Running the Wonderland Trail with Aspire Adventure Running

Mt. Rainer is an icon of the Pacific Northwest. A looming 14,410’ mass of rock and ice rising up from the sea in an immense display of majestic beauty. Less obvious is the thin ribbon of trail circling the mountain: the Wonderland. The trail 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. Ninety-three miles long and rising and falling for 21,810’, this trail is easily on the shortlist of the world’s most inspiring footpaths.  

Mt. Rainier National Park and the Wonderland Trail has long been heralded as a backpacking destination and every year hundreds of pack-laden hikers spend close to 2 weeks in orbit around the mountain. This is by far the most popular approach, but increasingly the Wonderland trail has been exercising its own gravitational pull on the ultra running community.

Ryan Ghelfi of Ashland OR, currently holds the record for the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the trail, an 18 hour, 27 minute, and 42 second sprint.  This record amounts to an average pace of just over 12-minute miles for nearly 19 straight hours. This kind of time or for that matter, any single 93-mile push is remarkable and generally reserved for the elite and/or very determined runner.  However, between the extremes of the long slog and the relentless sprint there is the increasingly popular, reasonably accessible, and genuinely adventurous 3-day supported circumnavigation. 

The elevation profile for the Wonderland Trail is a jagged saw blade. A line cut by glaciers advancing and retreating over centuries and carving pattern of deep valleys divided by ridgelines on every aspect of the mountain. Atop each ridge an unobstructed mountain view awaits and in each valley lies a ribbon of river melting out from the icy flanks of the mountain. Between them are old growth forests, meadows of wildflowers, cascading creeks, and lots of switchbacks. 

Here’s what to expect when running the Wonderland trail with Aspire:

Day 1: Longmire to Mowich Lake (34 Miles, Elevation Gain/Loss +9,755/-7,600) 

This section of the Wonderland is the longest and most remote push between campgrounds. We favor attacking this section with fresh legs. It’s a humbling and tone-setting day that consists of 5 significant climbs and long sections of downhill.

Hallmarks of the day are: 

Man running with Mt. Rainier's Tahoma Glacier in the background
Views of the Tahoma Glacier
Mt. Rainier National Park's St. Andrews Lake
Swimming in St. Andrew’s Lake
Crossing the South Mowich River
Crossing the South Mowich River

A fast runner could cover the distance in 8 hours. 12 hours is very common. 14 hours is not unreasonable. The longest we’ve had a runner out there was 17 hours. It’s not a day to push super hard. Find an uphill pace that can be sustained, a downhill flow that won’t result in twisted ankles, and pause for pictures at every high point. 

Camp is at Mowich Lake. 2,300’ up from the South Mowich River, by far this is the remotest front country campground in the park. The Aspire tent, generally a glow in the evening light, is distinct from the small enclave of backpacker tents. A feast is waiting, a hot shower, and a well deserved rest after a long day.  

Day 2: Mowich Lake to White River (26 Miles, Elevation +5,871’ / -5,900’)

Waking up at Mowich Lake, one is immediately aware of their sore legs and the fact that this only one third of the way into the trip. The key is to eat a good breakfast, ignore the soreness, and to start moving. The body is wise and inevitably the aches felt in the first few miles of trail melt into the rhythm of movement and the beauty of the surroundings. 

On the day’s agenda is:

The Carbon River Suspension Bridge
The Carbon River Suspension Bridge
dropping into Mystic Lake Valley
Lunch in the Mystic Lake valley
Skyscraper pass
Skyscraper Pass

Day two, we usually see runner come in between 6-10 hours. This is the short day of the trip. We celebrate in camp with a bonfire, burgers, and a dutch oven crisp. 

Day 3: White River to Longmire, 32 Miles, Elevation +6,800’/ -5,900’

If waking up on day 3 of a Wonderland the thought of with 31 miles still ahead doesn’t make you question your capacity/sanity, you are superhuman. The mere mortals among us can take comfort in the promise of at least hike/hobbling through some pretty spectacular views. This last day is the crux day, and it’s divided into two halves. The first 20 miles connects White River to Box Canyon. Arguably, this is the most scenic section of the entire Wonderland loop.

Summerland
Summerland
Panhandle Gap
Panhandle Gap
Indian Bar
Indian Bar
Cowlitz Divide
Cowlitz divide

At Box Canyon, the Wonderland Trail touches asphalt for the second time in 83 miles. Road access equals aid. Cold drinks, watermelon and replenishing salts accompany the motivational mojo to finish.  

The last 12 miles from Box Canyon back to Longmire are separated by one last climb, a few waterfalls, and more encounters with humans than every other mile of the trail combined. The trail doesn’t lack in beauty, but compared to what’s been accomplished and the relatively few miles remaining, the mission is to finish.

Reflection Lakes
Reflection lakes

The last six miles of trail from Reflection Lakes to Longmire are literally, with a few minor exceptions, all down hill. The trail widens, the downhill grade softens and barring any debilitating pain it’s somehow easy to open up the stride and really run the last few miles to Longmire.

At the finish are there aren’t any rachous crowds or chintzy medallions. The fanfare of finishing are simply the good eats, cold beverages, and friends who’ve been there throughout the entire journey.   

Sign up to run the Wonderland with Aspire in 2020. View dates and learn more here.