Wonderland Trail Day 3

Nickel Creek to Paradise River: 9.5 miles — +2254/-1854

We slept past sunrise, both because our low-elevation campsite had lots of beautiful trees filtering out the morning light and because we were wiped out from yesterday’s hike, but I was still the first person awake in camp. The third day began a morning routine that continued for the remainder of our trip: painful aching feet upon waking, requiring a slow hobble to the privy and bear pole. Miraculously, by the end of this short trek each morning my feet felt reasonably sturdy again. We ate hot breakfast and packed up, stopping to fill water bottles at the lovely, serene Nickel Creek.

Morning water fill-up at Nickel Creek.
Pre-hike water fill-up at wonderful Nickel Creek.

We’d both visited the creek the night before to soak our feet and rinse off the trail dust, which was more rejuvenating that I would have thought possible.

Beauty along the southeast portion of the Wonderland.
Morning beauty along the southeast portion of the Wonderland.

Fairly easy hiking toward Box Canyon, a trailhead for day hikers and sometimes used to begin the Wonderland thru-hike. We stopped to stretch our hips and calves, and took advantage of the row of port-a-johns (luxury!) before heading toward Maple Creek campsite, where we took a quick lunch break. Between the swarming mosquitos and most disgusting privy on the trail, we were grateful not to have slept at this camp.

A lot of steady uphill after that, but there were some nice landmarks to serve as goals (i.e., places to reward ourselves with a snack break) and to clearly mark our position on the map. I think this was the day I began making announcements of our presence for the benefit of any bears that might be nearby. I really wanted to see a bear, but I was not keen to surprise one on the trail. So as we hiked I would periodically call out “Attention bears! We are turning this corner now! Just passing through!” We were now approaching the south side of the mountain, where the trail is often more overgrown and produces less spectacular sweeping views, but passes multiple waterfalls.

Sylvia Falls. Wow.
Sylvia Falls. Wow.

We enjoyed an excellent view of Sylvia Falls from the forest before entering an exposed area where the trail winds along the edge of a rocky cliff.

Just before the trail opens up along a cliffside.
Just before the trail opens up along a cliffside.
Heading up the cliffside on loose gravel -- tough going.
Heading up the cliffside on loose gravel — tough going.

Here we encountered what my trail notes breezily described as a “sketchy landslide area”: in truth, a portion of the trail that had been completely obliterated by a rockslide, requiring us to traverse a very unstable pile of small rocks. Cyn was up first, and experienced an instinctual refusal to cross. “Every part of me is refusing to do this! I don’t know if I can make myself do it!” It was only about six feet across, but the rocks shifted dramatically with every tentative movement she made, and dropped steeply away beneath us. Finally I suggested she toss her trekking poles across so she could crouch and use her hands for stability. This worked, so I followed in the same manner, and then we both took several deep breaths on the other side. We groaned when we discovered another short rock crossing a few feet down the trail, but this one seemed intentionally part of the trail and was comparatively quite stable.

Sketchiest portion towards the back; more stable rock crossing in the foreground.
Sketchiest portion towards the back; more stable rock crossing in the foreground.

Onward to the very lovely Martha Falls, which feeds into Unicorn Creek (!). We arrived to find two adults (approximately our age?) and their five young children (perhaps ages 4-12), whom we affectionately dubbed “the feral children” for their fearlessness and ease skipping across fallen logs and chasing each other through the creek. This family had only another day or two left on their thru-hike. I cannot imagine shepherding children along this trail, since I could barely manage my own aches, pains, food/water needs, etc. All seemed in good spirits — pretty impressive. We met several other thru-hikers passing Martha Falls in the opposite direction and warned them about the rock slide coming up. I really enjoyed the solitude that we experienced most of the time on this trip — especially in areas less accessible to day hikers, we saw only perhaps 5-8 people each day on the trail, spread out over 8-9 hours of hiking — but I also quickly came to love our encounters with other thru-hikers, though mostly they consisted of a few brief words of encouragement, acknowledgement of shared effort, and a quick exchange of information about the trail ahead. [I loved these exchanges too, but this is where I realized that I shouldn’t put too much stock in other people’s descriptions of the trail ahead. Here, we met a pair whom we call The Six Day Girls (because they were doing the trail in six days) who said that we were almost at our camp and had just a little uphill to go first. Their assessment of “a little” and my assessment of “a little” are quite different it turns out, which is part of the reason why I will never be a six day girl myself. –Cyn]

