A Solo and Speedy Thru-Hike of the Wonderland Trail

The Wonderland Trail is a 93 mile loop around one of the lower 48’s largest active volcanoes, Mt. Rainier.

22,000 feet of glute force climbing, and 22,000 feet of quad screaming loss. Most people go clockwise because the ascents are more gradual, but I ended up going counter-clockwise because I’m a bigger fan of more gradual descents. I really don’t think it makes a big difference, it’s brutally steep in both directions. I’m also certain that if I chose to go in the other direction, it would still make me question my idea of a summer vacation.

Suggested hiking time is 10-14 days (7-10 miles/day). I chose to hike it in 4.5 days. Sounded like a good time. I hiked it alone, although I talked to just about everyone I passed. If you want to read more about why I sometimes like to hike alone, I wrote a blog post on it last summer.

Let it be known that people have run this trail in under 20 hours, which completely blows my mind. I wanted to go fast, but I also wanted the whole backcountry experience, so I thought 4 nights and 5 days would be the perfect reintroduction to backpacking, a sport I have not engaged in since 2016 when I thru hiked the PCT for 5 months.

First, the permit process. You need a permit to hike this trail and there’s a lottery for it in March. In talking to most the other hikers, this permit is quite difficult to obtain. Only 200-250 people hike this trail every year, and it’s only gaining in popularity. My advice is that if the Wonderland Trail is on your radar, start applying next spring, as it may take a few years to score a permit.

Since I am not much of a planner, I decided to test my luck with a walk-up permit (they hold 30% of permits for walk-ups). I read blogs and visited the National Parks website to get tips on how to be successful in this pursuit, and behold, score! It’s a really funny thing, taking a week off, driving 9 hours to a park, packing up all your food and gear, but not knowing until the morning of if you’ll be granted access to the trail. It felt like the first day of school as I stood in line at the Ranger Station; just waiting to see where my assigned seat was, only this time my seat wasn’t guaranteed and the teacher had every right to tell me I wasn’t in their class and to go home. But alas, it was 7am and I was second in line, (slept in my car the night before, don’t think this is allowed) had my itinerary ready, and was ready to be flexible with my mileage (well, I guess I was only willing to go faster, not so flexible on decreasing my daily mileage). I knew 5 days to complete the trail was a tall order, but when I told the Ranger he didn’t even flinch and made it happen. We had to add a few extra miles to a couple of days to get me to an available campsite, but we made it happen. He never once looked at me like I couldn’t do it, and that confidence lasted with me through the whole hike. He knew the trail like the back of his hand, and made it sound low-key and totally doable in my time-frame, which made me feel really good in my ability to complete the trail and not die. Thank you, Ranger Grady! You really gave me a great first impression of the trail and diminished any doubts I had about it. I wrote you a letter of thanks that I plan to mail out this week.

Background: I didn’t train for this hike, and I don’t recommend that if you can avoid it. I was injured the entire month leading up to the Wonderland Trail, and even when I took my first steps I was really uncertain if my injury (sciatica, yikes!) would flare up and send me right back to the car. That was a pretty heavy uncertainty that lasted all 5 days, but it kept me really present and constantly checking in with my body, a silver lining. It even had me doing morning and nightly mobility exercises, midday cold river soaks, and periodic standing pigeon poses. All really helpful and all brand new to someone who’s hiking style can be summed up as “likes to hike all day with no breaks.”

I relied on muscle memory. In the past few years I’ve done a lot of long distance hiking and running, and so my confidence was supported by all of those experiences. I guess you can say I HAD been training for this hike, in one way or another, for years. And it worked. Sure, I was more sore than I would of been if I’d been able to physically train, but my mental game was strong, and the second my loaded pack was on my body, my legs immediately fired up in their 3 mile/hour thru-hiker pace, no matter the incline. There’s just no stoppin’ them. It’s kind of insane how it all plays out. Also, it has to be noted that sure, I wasn’t able to hike or run the month prior, but I do live a very active lifestyle and throw in a lot of small things throughout the day to add strength (planks, push-ups, air squats, pull-ups) and they really do add up. It’s the small things sprinkled throughout your week that can ultimately make the biggest difference in your health.

