I make no claims of hiking the Wonderland Trail more than anyone else, but surely I must be close. From my first hike in 1987 to my latest finisher, the Wonderland for me is a chronicle of my ventures into backpacking and the evolution of gear and experience. I’ve missed some years, and other years I’ve transited the Wonderland multiple times…witness 2012, where I hiked it 2.5 times to time lapse every foot of the trail. My last full transit was in 2015, where I enjoyed pristine weather over 3 days. This year I had a mind to hike the trail in under 48 hours, but was thwarted by increasing fatigue. However, altogether 2018 proved to be one of the most memorable hikes I’ve had over the past 35 years.
Starting at Longmire on September 4th, I embarked on a fastpack attempt to cover the 93 miles in under 48 hours. I had spent some time in the park to this point as I was working on hiking every trail I had yet to set foot on, so felt relatively prepared. My plan was to hike clockwise from Longmire to cover the hardest section first so I could “cruise” the last 30 miles or so. Although I made good time with the numerous ups and downs, I slowed so much on the final climbs approaching Sunrise that I determined that I shouldn’t continue on. To that point I had hiked 57 miles and climbed 16,000 feet, taking a 3 hour nap in the process. However, I determined that there would be no “cruise” of the final 36 miles and 6,000 feet of climb so arranged (via InReach) for my buddy to pick me up at Sunrise. At that time I figured that would be that, as vacations and work would preclude me finishing the trail with decreasing weather windows. But then…..
The Pacific Northwest enjoyed unseasonably good weather for over a week, and I was home for the end of it, October 21-22. Spur of the moment I decided to finish the trail by self supporting via bike, where I would bike from Longmire to Box Canyon and hike back on day 1, then reposition to Box Canyon on day 2, bike to Fryingpan Creek trail head and hike back. I had already been on the sections between Fryingpan Creek and Sunrise during the summer whilst engaged in other hikes. So on a beautiful Sunday morning I drove to Longmire and started biking at 8:25 AM, covering 18 miles and climbing 2224 feet to stash my bike in the forest at Box Canyon. Once again I called on my vintage Gary Fisher mountain bike vice my newer and considerably more expensive wheels as I was leaving the steed in the trees for essentially two days.
In the past I've described this section of the Wonderland as the least enjoyable, with overgrown brush and road noise from across the canyon. Today was a different day, and I immersed myself in my lonely surroundings. It's not often I'm hiking in this kind of weather but being surrounded by the last gasps of the flora as winter approaches. Peak color was gone, and the golden under story I had enjoyed just a few weeks prior had essentially vanished. However, the last gasp of the forest was intriguing in its own right and was a subtle reminder of the life cycles that affect every living organism. So instead of enduring this part of the trail like I had so many times before, I found myself reveling in this walk in the woods, completely immersed. This is a special feeling...perhaps the core of why I enjoy being outside. Before I knew it I was at Longmire with plenty of time to clean up, eat dinner and still be sound asleep in my truck before 8 PM. I slept until 6 AM...does it get much better? Hiking stats: 14 miles/2646’ elevation. Day totals: 32 miles/4870’ elev.
After sleeping for 10 hours, I drove to Box Canyon and retrieved my bike. Today would be a longer endeavor, so I was glad to start an hour earlier at 7:25 AM. Aside from feeling a bit tired on the long climb to Cayuse Pass, I was satisfied with the enjoyable bike ride, including the 1,000 foot fast descent to the White River entrance to the park. 30 miles and 3,700’ elevation climb later I deposited my bike in the woods and took to ambulation. I had approximately 17 miles of hiking ahead and my start at noon at first had me concerned about schedule, but then I realized I had no schedule….if I could make the Cowlitz Divide before dark then I could enjoy most of the view portion of the day in daylight. With a single layer on top I sometimes felt like I was hiking in the summer, so mild were the conditions. It was only the low angled light and sometimes frozen sections of trail that reminded me of the lateness of the season. Although I passed a few returning day hikers on the ascent, when I arrived at Summerland it was deserted. Sans marmots and flowers, the still bubbling creek, brown meadows and complete solitude made for a rare experience in such a popular and accessible alpine destination. I lounged on a rock for a snack break, soaking in the stillness. Then I was off for the moonscape leading to Panhandle Gap, the highest spot on the Wonderland Trail at 6,800 feet. Aside from meeting two returning day hikers below the Gap, the rest of this day would be in solitude. There were a few icy sections leading to the Gap that necessitated careful footwork, but after that the transit to Indian Bar was delightful in afternoon sun casting shadows on “rock gardens” while the meadows of Banshee glowed pink as the day wore on. Indian Bar was also deserted, reminding me that I had the Wonderland Trail to myself this late in the season. I transited point 5920 on the Cowlitz Divide as it was awash in alpenglow, watching the sun set behind me while the almost full moon rose to my left. Eventually I had to turn on my headlamp before 7 PM but only spent about 2 hours in the dark, descending through old growth forest with light from the moon spotlighting singular patches through the canopy tangle. So engrossed with my surroundings was I that I was surprised to emerge at Box Canyon and my waiting vehicle, almost sorry the day had ended. The hike portion of this day entailed 17.5 miles with 4,800 feet of elevation. Total Stats for the day: 47.5 miles/8,500’ elev.
I almost skipped finishing the trail this year with the thought that, “Yeah, been there done that.” But once again I was reminded that no matter how many times I visit this old friend, new delights will surely come my way. By self supporting these loops, I also got to enjoy these two modes of travel, reveling in 35 MPH descents and trotting through old growth forest and the moonscape of Panhandle Gap. These last two days involved traveling 79 miles with 13,400’ of elevation gain/loss, all for covering the last 30 miles of trail and 6,000 feet. I wouldn’t change a thing, so now I’m looking forward to #32.