Magnificent Martha Falls and Unicorn Creek.
Magnificent Martha Falls and Unicorn Creek.

Up, up, up to Reflection Lakes. We were postponing a snack break until we arrived, but in retrospect we should have just stopped when we felt we needed to. It was very hot, the trail was very dusty, and we were both beginning to walk on what Cyn dubbed “stumps of pain” rather than functioning feet. Finally, we arrived at the main Reflection Lake, the one in all of the postcards.

Mt. Rainier and Reflection Lake.
Mt. Rainier and Reflection Lake. (Too cloudy for proper reflection.)

It is right on a real road, so cars can drive up and park right in front of it, and tourists thronged around, smelling like detergent and taking snapshots. We dumped our stinky packs, took off our sweaty socks, and aired our feet, too tired to care how gross we seemed. Wolfed down some electrolyte drinks and snacks, and took a photo.

At Reflection Lake. You would never know how much our feet hurt from looking at this.
At Reflection Lake. You would never know how much our feet hurt from looking at this.

A family from Belgium, temporarily living in Maryland and taking a massive cross-country road trip for a photography project, stopped to chat. They’d just finished a short backpacking trip in Olympic National Park (“We’ve just had our first shower in five days!”), and were very interested in our experiences on the Wonderland so far. As we packed up to leave, a family from Texas (and their dog, Chloe), piled out of an RV and seemed shocked to learn that we were living out of our backpacks. “But what do you eat?!” Their kids were hoping to touch snow for the first time — sadly, not this year, kids.

Off for our last two miles to camp, with a quick stop at Narada Falls. Then seemingly endless final descent to camp, marked as 0.7 miles; this would not be the last time that we declared the infrequent trailside mileage markers “lying liars.” I believe this was the day we realized that we are in fact fairly unskilled at reading topographic maps. One of our favorite bitter jokes, repeated multiple times a day, usually while suffering a steep ascent or descent, began with “Well, according to the map…”

On the way down, we met a day hiker wearing tie-die who assessed the size of our packs and approvingly pronounced us “ultralighters.” This is not technically true, but I still felt pleased: I did a lot of pre-trip planning to keep our pack weights down. Cyn ended up with about 15lbs base pack weight (i.e., not counting food, water, or fuel), and I had about 18lbs. Our packs did seem considerably smaller than most others we saw on the trail. A few minutes later, I was proud to use my map to help a pair of day hikers locate a waterfall they were seeking. (In two days I would cringe at this moment of pride, having failed to use said map to help my own self.)

At last: Paradise River camp.

Unpacking at Paradise River camp. We had the group site: so much space!
Unpacking at Paradise River camp. We had the group site: so much space!

Tent sites were very close together so we had less privacy here, but the river itself was beautiful and refreshing, perfect for soaking our aching feet. Both of us were dealing with some blisters at this point, though to our great surprise, mine were considerably more manageable than Cyn’s. We made a small effort to rinse out some clothes and then collapsed into bed, nervous about the upcoming Day 5 (the longest and most difficult day on our itinerary) but looking forward to what my trail notes promised would be an easier and shorter hike tomorrow. –Toby


3 thoughts on “Wonderland Trail Day 3

    1. Oh hi it’s so good to connect with you!! I hope it’s clear that that was a totally affectionate designation. We were so impressed with you all and thought your children’s ease in the wilderness was really beautiful. Thanks so much for the link. Really excited to watch this. -cyn

      Liked by 1 person

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