So let’s get to it. The Wonderland Trail has been on my mind since 2016, when my friend Dreamer told me about it. The seed was planted and it full-on blossomed at the beginning of this year. It became my summer goal, the main event. I started telling people about it whenever they asked what adventures I had planned, and once I started verbalizing it, it really started to become real. I began to follow the #wonderlandtrail on Instagram, went on Mt. Rainier’s website, and cleared my schedule the last week of July and hoped for good weather. Thru-hiking vacation in July, beach vacation in August, let’s do this.

I hadn’t backpacked in 3 years, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. In fact, I’m kind of always scared, I think that’s what keeps everything so exciting. Other than the obvious unpredictable factors of weather, wildlife, terrain, permit, body, and other people, I was honestly scared I wouldn’t like backpacking anymore. That was my #1 fear. What if I didn’t like this former activity that been my whole life? That has further shaped me into who I am today? Backpacking had been my outlet, one of the only things that has ever lit me up so much, connected me so strongly, and made me feel so alive. Boy, I would of been nothing short of heartbroken if I got on the trail and just hated it. And since anything’s possible, I couldn’t help but think about the possibility. Those doubts and fears crept in the night before, completely blocked any ability to fall asleep, and left me insanely tired the first few hours of my drive the next day. But I got in the car anyway, and followed through. I owed it to myself to at least try, and when we give ourselves that opportunity, it will always work out in our best interest. I drove and I drove, and as I got closer I began to visualize myself on the trail again, having fun, cranking out the miles, sweating, smiling, chatting it up, and eventually finishing the loop. My mind was back, and I was so excited to get to Mt. Rainier.

Day 1: White River to Ipsut. 22.5 Miles. 3700′ Gain. 9 Hours

{ Notable People Met: A theatrical couple from NYC who have been in Mamma Mia the last few years! Being a big fan of musicals, you bet I had the playlist in my head for the remaining 8 hours, it was both a blessing and a curse.}

Day 1 Journal Excerpt: “I don’t know the elevation gain or mileage. I don’t have a map. I never know what is coming next or how long the ascent is going to last. All I know are the elevations of the campgrounds I’m sleeping at. I wish I knew, but I don’t, so here we are.”

The following morning a very nice hiker named Liz gave me her map, so now I have all the stats.

I received my permit around 8AM, adjusted some gear (I totally took out my rain jacket, something you DON’T DO when backpacking in Washington), and hit the trail around 9:30. My pack was pretty light, don’t ask me how many pounds, I have no idea. I also barely know the brand names of my gear. I kind of just wing it and make it work. I’m an expert at rationing and stay calm when I’m low on necessities, and I like the added challenge it brings to the hike. The goal: bring as little as possible, but enough to remain comfortable and confident in the hike. Again, I have a lot of experience, don’t try this on your first backpacking trip!

Being a Holistic Nutrition Coach you’d think I have my food dialed in. Nope. Since this trip was so uncertain due to injury and the permit process, I just grabbed the ole faithfuls and made sure I had 4 dinners. I don’t cook breakfast or lunch, so I only needed to confirm I had 4 dinners. I have a higher calorie bar for breakfast after a couple miles, snack on some trail mix, an almond butter packet and an larabar during the day, and then cook dinner. Once I’m off trail and in town I’ll eat more to alleviate the deficit, but I will say, I really didn’t have much of an appetite out there. It was sort of weird. The caloric burn was insane with all the climbing, but I was so distracted by the landscape and being so overwhelmed with gratitude for a strong body and sound mind to even be out there, that I just stuck to my usual ways of eating and wasn’t bothered by any growling or cravings. Zero cravings, actually. That was pretty sweet. I DO help clients dial in their adventure foods though. And I encourage eating as many whole foods as you realistically can, and discourage the use of NSAIDs like advil and Ibuprofen. The blood sugar swinging and nutrient-void diet of snicker bars, low quality peanut butter, and ramen noodles is something that I’d love to see be improved amongst backpackers. By eating mostly whole foods, you’re keeping your body crankin’ and your mind sharp. More opportunity for mental stability, motivation, and enthusiasm. Less opportunity for doubt, anxiety, and injury. But for me, I like it to be more ‘lax because I spend every other day thinking about food and I really like to just have it be a stress-free experience. A lot of the freedom in backpacking is having lightweight and inexpensive comfort-foods at the end of a long day, and so that’s my approach for most of my backpacking trips.

