Hiking the Wonderland Trail: Days 1-3

Day 1

Box Canyon Trailhead to Cougar Rock Campground

11.5 miles

After staying up too late and getting accidentally drunk on hard seltzer’s, the 6am wake up call came much too soon. We tried to eat as much food as possible with nervous stomachs, and downed what we knew would be our last hot coffee for the next 9 days.

We checked and rechecked our packs for the umpteenth time, finally deciding on bringing a bag of items to the trailhead that we couldn’t quite decide on.

We piled into Cheryl, the trusty silver Subaru, and we were off, headed for the adventure of a lifetime!

The car initially buzzed with excited and nervous energy, then quieted as we approached the trailhead, that same energy turning to silent introspection.

We parked at the trailhead, noting the cold whip of the fall air, becoming nervous all over again about our layering systems, amount of hand warmers, sleeping pad thickness, and sleeping bag rating.

Boots were laced up, bags hoisted on to fresh and supple backs, and the toilets were given a fond farewell. It was time to hit the trail, one foot closer to completing a 93 mile circuit around the jewel of the PNW, Mt. Rainier.

*record scratch* Oops, seems we hadn’t heard about a trail detour taking place that day, sending us walking a quarter mile down the road through a dark tunnel. Great start, guys, great start.

After finding the right starting point, we quickly disappeared into the trees, lush sunlight hitting the cool dirt in front of our footsteps. I couldn’t believe I was doing a long thru hike again! Almost exactly a month after completing 118 miles on Section K of the PCT (which you can read about in the PCT section of this blog), I was back on the trail, hoping to complete this epic circuit with two very important people in my life!

It was not long ascending on the trail before the trees opened up, giving us views of the valley and Stevens Creek right below us. Eye-popping fall colors abounded on the hillsides, a stark contrast to the greens and browns of the lower forest.

We came around the corner to a massive landslide, thankfully not fresh, but also clearly had the potential to do more damage. Needless to say, we quickly hopped around and continued on our way.

Next came one of the fun oddities of trekking on a trail established well before the park roads. We came off the trail and walked along the road for quite some time, mingling with the tourists, the day hikers, the cars of people eager to catch a glimpse of the glaciated giant. It was quite disconcerting, especially after my days spent on the PCT where Stehekin suddenly became a metropolis instead of a tiny isolated hamlet.

We all remarked on the oddity of the experience as we sat down for lunch by one of the most popular attractions in the park: Reflection Lake. The lake had dried up quite a bit by mid-September, but you can still catch a glimpse of Rainier in the waters below.

After lunch we continued on our journey, knowing this would be one of our longest days in terms of mileage.

After crossing the Nisqually River, not quite so intimidating this time of year, we made it to Cougar Rock Campground, a car-campground on the southwest edge of the park. Adding to the absurdity of the first day was the fact that we were camped 30 feet away from running water, toilets and even an electrical outlet if we so desired. We were definitely spoiled on our first day! After trying to make a campfire in the only location that would allow it in our itinerary, we gave up and headed to bed, shocked muscles pleading for rest.

11.5 miles down, 81.5 to go.

Day 2

Cougar Rock Campground to Devil’s Dream

6.75 miles

Only hikers know the true joy of a flat trail to start a day. It was glorious, letting our legs adjust to their new life along a gentle trail that skirted the Nisqually and led us to civilization. Yes, on only our second day, our journey led us into Longmire, a historic small town on the Wonderland which has a general store, inn, info center, and residences for the workers.

After contemplating the purchase for all of 2 seconds, we each bought a beer that we would pack up to our second camp, a delicious treat at the end of any day of hiking.

We packed our new belongings and headed back to the trail, crossing the road and officially heading north into the backcountry. The trail climbed steeply, introducing us to one of the most notorious aspects of this circuitous route: the elevation gain and loss. This park does not give up its wonders easily, something we learned quite quickly as we worked our way up and away from the road.

Another landslide crossing brought us to our lunch spot, a sunny rock by the river with stunning views of Rainier, where our permit was checked for the first time by a very nice ranger.

Side note: the rivers are violent in this park. A volcano with 25 freezing and thawing glaciers makes for river beds that seem to have burst through rock, dirt and vegetation with ease. The river beds and surrounding hillsides of the primary water systems we crossed (Nisqually, Puyallup, Tahoma, Carbon, etc.) showed ample evidence of the rivers’ powerful ebb and flow, making for crossings that were at times both tedious and humbling.

A lunch of tuna and pita bread energized us for the remaining steep miles. We arrived at camp, set into the forest deep in the trees, the alpine air cooling us as soon as we stopped moving. After setting up camp, we took our water bottles and headed a half mile further on the trail, searching for a small lake we had seen on our apps.

Set below the imposing Iron Mountain (with aptly named Copper Mountain to its side), Squaw Lake provided us with ample water for the night. Having completed the extra mile, we retired to our camp, stomachs full of hot ramen, beer and Skittles.

Day 3

Devil’s Dream to Klapatche Park

10.7 miles

An elevation profile in the shape of a W was what we knew we had to tackle.

This. Day. Was. Hard. Your body is reeling from the blows of two days of hard hiking, coupled with adjusting to a diet that is quite foreign in most respects.

We began the day by traversing still-frozen meadows yet to see the morning light. After climbing through the cold underbrush, we met the sun at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, an area I had heard of and was ecstatic to finally see. It did not disappoint.

Side note: “Indian Henry” (born So-to-Lick in 1825) was a trusted and well-liked Native American who led wilderness pioneers such as John Muir and James Longmire to the slopes of Mt. Rainier. Although he never touched the glaciers of the mountain, believing it would be bad luck, he made a living farming in the valleys and would hunt mountain goats in the meadow that now bears his name.

After this stunning morning, we dropped down to 4100 feet in order to cross the infamous Tahoma Suspension Bridge. 200 feet of swaying cables and wood planks separated us from the other side. It was intimidating to say the least.

After this harrowing crossing, in a manner that would repeat itself many more times over the course of this trip, we gained that lost elevation back up to 5600 feet. An idyllic alpine meadow awaited us, with full views of the Tahoma glacier and the headwaters of the Puyallup River. We sunbathed on warm rocks and captured marmots hamming it up for the camera. To this day, this is still one of our favorite memories of the whole trip.

It was back down to 4100 feet to cross the Puyallup River, quickly gaining steam in its relative infancy.

We enjoyed a quick break before continuing on, knowing we had to make it up to 5950 feet to gain a steep ridge with clouds gathering on the horizon. The exposed ridge was cold and the breeze sent a chill through our sweaty layers, not to mention the bear scat we had started seeing in ever-increasing frequency.

It seemed like forever before we made it to St. Andrews Lake, a small body of water set back not far from the ridge. It was about a mile to camp and we knew it was dry, so we filled up all of our vessels for the night ahead. As we were bent to the water, we heard a strange sound above us and saw a glider circle us once, circle again and wave, then disappear off into the distance, leaving us laughing in awe of what just happened.

We descended again to 5500 feet, our knees aching but our eyes preoccupied with our first sight of the ridges and dark volcanic rock that make Rainier so grand.

We reached Klapatche Park, thankful that we had gotten water as we viewed the nearly-dry lake in front of our campsite. Clouds blocked the mountain from view as we enjoyed the last tendrils of warm sunlight with dinner, reflecting on the day and planning for Day 4 the next morning.


  1. Your photography is spectacular! And you are also a gifted writer 💕 Hike on …. i’ll Be thinking about you

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