The Wonderland Loop

The Wonderland Loop

I have wanted to attempt the Wonderland trail at Mount Rainier National Park since 2016 and after a brief discussion with Apryle on September 6th, we decided that September 8th would be a good time for me to give it a try. Even though this may seem very cavalier, at any given time in the year, I generally feel comfortable running a hundred miles on fairly short notice. I suppose it would appear that I rushed into it unprepared, but I believe that I have been preparing everyday for the past 18 years. So on Friday morning I went for a short bicycle ride and trimmed some shrubs near the chicken coop and spent the rest of the day preparing my food for the run. I met up with Troy and he took some drop bags, one for Longmire and one for Mowich Lake. My goal was to start and finish the run at White River Campground and resupply at Longmire and Mowich Lake.

I started the run at 1839 on Friday September 8th under mostly sunny skies with temperatures in the upper 50s. I took off in a clockwise direction and my first major landmark came just a minute into the run, the White River. I caught a stunning view of Mount Rainier in the distance with the thundering White River snaking into the valley. I crossed a small log bridge with silty water tumbling inches beneath me. After clearing the rocky riverbed I reentered the forest and glided along the smooth trails towards Frying Pan Creek. I am quite familiar with this section as it is a Szablewski family tradition to hike to Panhandle Gap each summer. Our favorite section of Mount Rainier is Summerland. 

I began the ascent up to Summerland in the waning light. The setting sun cast a beautiful glow on the yellowing vegetation below and the towering gray cliffs above. I crossed Fryingpan Creek in 1:06 (mile 5.7). I had to turn on my headlamp upon reaching Summerland in order to cross the creeks without getting my feet wet. I passed through the vegetation and onto the moonscape towards Panhandle Gap (highpoint 6620 feet). I took advantage of the alpine cell service and called Apryle to say goodnight before I passed into the darkness of the night and darkness of phone coverage. I was utterly alone as I passed over a rocky landscape towards the pass. The sky was punctuated by vibrant stars, the brightest of which was my headlamp pointed at the pebbles in front of my feet. I passed over the gap in 1:57:28 (8.1 miles; 2800 foot ascent) and descended towards Indian Bar.

As I barreled down the steep slope, I saw lights in the distance from the Indian Bar Campsite at the river below. I heard branches crack and heavy footsteps thundering down the slope followed by two glowing eyes staring back up at me from the ravine… a deer, an elk, or even a bear? I assumed bear, but I suppose I will never know, but just glad that whatever it was, it ran away. The narrow trail emptied out into a sandy riverbed of the Ohanapecosh River (mile 11.2 2:46) and I continued to follow the trail to a small wooden bridge that traversed a steep narrow canyon. The scary drop off and waterfall were not visible below my feet, but I knew they were there. I passed by the cabin possessing the lights I saw in the distance and observed a group of people enjoying a relaxing evening… I was envious for a second, and then I came to my senses.

I began another ascent towards the Cowlitz Divide and here I saw four more sets of glowing eyes, the first set of eyes stared me down as I passed and I continued to look behind to be sure I was not followed. The second set barreled down the hill ahead of me and the third and forth were together and were least intimidating because I assumed they were deer. I reached the junction with the Cowlitz Divide trail (mile 15.7 3:52) and descended into the forest. I filled my hydration flasks at Nickel Creek (mile 17.6 4:17) and made my way to the Stevens Canyon Road. I accidentally ran into a parking lot (mile 18.4 4:28) and then quickly returned to the trail. The trail paralleled Stevens Creek for several miles and gradually ascended a sandy cliff. When I reached a particularly steep portion of the cliff there was virtually no distinguishable trail in the dark. I was concerned that I made a wrong turn, but eventually saw a path ahead. The route was tenuous and the sand was pushing downward beneath my feet, I hoped I didn’t burry the millipede that was also crawling up the sand, but I was too nervous to look back. There was a fairly steep drop off and a very small margin for error, but I managed to squeeze past and onto a more solid trail. 

