. We nervously went ahead right on past him at a now “safe” distance of perhaps 4 feet… I was at the back of the pack now and nervously kept glancing back and talking to the bear as we continued the climb to Summerland. The bear was content with his leaves though, and we made it to the top unscathed. We stopped for a short breather and regrouped. Then onward.
The stretch between Summerland and Indian Bar is one of the more spectacular sections of trail. It’s one of the higher sections of the trail, and the terrain is very open and has the feel of high alpine country (and has plenty of incredible Rainier views of course). There was a short climb out of Indian Bar, and then a really long, cruising section all the way down to Maple Creek where we made up some serious time and had a lot of fun. The trail got a bit rougher shortly after Maple Creek and the lengthy climb up to Mirror Lakes was somewhat mentally defeating after such a fast fun section. We eventually emerged at the top and went by Mirror Lakes with an unfortunately completely cloud-shrouded Rainier hidden somewhere behind. After a short piece of road, we began our last chunk of trail for the day down to Longmire. At this point we knew without a doubt we’d make it to the Lodge in time for dinner, which was a great feeling. The restaurant closed at 8pm, and we were well ahead of schedule, so visions of cold beer and hot food began dominating our thoughts. We were all hurting in different ways and in different places, and all ready for a relaxing break. As we got into Longmire, Miles graciously volunteered to go retrieve our food resupply bags from the woods, and Brock and I headed into Longmire. We all awkwardly took mini-showers in the sink and it felt good to clean up. After layering up with all the clothing we had, we headed into the restaurant for some refueling. Fortunately they allowed us in despite our stench and appearance. With all 3 heads bobbing throughout the meal and darting menacingly close to falling straight into our food from exhaustion, we slowly made our way through many plates of salad, pasta, lamb, bread, soup, cold beer, and blackberry cobbler. After reaching Longmire at about 5pm, after dinner we headed back for the woods and quickly bivied where we landed. We had a luxurious 4-5 hours of sleep and were up again at 12:30am. Packing up was quick and easy, though getting going without endless fresh pots of Vita was not so easy, but we were on the trail again about 1am.
We all tried munching some caffeine gum we had picked up at the gas station the day before, but it tasted pretty awful and didn’t seem to help too much. But we trudged on through the night and the miles clicked away slowly but surely. As we climbed out of the South Puyallup River valley, the sun came up again and our spirits improved quite a bit. This morning/night was considerably colder than the night before so we stayed layered up even a few hours into the morning. A few miles before Golden Lakes, we spotted another big black bear right near the trail, but far enough away that he wasn’t an issue- just fun to look at as he lumbered around the mountains. We met a friendly ranger at Golden Lakes and he assured us it was an easy and fast 6 or so miles down to the Mowich River before the 4 or so mile climb back up to Mowich Lake. With that, Brock led us on a breakneck charge down the mountain to the Mowich River and we blazed into there feeling excited about being so close to completing the loop. We had another quick breather there and then embarked on the climb back up to Mowich Lake. It was slow going, but we emerged back at the Mowich Lake Campground not too much later, and we were done. One incredible adventure on the Wonderland Trail, done in about 36 hours with a solid 7 or so hour break in Longmire included.
We couldn’t have asked for more glorious and perfect weather this weekend, and this is a truly pristine and incredible classic Pacific NW adventure trail- a definite must-do for anyone even remotely interested in it. Being in such a vast beautiful outdoor playground makes me feel small, humbled, and grateful for all that we have and the many blessings we take for granted each day. Brock and I had been talking about a Wonderland run for a while, and after the untimely and unfortunate death of ultrarunning legend Dr. Dave Terry last week, this gave us the impetus to head out for a tribute run. Brock ran the Wonderland with DT several years ago, and his encouraging words and motivation kept Brock going then. Although I never had the chance to officially meet DT, I have heard countless great stories about him over the years, and his impact on the sport of ultrarunning will long be remembered. This was an incredible adventure and it was a pleasure to honor Dave Terry in our own small way out on some glorious singletrack where he will be long be remembered. Rest in peace Dr. Dave- you will be missed.
...More pics/video to come.