Journal Entry: July 31, 2016 – Getting the Wilderness Permit
The early morning air is crisp. Mountain weather. Even on the last day of July, it can be a little chilly. I’m wearing a fleece pullover and a gray/green wool knit hat my sister made me for Christmas. I’m not particularly fond of the colors and style of this hat but it keeps my head warm. The soft woolly hat seems to blend right in with the dense gray fog that hides Mountain Rainier and the stands of old-growth fir that surround the Wilderness Information Center at Longmire.
I arrive a half-hour before the center opens at 7:30am and I am ninth in line. The first person to arrive got here at 5am. I’m a little surprised that there so many people waiting in line already. All these people add to my anxiety and nervousness. We are all here for the same reason: to obtain a wilderness permit to thru-hike the infamous Wonderland Trail (WT). It’s possible though that I may not end up with a permit.
Backpacking the Wonderland Trail has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. There were many summers where I had the time to accomplish such a trek but didn’t have a hiking partner that wanted to come along for the 93-mile journey; solo trips just don’t quite appeal to me.
This summer however, was going to be different. Once again found myself dreaming of the Wonderland Trail and most importantly, I had the time to hike it (approximate number days to hike the WT is 9-13 days, though the record is only 36 hours). Since the trail has grown in popularity over the years, the WT seemed like the best place to try out a multi-day solo backpacking excursion. I just needed to physic myself up for it. However, as fate would have it, I would find myself with a hiking partner just a few weeks before my initial departure date of mid-July.
One day, while scrolling through my Facebook feed, I saw an article a friend of mine had written about her experience backpacking the WT the summer before. I reached out to her to pick her brain about the trip. Through our conversations, I learned that not only did she want to do the Wonderland Trail again, but that she potentially also had the time (although she couldn’t start until August). I could easily wait a couple more weeks and so, I invited her to join me; of course she said yes! Suddenly, I found myself with a backpacking partner and becoming even more excited for the trip. This journey was becoming more than just another outdoor adventure; it was also about reconnecting with a friend that I hadn’t seen in almost eight years.
I am filled with nervousness and excitement as I wait in line at the wilderness station. All the dreaming, planning, and food dehydrating has come down to this moment. Plans have been hatched. Four possible itineraries thought out. Since the WT is a loop, we can start at a variety of different trailheads. We can backpack it going clockwise or counterclockwise. Even though there are 18 different campgrounds to choose from over the course of the trail there is only room for x number of backpackers/groups and they are all vying for roughly the same sites. There is no guarantee we will get one of our itineraries or even a permit.
Before the station opened, a ranger hands out a list of all the campsites that are full for the next few of nights. Shit! Everyone one of our plans are now washed down the Nisqually River with the glacier sediment. I was not expecting this. My hiking partner, Stephanie, is back in Olympia getting ready, therefore I am left to come up with a new plan on the spot. That new plan however could be thwarted by any one of the eight people in front of me. By the sounds of their grumbles and shits I am not the only one in this predicament.
By the time it was my turn at the counter, I still hadn’t come up with a good plan. Thankfully, the talented ranger issuing my permit helped me work it all out and within no time I had the permit in my hands. It felt so good to be holding on to that white crisp paper!
On the way home however, that joy I was feeling started to turn into apprehension. Our first day was going to be a 14 miler (from Box Canyon to Cougar Rock Campground). It had been a year since my last backpacking trip and I really hadn’t done any training. The plan was to get in shape while on the trail like I always did. While I didn’t consider myself to be out of shape per se, I certainly wasn’t in a 14 mile, carrying a 45 pound pack kind of shape. Stephanie was in the same boat. We wanted our first couple days to be short milage days so we could ease into it, but that didn’t quite work out.
Back home in Graham, the thought of our first day was still gnawing at me. I wonder if something couldn’t be done about it? After looking at the map for a remedy, I started to notice some alternatives that I hadn’t thought of before. Since I had to make a trip into Tacoma anyways, I thought why not just head back to the park and see if I couldn’t make some changes.
Instead of driving all the way back to Longmire, I opted to go to the Carbon River Ranger Station, just beyond the town of Wilkinson. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t go there to began with since it is closer to my parents home anyways.
I relayed my trepidations to the ranger at Carbon River. He told me that it had taken him and the last guy almost two hours to figure out a plan; to work out a new one might take as long, but he was willing to try. The trail and the campsites had filled up rather quickly by mid-day. After glancing at my current itinerary, he suggested a better alternative then changing everything around. We could cut the milage on the first day by more than half by starting at Paradise which is not on the WT and then hike a connecting trail to meet up with it near Narada Falls. Additionally, if we tacked on another day at the end of our trip it we would have a shorter last day. I was sold. My anxiety for a first day 14 miler vanished. For the second time that day, I walked out of a Mount Rainier ranger station filled with delight for the adventure to come! The next 12 days was going to be a nice little walk in the park…or so I thought!
As it turns out, we still got a pretty damn good permit. Throughout the 12 days, rangers and other backpackers commented and speculated on what I had to do to get such a good one. I met several handsome male rangers along route and would have happily slept with any one of them (if they swung that way) to get the awesome permit we got. However, at the end of the day, it was just luck! Below is a sample of our 97*-mile circumnavigation around the flanks of Mount Rainier.
Start/End – Paradise
Day 1 – Paradise to Cougar Rock Campground
Day 2 – Cougar Rock to Pyramid Creek Camp
Day 3 – Pyramid Creek to South Puyallup River Camp
Day 4 – So. Puyallup River to Klapatche Park Camp
Day 5 – Klapatche Park to Golden Lakes Camp
Day 6 – Gold Lakes to Eagle’s Roost Camp
Day 7 – Eagle’s Roost to Mystic Lake Camp
Day 8 – Mystic Lake to Sunrise Walk-In Camp
Day 9 – Sunrise to Summerland
Day 10 – Summerland to Indian Bar
Day 11 – Indian Bar to Maple Creek
Day 12 – Maple Creek to Paradise
* Since we started at Paradise which is not on the WT, we had to add a few extra miles to connect to the 93 mile loop, making our total distance 97 miles.