With that being said, I have an “adventure box” that I throw food into all year. When my favorites are on sale I stock up and throw them in. So I just took some stuff from there, made a trip to the bulk section at the market, and was on my way.

The first day on trail I was blessed with a sharp blue sky, and the clearest view of Rainier that I have ever seen. People hike the entire trail and never once see this humongous mountain right in front of them because the weather is so socked in. I felt immensely grateful to have seen it right off the bat.

I climbed right out of the parking lot for over 2 hours. My breathing was labored, inflammation super obvious. I wasn’t in great shape, so I knew the first day would be telling. My sciatica hurt during the climb as well, shuttling in doubts left and right. I kept reminding myself that it would be okay, that I’ll zap this inflammation and my body will respond much better after this initial climb (it did) and that all I have to do is make it to camp tonight, and if my injury flares up than I will decide what to do in the morning. But for now, everything is manageable, so come hell or high water, I am getting in a full day of hiking, and at least one night of stress-free backcountry camping before I devise a plan out of here. Linear goals. Just.make.it.to.camp. It worked.

At camp I was really proud of my efforts, I fired on all cylinders – my legs were movin’ and groovin,’ pack felt comfortable, and I kept my doubts in check. Washed up by the river, made some dinner (boiled water), and left my rain fly off so I could gaze at the stars until my eyelids couldn’t take it anymore.

Day 2: Ipsut to Golden Lakes. 16 Miles. 5,600′ gain. 8 Hours

{ Notable People Met: Liz from DC who gave me her map, and a Father/Son duo in which the son (in college) admitted he hated this shit and would much rather be in Bermuda. The Father was adorable and as he left he said “Julie, thank you for sharing this rock with me.” Warmed my heart. I also laughed at the college kid for his humour and honesty for a good portion of the following climb. }

My lightest day! Got to swim in two beautiful lakes. I woke up feeling pretty good at 6:45, but since I had a short day ahead of me, I tried to fall back asleep. I really didn’t need to start hiking until 9am. I washed up by the river and snuggled back in my sleeping bag to read some more.

I left camp and the trail immediately climbed up to Ipsut pass, a 3,000’+ gain in about 3.5 miles. Steep. Tough. Solid start to Monday. As I approached the top I got cheered in by my camp neighbors who had these adorable little backcountry chairs. There wasn’t much of a view at the top, or room to hang out, which made this scene really great. I threw out a couple fist pumps and joined in with some self-chanting of my own. I stayed and hung out with them for about 30 minutes because I really enjoyed the conversation, and this is also where Liz gave me a map because “oh that’s just not right, take my map are you kidding me?”

The toughest part about today was not seeing Rainier. I was in the forest and really enjoyed the quiet and peace of it, but all day? It always wears on me toward the end. I focused on the mushrooms, streams, birds, but I missed the mountain. One could say I resonate most with rocks, so it was a mentally challenging day without any.

Physically, my feet hurt towards the end, and my calves were so tight they were screaming crazy things on the long descents. There were two major climbs today, but besides those two physical complaints, my sciatica didn’t bother me at all, which was incredibly encouraging.

