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Wonderland Trail Prep: Permits!

Almost as much work as actually hiking

The Wonderland Trail has been on my thru-hiking radar for several years: a 93-mile circuit around Mount Rainier, entirely within Mount Rainier National Park. It’s known for being extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily challenging, and extraordinarily popular. I approached it with my PCT-earned appreciation for Washington State’s beauty, plus a vague awareness of how difficult the permit process can be.

I entered the permit lottery for the first time in spring 2020 (right before any and all travel plans started to crumble), filling out a form with several proposed itineraries and date ranges that a ranger would then evaluate and either approve or deny—which felt like a total crapshoot. There are 18 on-trail camps (plus other front-country or slightly-off-trail options), each with anywhere from two to seven individual campsites, two-thirds of which are available for advance reservation (one-third reserved for walk-ups), plus usually one group site. Overnight hikers must have a permit that includes a reserved campsite for every night of their backcountry travel.

So prospective thru-hikers are trying to string together a series of campsites, for a full trip of anywhere from three(!) to fourteen nights, not too close together, not too far apart, that ideally go in a continual progression (in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction) around the entire Wonderland circuit. And we’re all competing against each other for the prime sites (the extra-ridiculously-scenic ones and/or the only options in long stretches of backcountry travel) and prime dates (August, basically) in Washington’s oh-so-short hiking season.

The response I got in 2020 was “We could not get your reservation request to work using any of the alternate start dates, alternate choices (if you submitted them) and/or alternate camps.” Which, after going through the process of trying to find a workable itinerary for this year, NO SHIT. How on earth did anyone ever get an advance reservation under that system? There are a mind-boggling number of possible itineraries, all of which can crumble when any one site isn’t available (I’m looking at you, Summerland and Indian Bar)—and “I’ll take anything, please!” isn’t a valid request for the rangers.

So it was actually a relief that 2021’s permit process put the burden on me as the hiker to figure out workable dates and sites. There was an early access lottery—to be assigned a time slot—during a month-long early access period—to then attempt to book a workable itinerary—with no consecutive nights more than 17.5 miles apart (a restriction imposed by the park to keep itineraries realistic). Andrea and I both entered the lottery; he got a spot about halfway through the early access period; I spent hours hunched over a taped-together grid of printouts attempting to triangulate (deca-angulate?) ten nights, from one of three major trailheads, in either direction, across a three-month window.

(Goose helped.)

It was… intense? Some key sites had so little availability by the time our access window arrived that I was working at the edges of the hiking season, either mid-July (hope the snow has melted and roads are open) or mid-September (less daylight, hope the snow isn’t back yet). And the printouts were of course several hours old by the time I actually accessed the system, so any carefully selected series of sites could have simply evaporated into someone else’s hike.

What I managed to get via frantic clicking and creative problem solving was a ten-night, almost-complete, wiggle-room-built-in trip in the second half of July. Starting/ending at Mowich Lake, with one night off the official trail and one too-long day obscured by an “out of wilderness” bluff—hopefully solvable by walk-up availability at the ranger station when we picked up our permit in person.

Skip ahead to the day before our hike:

Waiting to hear if we’d get our walk-up site requests…

We got to the Carbon River Ranger Station (the closest one to Seattle) on a Friday morning at 7AM, thirty minutes before it opened, and were second in line. I had written out three alternative itineraries: one that solved our too-long day with all nights on the WT; one that solved the too-long day but kept our off-trail site; and one that simply got us a spot in the White River Backpacker Camp, which would mean that we would still have an 18-mile day but would at least officially have a place to sleep each night.

Ranger Norm (straight out of “Twin Peaks” casting) disappeared into the back with our requests and eventually re-emerged with a printed permit matching option two: a coveted site at Indian Bar Camp on the east side of the park to break up the long day and a spot at White River, but no luck avoiding a 1.3-mile off-WT detour to Olallie Creek Camp. Good enough!

Our official eleven-day, ten-night itinerary, starting from Mowich Lake and going counter-clockwise:

South Mowich River
North Puyallup RIver
Devil’s Dream
Paradise River
Olallie Creek
Indian Bar
White River Backpacker
Carbon River
Eagle’s Roost

Permits! Hooray!
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