The route continued uphill and again crossed Stevens Canyon Road en route to Lake Louise (mile 24.9 6:06; 2200 foot ascent). For the next few miles I paralleled Stevens Canyon Road past upland lakes. This was actually an eerie section, because to my right there were shallow black waters and to my left there was a vast empty asphalt path. I felt very alone. However, it was a pleasant flat stretch of trail and quite beautiful as the frost of the vegetation was gleaming in the light of the headlamp. Shortly after passing Reflection Lake around mile 26.5 (6:27) I ran into Troy Haeseler, who came out to pace me for a while. We descended the smooth trail and passed over Paradise River. After following Paradise River, we eventually crossed the wooden bridge of the Nisqually River. Then I continued down to Longmire, which I reached at mile 31.9 in about 7:39. Troy set up a makeshift aid station complete with a chair and I put down some calories. Then to my surprise, Troy said he would continue with me a while. We continued together and ascended the trail up towards Kauts Creek. We passed over the creek and back into the forest and my energy was decreasing quickly.

I began to feel very nauseous and drowsy as we hiked up the switchbacking trail. Shortly after crossing Pyramid Creek, Troy pealed off and I decided to take my first nap. I was only out for a few minutes and hit the trail again to warm up. I passed over Fishers Hornpipe Creek, and then passed Devil’s Dream Campsites and took another quick nap. Not soon after that, I took my third micronap before entering the forest clearing at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. This section of trail passed through open upland meadows and the ambient temperatures plummeted into the mid 40s. There was a veneer of frost that coated the surrounding vegetation. I was on the look out for bear as I passed by marshes and Kiya Lake.

Upon reentering the forest, at mile 40 (11:13) I took another quick nap, number 4 of the trip. My nausea was getting worse and worse, and right on schedule, at about mile 40. Generally at 35 to 60 miles into a run, my digestive system turns on me and I struggle to keep calories down. This has happened at Run Rabbit Run in 2018, Desert Solstice in 2019, Washington PCT in 2020, Teanaway in 2022, and most recently Fat Dog in 2023. On some occasions I can nurse myself back to health, but not without hemorrhaging huge chunks of time. Since I was not concerned with time on the Wonderland, it was a great opportunity to experiment with different strategies. In less than a mile after my fourth nap, I stopped for number 5, and this came right before the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge. 

At first the suspension bridge looked amazing, the sun was just coming up and illuminating the landscape and after the fifth nap, I was feeling quite good. However, looking closer at the suspension bridge, I was fairly intimidated. It made the Carbon River suspension bridge look like a log over a creek. The bridge is a 200 foot cable suspension bridge that sets 165 feet off the deck with the thundering Tahoma Creek below. I slowly but purposefully crossed and was grateful that no wood rungs snapped. Upon reaching the other side I began eating slices of cheese pizza and decided that after choking down 6 gels in the first 30 miles, that I was done with sugary gels for the duration of the run. 

I continued up the ridgeline that paralleled Tahoma Creek and the towering trees became sparser and sparser as I gained elevation. The views of Mount Rainier and the surrounding cliffs were gorgeous; the snowcap of the mountain transitioned to gray brown crags below while the short green firs/spruces punctuated the rocky landscape. I reached the highpoint of 5523 feet and was greeted by a cute little Pika. After saying hello, I began another weaving descent at mile 43.2 (12:47). Unfortunately, with the naps, digestive issues, and subsequent weakness, it took me almost 5 hours to do 12 miles (from Longmire to Emerald Ridge), however, I was happy I did not vomit and was still progressing forward.

