I often get asked what my favorite section of the Pacific Crest Trail was. For me Washington was the clear winner. Yeah that first day out of Cascade Locks was mostly clear cut and there were some not so fantastic days scattered around, but overall I was in love. I lucked out with weather and views and the people I was hiking near, all combining to leave me with everlasting warm and fuzzy memories of Washington, I'm sure the excitement of almost be finished played a role as well. Whatever the reasons I knew I wanted to head back and explore, so when I managed to snag 10 days off in early September I didn't have to think to hard about where I wanted to go.
I didn't want to repeat the PCT but not being very familiar with the state I asked around, read far to many articles and semi decided on the Wonderland Trail. According to the NPS website the "Wonderland Trail (WT) is 93 miles (150kms) long and encircles Mount Rainier. It is a strenuous hike with lots of elevation gain and loss, through lowland forests and valleys and into high alpine and sub-alpine areas."
I had actually considered hiking the trail a few other times but other trips always got in the way. So it just sort of sat there at the edge of my awareness, one of many trips that might be fun one day. I'd heard that even though it's all on one mountain its a very diverse trail and even more importantly it's a loop, I love a good loop trail. It didn't hurt that it's pretty regularly on hiker's top ten hikes, seemed pretty promising.
So now comes the tricky part, this is Mt Rainier we're talking about. National Parks are the land of permits and a whole mess of rules and fees. The Wonderland Trail is certainly no exception. The trickiest part about the trail is that you can only camp in designated sites and when you get your permit you need a reservation for each night. Which means no on the fly itineraries, good or bad hiking day does't matter, you camp at your designated spot. Plus people try to reserve these permits crazy far in advance (I think reservations open up a year in advance). So my total lack of advance planning meant I would be relying on the beautiful walk up permits, of which there should be 30% available. Tricky thing is if the camps along the way have already been snagged by other walk ups. This all gets very complicated and if you want a great explanation the NPS website is your best bet. I'm pretty darn flexible, I know I can hike long days although the elevation map for this thing is pretty impressive. When researching online 10 and 11 day trips seemed super popular. My days off dictated a shorter schedule than that what with driving and all but I figured pack a bunch of food and my gear and hope for the best. Worst option, I day hike or do a shorter loop and then head to another park for a few days. Not exactly a hardship.
My research stopped there a few weeks prior to my planned trip. I looked at the weather a few times, disliked what I saw and chose to momentarily ignore it. Extended forecasts are usually lousy anyway. The night before I left I sat staring at maps making up potential itineraries and scrambling to clean my house. I threw all my stuff in a pile and headed to work. The shift was slow and when they offered to let me leave at midnight I immediately peeled out (labor day pay be darned I was going camping!). I then did all of my grocery shopping which I had stupidly avoided until then (yay for Winco at 1 am), napped for an hour or two and sometime much later than I had intended finally hit the road.
Very pretty driving but not exactly super short. By the time I hit Eugene, Oregon the sun was starting to set and I clearly wasn't making it to any campgrounds on Rainier in the daylight. I debated motels and other campsites but really wanted to get there so on I drove, I left I-5 and entered the land of misty fog and barely lit roads. It definitely felt like I was heading into the great unknown (the complete lack of cell service did nothing to improve my sense of location).
It then became the debate of the cheapskate versus the coward. After a few wrong turns and debating countless pullouts my inner chicken won out. Apparently when you have been repeatedly told that it isn't safe to sleep on the side of the road this sticks and I finally somehow found the campground right outside the Nisqually Entrance to the park. Angrily glaring at the $18 fee I pulled into the first site sometime after midnight and promptly prepared to fall asleep in the back of my car. It was wet and dark and even setting up my tent sounded too exhausting. The Longmire ranger station was set to open at 0730 and that was my morning goal. So I set an alarm and crossed my fingers one more time to the weather and permit gods and settled in.