NW Trails: Running Mount Rainier's Wonderland Trail

September 19, 2016

By Abram Dickerson

Photo at right: Long-distance runner, Kristyn Toby, from Boulder, Colorado, crests the Cowlitz Divide on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. Photo by Abram Dickerson, courtesy of Aspire Adventure Running in Bellingham, Washington. www.aspireadventurerunning.com


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Mount Rainier. It’s an icon of the Pacific Northwest, 14,410-feet of rock and ice rising from the sea in an immense display of majestic beauty. Less obvious, however, is the 93-mile thin ribbon circling the mountain called the Wonderland Trail.

This equally iconic pathway hugs the mountain’s glaciated flanks, weaves through ancient forests, flows through flower-filled meadows, and climbs the many ridges cut by Rainier’s glaciers and rivers.

Rising and falling over 21,810 feet of combined elevation, this trail is easily on the short list of the world’s most inspiring footpaths.

Long-heralded as a backpacking destination, over 1,000 pack-laden hikers spend close to two weeks encircling the mountain every year. By far this is the most popular approach to the trail, but there is of course another way—one can run it.

This signpost, found between Mowich Lake and White River, directs hikers and runners along the Wonderland Trail. Photo by Nicolas Trilio, courtesy of Aspire Adventure Running

Trail-running Record

Garry Robbins of Vancouver, B.C. currently holds the record for the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the trail, 18 hours, 52 minutes. This record is the equivalent of keeping a pace of just over 12-minute miles for nearly 19 straight hours. This kind of a time—or for that matter any single 93-mile push—is remarkable and generally reserved for the elite or very determined runner.

However, between extremes of the long jog and the endless sprint, there remains plenty of style options for how one can run the Wonderland.

The Fastpack

Like backpacking, the fastpacking style of travel appeals to the purist who wants the unsupported feather in their cap. This option generally includes plenty of “geeking” out on the latest ultra-light gear. Every ounce is evaluated, every tag cut, every strap shortened.

The Wonderland can be carved up into any number of days on the trail: less days equal more miles per day, and more days equal more weight in food and less miles per day.

An important factor not to overlook is permitting. Overnight permits are required from the National Park Service for any wilderness camping on the route. With 18 wilderness sites to choose from on the Wonderland Trail, one can sleep quietly in the backcountry’s beauty.

Booking these camps in advance is an issue. Last year the park received over 2,600 advance permit reservation requests that were processed like a lottery.

For the ultra-runner there is a way around this system. One option is to run the trail in a single 93-mile push. Another choice is to break the route into three separate 30-plus mile days among the three non-wilderness campgrounds that the trail intersects.

This model can be done fastpack style or with a support crew. The crew model is the ultimate hybrid of light and fast-mountain running which, if correctly planned, has nearly all the perks of a European hut system. The crux is finding the right crew.

With Mount Adams standing at a distant watch, long-distance runners, Kristyn Toby (right) and Whitney McCain, both from Boulder, Colorado, cross the Panhandle Gap on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. Photo by Abram Dickerson, courtesy of Aspire Adventure Running

Finding the Right Trail Crew

A trail-runner’s crew is a self-sacrificing team of friends or family who shoulder the many non-running responsibilities of a long or multi-day run. On the Wonderland, a crew is responsible for shuttling a runner’s overnight gear, food and amenities between camps.

While the runner’s day is filled with glacier-kissing trail miles, the support crew spends their days loading and unloading gear, driving on winding mountain roads and tending to all the food and camp logistics.

As with any mountain undertaking, crew preparations for the Wonderland are a significant responsibility. Planning and preparing food, maps, risk management and emergency plans, first-aid equipment, weather contingencies and subsequent gear choices are all critical.

A good crew anticipates the more subtle and nuanced demands and desires of the exhausted runner and transforms camp into the ultimate overnight aid station.

A crew like this makes all kinds of runs possible. It’s the crew my friends and I always wanted as we poured over maps in search of epic alpine runs. It was obvious that many of the best running “lines” were point-to-point affairs. This, of course, meant vehicle shuttles, group coordination, hitchhiking, key swapping and lots of creative problem solving.

The Wonderland — A Serious Objective

The Wonderland is a serious objective for any runner. Even with support, trailheads are separated by long stretches of technical and remote terrain where a runner is isolated from any easy mode of evacuation.

Out there, there is no such thing as a Did Not Finish (DNF) disqualification—you either walk out or are carried out—and being prepared is essential. This reality of risk in the mountains is part of the experience. One cannot experience wild without vulnerability.

The Wonderland Trail is a portal. It transports runners to a world of stillness and savagery, to a place born of deep geologic time and power. To run the loop requires an enormous amount of concentrated will and effort, but when compared against the power and presence of the mountain, runners’ efforts are as fleeting as the last dusting of winter’s snow against the first warm days of spring.

To be so intimate with such an immense mountain system challenges our sense of significance and invites us to a perpetual state of wonder.

Abram Dickerson discovered trail running as a means of accessing more mountains in less time as he balanced the demands of fatherhood and passion for the alpine. He is the founder of Aspire Adventure Running which operates crew-supported single and multi-day running tours in both Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks. Check out upcoming 2016 autumn and 2017 adventure runs here: www.AspireAdventureRunning.com