Wonderland Trail Day 1

Sunrise Trailhead to Summerland: 9.7 miles — +2100/-2400 feet

We awoke in our Enumclaw hotel room to a view of Mt. Rainier in the distance. Took our last real showers for the next ten days and headed out to Charlie’s Diner, where we were the youngest patrons by at least 30 years. I tried to savor my last hot, non-freeze dried meal for a while, but I was too anxious to get going. As we packed up to leave, a woman at the next table began playing some old favorites on an accordion, and all the other diners clapped and sang along. The best beginning to our adventure.

We both had tears in our eyes as we drove into the park, partly awed by the landscape around us, partly thrilled that this thing we’d planned and trained for over the past six months was finally happening. Picking up our permit at the White River ranger station seemed perfectly normal. The ranger treated us as if we were seasoned experts and knew exactly what we were getting into. He was wrong, of course, but his attitude was confidence inspiring. Then to the Sunrise trailhead to park the car, take one “before” photo, and start our hike.

The cleanest and most well-rested we would be for the next ten days.
The cleanest and most well-rested we would be for the next ten days.

Beginning the trail didn’t feel quite as momentous as I’d expected — we had a half mile approach trail to the actual Wonderland, and except for the stunning scenery around us, it felt almost like a day hike.

Hitting the trail!
Hitting the trail!

We began the descent to White River in what I considered Disney movie conditions: perfect weather, with about 15 tiny birds flitting around, ushering us through the forest. They were practically stringing ribbons through the air. The trail is a steepish downhill for the first three miles or so, and our packs were full, but our legs and feet were fresh and we were starry-eyed. Stopped for a snack break at the foot of a huge boulder field, already in love with this landscape and delighted to be back in the mountains.

Snack break.
Snack break.

Then lunch at White River campground, and at this point I felt pretty confident. My body felt good, we were hiking at a steady clip, and the trip seemed just as we’d imagined. We even suggested to one another that this might be easier than we’d anticipated, because here in Washington we didn’t have to deal with the intense heat and humidity of Midwestern summers.

View of Mt. Rainier from the northeast side, en route to the White River.
View of Mt. Rainier from the northeast side, en route to the White River.

Then we arrived at the White River itself.

Approaching the White River.
Approaching the White River.

It was huge and rushing, with just a single log bridge to cross it. I saw Cyn taking a video and raised my eyebrows. “Just documenting the first time I felt scared on this trip,” she explained.

We had no problems on the bridge, but there was a second stream of the river to cross, shallower but still swift, with lots of big rocks just under the surface and no bridge. From here, on a patch of sand between the two streams, I could hear the deep knocking sounds of boulders being carried along by the force of the river. It was terrifying and exhilarating; I felt alive and vulnerable. We finally decided to put on our camp shoes and ford the second stream, so cold my feet ached by the time I reached the other side. Some car campers looked on, asking us if it was cold (as if our faces didn’t make that clear) and wisely deciding to stay on the bank.

After fording the White River.
After fording the White River.

It’s amusing to look back on that moment and recall how proud we were — I think maybe I imagined that would be the most intimidating thing we could encounter on the trail. Thrilled with our success, we headed back into the forest, marveling at how well-maintained the trail was, especially compared to the Illinois trails we’ve hiked this summer. It’s true that the Wonderland is very well cared for throughout, but we later realized that it’s at its best when near day-hiking/tourist areas.

On the first day each little brook crossing seemed amazing and important to document.
On the first day each little brook crossing seemed amazing and important to document.

We began a steady uphill climb toward Summerland, always checking the map and trail notes, always thinking we were much further along than we were.

My trail notes said we would cross a
My trail notes said we would cross a “log bridge” just before the switchbacks to Summerland began. They did not distinguish this one from all of the others we’d crossed that day, leading to some confusion about our distance from camp.

Finally we asked a passing day hiker if we were close to camp. “Not really,” she said bluntly, “and you have the switchbacks coming up.” Not the encouraging response we’d hoped for. Up, up, up, big steps cut into the trail, made for hikers much taller than us. On one especially big step, Cyn pushed off with a grunt: “Ooof, Crossfit!” We would repeat this many times on similar steps up almost every day. It was very warm out. You could see that wildflowers had exploded across the meadows just a few weeks before, but had already mostly died off in this unusually hot summer.

Just a bit too late for wildflowers in the meadows near Summerland.
Just a bit too late for wildflowers in the meadows near Summerland.

At last — Summerland campsite. We chose a tent site tucked away in the back with a perfect view of Mt. Rainier.

Perfect first night's campsite. Mt. Rainier hiding behind some clouds.
Perfect first night’s campsite. Mt. Rainier hiding behind some clouds.

A light rain began just as we arrived and we rushed around putting up the tent and doing our camp chores (learning how to hang our food bags on the bear pole was a hilariously difficult and time-consuming endeavor). A ranger came by to check permits and alert us that a skinny bear had been frequenting camp looking for food recently. On our way back from the (fancy composting!) privy, we met two women with huge packs just coming into camp before dusk. They’d gotten caught in the rain on trail and had had a long, tough day. They looked exhausted and very relieved to have arrived. We wondered about them many times over the next nine days, and I thought about their tired faces as I experienced my own exhaustion at certain points on the trail. But that first night at Summerland, I felt triumphant. We high-fived. “Yeah! Day one in the books! We’ve totally got this!” We were so naive then.  –Toby

The spectacular landscape just south of Summerland campsite, shortly before sunset.
The spectacular landscape just south of Summerland campsite, shortly before sunset.

One thought on “Wonderland Trail Day 1

  1. Getting false hope and cockiness from vague trail descriptions: yep, yep, yep. Also, we were pretty happy that our route required a bear canister instead of hanging bags. Ultimately worth the extra couple of pounds, and it made a nice seat in camp. This is great; more, please!

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