I got to camp at 5:00 which for me, induces a level of anxiety. I struggle with getting to camp before 7:00, I feel like there’s more miles I could get in, more progress to be made towards my goal. I took as many breaks as possible and still got to camp at 5, so I had to deal with it. I viewed it as a different sort of challenge, one that I need the most in my life, the challenge of slowing down.

I went skinny dipping. There were a group of teachers already at camp hanging by the lake, so I hiked over to the other side to go for a swim. Once I dried off and got dressed one of the ladies came over because she said it looked like a good swimming hole. It was, the water was clearer where I was. She told me they were all teachers and love to do this trail together every summer if they can get a permit. Most of them are strong hikers, but since they have the time, they slow down and enjoy the trail for a few extra days. I nodded, spoke about my challenges with slowing down, and thus further giving the topic its time in the spotlight. Necessary, I suppose.

The mosquitoes were out but I refused to eat dinner in my tent. So I opened up my little container of peppermint oil and tricked myself into thinking that would do anything at all. I did some mobility exercises, cooked up some Knorr garlic shells, looked at my new map, journaled, and had my first bear hang experience. I did it! I got to camp at 5:00 and didn’t go absolutely crazy! Thank goodness for camp chores, they’ll keep ya a productive busy.

Day 3: Golden Lakes to Pyramid Creek. 19 Miles. 5300′ Gain. 10 Hours?

{ Notable People Met: A San Francisco couple in their later 70’s on the “14-day Plan.” In the midst of our conversation they suddenly said “well anyways, we’re here to tell you that you’ll be fine.”

Also of note, the 3 women I camped near who asked me “okay now this is a really, really awful question, but I have to ask it. I just find you so fascinating so I’m sorry but I need to ask this terrible, terrible question…“where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I laughed and answered honestly? I think? I rarely think about the future, so it was kind of fun to see what came out of my mouth. }

Right off the bat I had a 5 mile descent, which my knees were crying about. Never in my life have my knees hurt (I’m grateful for this every day), but these steep descents really stressed them out. I saw 3 older gentlemen with southern accents and a totally hilarious frustration with the trail. I enjoyed talking with them, it confirmed how difficult this trail really was.

I was really excited to see and swim in St. Andrew Lake. I’ve heard good chatter about it the last 2 days. The climb to get there was relentless though, but I enjoyed it well enough. I really like climbing, it’s just when it seems infinite that I can get a little unreasonable about it. I mean, when I start questioning who made the trail (extremely hard-working humans a longggg time ago) that’s when I know I need a snack break. Because really Julie?

I had a great swim in St. Andrew lake, but once I got out the mosquitoes ATTACKED and didn’t stop for the next 2 hours. I couldn’t hike fast enough, I was in their zone and fighting tirelessly to keep my sanity. Little did I know this wouldn’t even be the worst of it. I was hungry, so I stopped to have a can of sardines. I’m pretty sure this contributed to my nausea later on. Day 3 was kinda rough in spots.

St. Andrew Lake

Journal Excerpt: “I felt sick today. Around 12:30 my sciatica was hurtin’ and getting worse and worse and then I felt nauseous. From the Pain? Stress? Worry? Sardines? Heat? Dehydration? A combo. Always a combo. I burped up some questionable sardines and did the standing pigeon pose and started to feel better by 3:00, miraculously. My mind was on fire, I tried to relax it, but it was tough. I couldn’t help but think I might have to call it quits”

My mind remained on the trail. My goal was to finish the trail, so I was constantly thinking up ways in which I could make that happen. It was a big relief actually, to only think about the trail. Very therapeutic.

It was a good effort. Kinda backfired

There were 3 climbs today that really did me in. Late afternoon I saw a couple with a 4-night itinerary as well! Their energy really invigorated me, and also contributed to me feeling better. They were so enthusiastic and excited about it all, it was their first day. I soaked up that energy and marched on in the other direction. I like to give out a lot of enthusiastic energy whenever I meet other hikers, but the highlight of this trail has been receiving energy from others, and allowing it to enhance my own hike.