I was able to keep a jogging pace as I descended the trail that paralleled the South Puyallup River. I crossed the river (mile 44.9) in 13:16 and then began another 1500 foot ascent up to Saint Andrews Lake which I reached in 14:28 (mile 48). The temperatures rose on the climb with the rising sun, increasing from the upper 50s to the low 70s. Saint Andrews Lake was appeared to be low with mineral deposits lining an extended sandy shore. Two waterfowl squawked and swam to the other end of the lake as I passed. I took in the alpine scenery and reminisced about the last time I was in the southwest portion of Mount Rainier National Park  with Kenny Janosko back in 2018. My legs were felling pretty good as I jogged around a virtually absent Aurora Lake. The minimal tree cover provided some interest to the barren alpine. After a short time in the Klapatchie alpine region, I made a steep switchbacking 3 mile (2200 foot) descent to the North Puyallup River crossing. The descent featured roughly 28 switchbacks and along the twentieth one I sustained my first bee sting. It was a minor annoyance and it finally felt like summer in the mountains after I was greeted by the ill-tempered flying insect.

The North Puyallup River crossing (mile 51.4 15:18) was beautiful, there was sturdy bridge with a tumbling waterfall below. I took some time to enjoy the falls and then downed some more pizza on the more gradual portion of the climb back up out of the valley. As I ascended yet again, I realized that I became most nauseous on the climbs. I dug the poles into the springy soil beneath my feet and tried to leverage all my muscles to drag myself up to the Golden Lakes. I broke the tree line and reached the highpoint in 55.7 (16:50), the temperatures soared into the low 80s and the alpine provided no shade from the intense sunlight. I passed by 17 different lakes and spotted 3 Black Bear (that I know of) and each of them darted away as I approached. The trail varied between rutted single track and wooden planks. I reached the end of the Golden Lakes region and the western fringe of the park in 17:32 (mile 58.6). From there I descended 2000 feet down to South Mowich River and soon there after, the Mowich River (mile 63 in 18:35; meaning the second 32 miles took me about 11 hours compared to 7.5 for the first 31). The Golden Mowich descent featured 24 switchbacks and while I was loosing elevation I was trying to figure out the Wonderland map in my head. For some reason, I thought I would reach Mowich Lake via Spray Park, so with my mind sufficiently blown, I made my way through the never-ending Mowich River valley.

From there I began the climb up to Mowich Lake where Troy cached some more calories. On this climb I finished my pizza and bread, and because I had sworn off gels, I was running low on food. Unfortunately running water was a commodity on this climb and my hydration flasks ran a little dry, making this climb even more challenging. After 2200 feet of climbing, I reached Mowich Lake in 66.8 miles (20:11). At this point I knew that I would be finishing in the dark and after walking back and forth in the campground for a few minutes, I finally located the Wonderland trail and wandered along the banks of the lake. There were hundreds of people which spurred me along to a faster pace to get free of the crowds. I reached Ipsut Pass in 20:35 (mile 68.3) and began the steep descent to the Carbon River. This was probably the most painful portion of the entire run for me, my quads were weak and doing little to cushion the pressure on my knees. It appears that the park workers must have cleared this trail out, because the last time I ran it with Apryle, the vegetation was overtaking the trail. 

I followed Ipsut Creek on the descent and made a crossing over Doe Creek before reaching a trail junction at the base of the slope after a loss of 1500 feet(mile 71.9 21:41). I met a guy also running the Wonderland who informed me that I had about 19 miles to go according to his watch. I was happy it was under 20 miles and made a goal to reach Mystic Lake before nightfall. The Carbon River Valley featured numerous logs in order to cross the sprawling riverbed. I was very glad that the park workers installed all the log bridges, because otherwise the river would have been impassable. After wandering around the river for about 2.5 miles, I began the ascent up and out of the Carbon River Valley. I was treated to views of Mount Rainier and the Carbon River Glacier. Also I saw one of my favorite Washington reptiles, the Northern Alligator Lizard, it was absorbing the sunlight on a small boulder. On the climb, I passed over the Dick Creek reroute at mile 76.6 (23:29). I then followed Moraine Creek as I passed into a narrow upland meadow and temperatures began to quickly drop from the mid 70s to mid 50s. I topped out at a highpoint of 5820 feet (mile 79.6 24:54) after a relentless 3400 foot climb. After a slight descent I reached Mystic Lake at mile 80 (25:08), just as the darkness engulfed the my surroundings. 

