Only have a weekend to hike the Wonderland Trail? No problem. Sample the best stretch on this 15.4-mile point-to-point. You’ll get in-your-face views of Mt. Rainier, pass raging waterfalls and wildflower sightings galore—and crest the trail’s highpoint at Panhandle Gap. Drop a car at Box Canyon, then drive to the trailhead at Fryingpan Creek. Hike through old-growth forest on a well-maintained path, and begin a gentle uphill to your first photo op of Fryingpan Creek rushing through a slot and crashing over boulders.
At mile 3.3, cross the footbridge over Fryingpan Creek and emerge from the forest. Climb through narrow meadows bordered by the creek and a granite mound before tackling steep switchbacks that zigzag to Summerland, a rolling meadow ringed by alpine firs and picturesque views. A campsite is located just beyond the outhouse (hang stuff sacks on bear poles). Take time to visit the Summerland Shelter, a rustic, yet majestic, lean-to made of rock and timber.
From Summerland, hike alongside Meany Crest to a flat, snowy expanse located below Panhandle Gap. Past this point, the trail climbs through volcanic rock and tops out on Panhandle Gap, the highpoint of the Wonderland Trail at 6,750 feet. The top of the Gap showcases impressive views to the south across the Tatoosh Range to distant Mt. Adams and, on clear days, Mt. Hood. Keep your eyes peeled for the substantial herd of mountain goats that wander this area below the Gap.
South of Panhandle Gap, the route passes views of the Ohanapecosh Valley, and the multiple long cascading flows of waterfalls that make up the headwaters of the Ohanapecosh River. As you descend the ridgeline above Ohanapecosh Park, listen for the distant whistling of marmots echoing and reverberating off the walls. You may spot more mountain goats grazing in the lush valley or hanging out near the waterfalls and rock ramparts of the park.
The trail continues its descent through huckleberry fields and eventually re-enters stands of alpine firs that line the meadows around Indian Bar at 5,087 feet. Lush meadows crowd the riverbank, and the many braids of the Ohanapecosh River run down the volcanic rock bed, providing a melodic soundtrack.
Further down the trail, the waters rush through a small slot canyon, between pillars of solid rock, to form the Wauhaukaupauken Falls. The footbridge crosses the torrent here, providing safe passage to the other side and to a historic shelter. At dusk, it’s not uncommon to see deer and elk roaming in the meadows.
From Indian Bar, it’s a relatively steep uphill to the top of the rolling Cowlitz Divide, where incredible panoramas extend in every direction. (Be on the lookout for black bears and roaming elk herds.) The trail crests a 5,030-foot summit at mile 9.7 before curving south. At mile 12.9, turn right (west) and descend switchbacks to Nickel Creek and Box Canyon. At the parking lot, drop your packs off at the shuttle car and visit Box Canyon, a deep slot in solid granite where the Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River rushes through.
PRINT & GO: To download a PDF of this route, go to backpacker.com/printandgo.
-Mapped by David Tate
TO TRAILHEAD: From Seattle, drive south on I-5; merge onto I-405 N. In 2.2 miles, merge onto WA 167 S. In 20.1 miles, exit onto WA 512 W. In 3.5 miles, take the Eatonville exit; turn left onto WA 161 S. Go 26 miles; bear left onto WA 7 S/Mountain Hwy. E. Go 10.1 miles to Elbe; continue straight on SR 706/Paradise-Longmire Rd. In 29 miles, turn right on Stevens Canyon Rd. Go 8.6 miles, then park shuttle car in lot on the right. Continue 10.4 miles; turn left at WA 123 N (seasonal closures). In 10.9 miles, turn left on WA 410 W. In 3.5 miles, turn left at Sunrise Park Rd. Go 4.3 miles to parking pull-out on right.
MAPS USGS quads: White River Park, Chinook Pass, Mt. Rainer East ($8, store.usgs.gov); Trails Illustrated Mount Rainier National Park ($12, natgeomaps.com); or create a custom topo map of this route at backpacker.com.
GUIDEBOOK Discovering the Wonders of Wonderland Trail: Encircling Mount Rainier, by Bette Filley ($15, rei.com)
CONTACT AND PERMITS Mt. Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211; nps.gov/mora. A wilderness permit is required for all overnight camping in the backcountry. Go to nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping-and-hiking.htm for info.
ROAD CONDITIONS Go to nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/road-status.htm, or call (360) 569-2211, then press 1.
Multiday Gear List
jacket and pants
Fleece and down jackets
Synthetic T-shirt (2)
Hat and gloves
Wool/synthetic socks (3)
32 oz. water bottle (2)
Headlamp and batteries
Down bag (15° to 40°F) and sleeping pad
Compass, map, GPS unit
Gas stove and fuel bottles
Lighter and matches
Cookset, bowl, insulated mug, eating utensils
Toilet paper and trowel
611 S. Meridian Ave.
203 Center St. E
54109 Mountain Hwy. E
30027 SR 706 E
BARNEY’S CORNER MINI MART
40512 Meridian Ave. E