This is the time of year where people are making plans for potential trips, so I wanted to share some points about Wonderland Trail planning as I get lots of the same questions over the next few months from people perusing my site.
PERMITS This topic always causes concern....what if I don't get any of my choices in the annual permit? Many people put their Wonderland plans on the back burner because of this and go somewhere else. Consider that 30 percent of the reservations are held back for walk ups. Consider that there are many cancellations due to various reasons. Consider that there are many changes in itinerary during the hiking season by people who leave the trail early, finish early, or simply don't make it. Last year I asked a ranger about walk up general statistics when I was getting my own permit, and here is the quote:
"In the past 5 years I have only turned down one walk up permit and that was only because the individual was completely inflexible in his itinerary."
Be practical in your choices: trying to walk up for Summerland on Saturday in August is probably not going to work, but I say that with the knowledge that in fact people have indeed scored this. However, if you arrive at the appropriate Ranger station before opening (usually 7:30 AM) to be first in line, are flexible in your itinerary, especially if you can waffle a day or two on either side, and can accept a longer or shorter day than your ideal, then there is no reason why you can't be on the trail despite being shut out in the annual permit system. Granted I don't spend many days on the trail, but I have always scored what I want for permits on a walk up basis, only having to alter a campsite once in the past 30 years.
A Few More Points About Permits: Yes, you need a permit to camp overnight anywhere in the park. Yes, there are multiple cross country zones in the Park that are carefully managed to preclude overuse, but many of the permits I have received over the years involve camping in cross country zones. Hikers doing the complete Wonderland Trail are limited to camping in designated camps only—the use of cross-country zones is not permitted.
When you appear before the Ranger on your walk up, please do your homework and have alternatives at hand as it is very frustrating to be waiting in line behind people who take an inordinate amount of time trying to make up their minds what to do. One last note, it really doesn't matter what Ranger Station you go to as the entire system is obviously tied together.
CONDITIONING You can maximize your fun on this trail by doing some prework on your conditioning. I have seen people really suffering and heard comments about how much tougher it was than anticipated. Here's a few pointers to help maximize your fun factor:
• walk hills if you can, in the footwear you will be using. There are few flat stretches on this trail and most of the time you will be stepping up or stepping down. Use your downhill braking muscles. Find out if you get blisters in your footwear. Discover if your toes are jamming on the downhills.
• consider using trekking poles; they're not for everyone, but I have found them very useful for negotiating uphill and downhill, creek crossings etc.
• carefully pack: If you are an experienced hiker, then you probably have your system down. However, less experienced hikers tend to over pack and find themselves schlepping over 30 or 40 pounds, each pound exerting its price on your physical and mental well being and energy levels.
• go for some all day hikes or walks beforehand; this will help get you mentally prepared for what lies ahead
TRANSPORTATION This comes up every year, but in reality there is no good way to get to the park from SEATAC in that there are no scheduled shuttles and no bus service that would take you as far as Ashford, right outside the park boundary. You can hire Shuttle Express (last price $254 for a 10 person van), or many people rent a car and just let it sit in the parking lot.
VISIT NWHIKERS NWHikers is an excellent resource for searching out prior trip reports and general hiking information for the local area. Many questions that come up may have already been discussed on this forum.
PANHANDLE GAP Some express concern about this area of the trail as it is usually covered by snow. Conditions vary of course by week and are contingent on the amount of snowpack, which is woefully low as of this writing. I have been over the Gap probably 40-50 times and only once was I stymied, late at night, due to poor boot track and frozen snow. In that instance I wouldn't have transited the area even if I had an ice axe. However, any other time it has not been a problem. This video will give you an idea of conditions over various times and seasons.
UTILIZE THIS SITE If you are reading this you probably know my experience with Mt. Rainier National Park and the Wonderland, but here are a few shortcuts for videos or articles that will be of use.
Wonderland Trail Enhancement Videos: Aerial overview, History and Highlights, Roads and Access, Panhandle Gap Scenes and tours of a few of the walk in campsites.
Wonderland Trail Past Updates and Relevant Posts: Every year I do a preliminary report on Wonderland conditions, usually around Panhandle Gap. These will give you a good sampling over the past few years, usually around the same time of the year in June or July.
Wonderland Trail Complete Series: the fruits of my labors in 2012 where I time lapsed the entire trail (including the alternate route over Spray Park), toured every campsite, and logged every water source. This is a paid product available from Vimeo On Demand.
Wonderland Trail Backcountry Camps: Walk with me through every campsite in panoramic 300 degree video.
Contact Me if you have any further questions concerning the Wonderland.