I got to camp, met some lovely people, picked some huckleberries, thimbleberries, and blueberries which only meant one thing: Oatmeal night! Breakfast for dinner!

1 of 2 really suspenseful suspension brides

Day 4: Pyramid Creek to Indian Bar. 23 Miles. 5600′ Gain. 11 Hours

{ Notable People Met: A guy I met on the first day. He was going the other direction and was finishing in just a few miles. He was heartbroken, he really, really, didn’t want his experience to end. }

Journal Excerpt: Holy Hell. I’m wiped. I’m going to start by noting the worst thing to happen to me in awhile. Climbing 3,000′ + while being viciously attacked by mosquitoes. They were just sticking to me. I was moving so fast up the steepest part of the climb, panting, sweating, swatting. It was insanity. Miserable. I kept moving. What else could I do? Stop and put on my bug net? Too reasonable. At the top I took off my pack and just let out a ‘now THAT was Toe Touch.’ It was a bit savage, I hope I never forget it.

good times

Day 4 was my biggest day in both elevation and mileage. I also woke up with a really sore body and really heavy eyelids. I had 3 miles until Longmire, the main hub in the National Park. I didn’t have much time to sit and indulge, but my phone battery was at 1%, so I needed to find a way to charge it. I was told that the wildflowers I was going to hike by today would stop me in my tracks, so I needed to make sure I had the ability to take a few photos of them. Besides, I don’t have a watch, and although I can roughly tell by the sun what time it is, it’s nice having my phone to confirm it.

Mornin! Feel like Hell!

I found a charger at Longmire and charged it over breakfast in the lodge. My hike wasn’t over, so I kept it simple. 2 eggs over easy, an english muffin, and a black coffee. I didn’t take my phone off airplane mode and sign onto their WIFI, I actually wasn’t even tempted. I only had 1.5 days left to be out of cell service, I didn’t want to cheat myself out of one of my favorite parts of the backcountry, being disconnected (no offense friends and fam, I do love you, I do I do.)

I bought some postcards, chatted with a few folks (you’re alone?!?!?), and carried on with my hike. It was this initial climb of the day that I was physically at my best. It felt good, smooth, and I cranked it out. No sciatica pain! I thought about the trail, the climbs coming up, my food, my body, my mind. Took a wrong turn and added some vert and miles to an already epic day, soaked in the river, recalibrated by a lake, and really enjoyed the shit out of it all.

Everyone was right, the wildflowers by Indian Bar blew me away. The whole meadow and ridgeline blew me away. 360 degree views with Rainier and Adams, it was insane. It was also golden hour, which made me really, really happy. My favorite time to hike is between 6-8pm, the colors are just unreal. The beauty of this section cannot be overstated, I was in paradise. In moments of such beauty (the whole trail) it’s hard for me to fathom that I get to do this, that I get to be amongst this. Gratitude washes over me like the shower I haven’t taken in days and leaves me (almost) still. I think about all the people who would kill to be out here but can’t for one reason or another, and it shifts my perspective into this massive state of thanks and appreciation for everything I have. It keeps me living in a way that gives me the best shot at holding onto it all, it keeps me living in a constant state of discomfort, a constant state of growth.

I had the group shelter to myself which was cool, but total nonsense. I pitched my tent outside. It was one of the most epic places I have ever slept. Made some mac n’ cheese (save this love for my biggest day and/or last night) and hunkered in for a predictably cold night in my beloved janky little coffin tent down by the river.