I got out the headlamp once again passed by some campers as I descended back into the forest. I had not really been eating much of anything since the Carbon River Valley, but I did not feel low on energy. After just a mile descent, I crossed the West Fork of the White River, a reminder I was nearing my final destination. I passed over Wintrop Creek at mile 82.6 (26:05) and then took my sixth nap (but first in 14 hours) between some willows in the sand on the banks of the creek. Then I quickly crossed Granite Creek right after Wintrop Creek. After the 1400 foot descent to Wintrop Creek, I began my last big ascent to Skyscraper Pass. I was fading in and out on the climb and needed to take one more nap, so at mile 84.1 (27:01) I laid down in the dust on the trail and passed out for 13 minutes. It was so comfortable and I slept so soundly that after awaking from a dream, I forgot where I was. After realizing I was not in my bedroom, I started walking, and then I realized that I was on the Wonderland, and that I was going uphill, not downhill before I fell asleep. I turned around and charged up to Skyscraper Pass. I was surprised being so close to the pass, how large and tall all the trees were on the slope. I topped out at 6570 feet at mile 86.3 (28:07).

I was in familiar territory near the Burrows Mountain loop, which reminded me of what an amazing year at Mount Rainier it has been. I completed the Chinook Pass Loop with Rob Irr, the Summerland Sliver Falls Traverse with Apryle, the Spray Park Ipsut Pass loop with Apryle, the Burroughs Mountain Loop with Apryle and Dad, the Little Ranger Noble Nob Loop with Apryle, the Norse Peak Loop with Apryle, and countless other Rainier area adventures with Apryle and Dad. As I descended in the alpine towards Sunrise Campground, my headlamp died and I was forced to switch to my cellphone flashlight. 

There were a few headlamps in the distance as I passed through the treeless alpine. I got a text message out to Apryle and Troy to let them know that I was nearing the finish. Shrubs and trees started to emerge as I passed by Shadow Lake and then finally began the descent to White River at mile 90.2 (29:31). The steep trail through the forest seemed to go on forever. I passed by a Black-tailed Deer buck that was seething at my presence, but he did not attempt to spar, realizing I was not much of a threat to his territory. However, lower on the slope I heard some thumping and noticed two eyes disappear into the darkness, perhaps a Mountain Lion? I hope not, but I will never know. After 15 switchbacks and a loss of 1800 feet in 2.1 miles, I reached White River Campground and promptly went the wrong way towards the campsites instead of my car. I had to back track and finally reached the car and stopped the watch in 30:20:40 (0100 on September 10th) with a distance of 92.93. This meant that I did the last 30 miles in about 11.7 hours, meaning I stayed consistently slow for the final 62 miles of the adventure. 

It was calm and empty in the parking lot. I breathed a sigh of relief to be done with my Mount Rainier circumnavigation. I was elated to have accomplished my goal of completing the loop, but could not help but feel a little disappointed with how long it took me to complete the task. However, this was an important moment for me, Troy assisted with a few miles and some crewing early on, but I mostly ran this effort solo and was solely responsible for getting myself back. In all my other hundreds, I had numerous aid stations and pacers, but with this effort, there was little margin for error. I learned some things about my nutrition, my ability to micronap, and most importantly my ability to persevere in the face of a challenge. I am thankful to Troy for sharing some miles and assisting with food resupply and to Apryle for taking care of our birds while I spent a day running around the mountain. 

Distance (Miles): 92.93

Time (HR:MM:SS): 30:20:40

Elevation Gain(Feet): 24,491

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