Day 5: Indian Bar – > White River (my car!). 11ish Miles. 3,000′ Gain. 5 Hours

{ Notable People Met: A group of 5 PCT thru-hiking veterans who were out for a reunion hike. It was an easy and fun exchange. My trail name on the PCT was Toe Touch, and when I said that one of the guys faces lit up with excitement and mimicked my actionable introduction. Before we knew it, we were standing on the most beautiful section of the trail, laughing and doing toe touches. For anyone who may have seen us from afar, they may have thought we’d completely lost our minds. }

It was a bittersweet day. I knew I’d finish the trail and complete my goal, but I was sad to leave it all behind. So much uncertainty over and done with in a flash.

I climbed out of camp on maybe the steepest (are you sick of me saying how steep it was yet?) section of the trail. I stopped a few times to catch my breath and let my heavy legs have a second. The views were getting really, really, good too. As I got closer to Panhandle Gap, the highest point on the whole trail (really saved the best for last I guess!) I passed a guy who said (and with such heavy awe) ”you’re about to walk through paradise, seriously.” He didn’t even smile. He was still so captured by what he just experienced, it was powerful.

So I walked over some snowy fields, up more loose rock, over some REALLY enticing clear and cold streams (I filtered all of my water up until this point, but I was CRAVING it straight from the stream, and it really hit the spot. Felt so good.) I got to the top where two guys said ”welcome to the tippy top!” Talked with them for awhile and then descended the 4,000′ on home. It actually got flat for a couple miles towards the end and I found myself almost falling asleep. My body was so used to going up or down that I think it just didn’t know what to do about this flatness that it decided to shut down completely. I don’t blame it. I also only had a ProBar and a Justin’s almond butter packet left, so it also could of used a little more somethin’ somethin’ in the fuel department.

So there I was, 3 miles from my car. Ran out of food, ran out of cell battery, feeling a little wobbly. Success. When I got in my car I felt weird. I had to drive in the opposite direction because I was pretty low on gas. I hated the way I felt during that 30 minute drive. I bought an ooey gooey butter cake and an apple at the gas station and turned around to drive back through the park. Might sound dramatic, but I needed to say goodbye. I stood in the river, gazing at Mt. Rainier one final time, shed a few tears, thanked it immensely, and finally felt content. Light. Got in my car, jammed out, and felt really, really good again. Drove until I got sleepy, got a hotel room, slept zero hours because my bug bites were making my blood boil, and continued my drive back home to Montana the next day.

Transitioning from the backcountry to back home is always a difficult time, despite how fantastic my current circumstance may be. This transition requires a little something different from each person. For me, it’s closure and proper reflection, and then sharing it with my friends and family. I love sharing my experiences out on the trail because again, I know not everyone is able to live this way.

I wrote a postcard to myself from the trail which ended with ”p.s. may you never forget the brutality.” This makes me smile because don’t we always? Isn’t that the first thing we forget? We are essentially programmed to remember the good times first and the bad times somehow never seem so bad in memory. So even though while I was hiking I told myself no way no how am I ever hiking this again, I’m already thinking about next summer. I truly did love my time out there, I was able to reconnect with my core self, something I am only able to do when I strip down my layers, deplete myself in several different ways, and replace it with swift movement in the wild. It comes back to remembering who you were as a kid, before life gave you layers and layers and more layers. Clarity, oh sweet clarity. I return to my home in Montana with a brighter glow, more patience, more energy, more vigor. It’s the most enhancing experience I can provide myself with, and I am so, so, so, grateful to know this and be able to execute it on a moments notice.

Lastly, I wrote my Uncle a postcard while I was on trail. We spent years writing letters back and forth, he was the only person who ever sent me handwritten letters, and I was always so excited to recieve them. In short, he had fallen extremely ill and passed away last week. The night before he died my dad read my postcard to him. Over and over. My Uncle Tom wasn’t responsive, but the nurse said hearing is usually the last thing to go, so there was a good chance he could hear my dad reading my words to him. He loved my adventurous spirit and always shared with me different hikes he’d read about. Writing for me is such a creative outlet that I rediscovered while writing to him over the years. I now bring my journal with me whenever I camp, and keep the pen to paper joy alive, always with him in spirit <3