If thru-hiking the 93 (or so) miles of Mount Rainier National Park’s famed Wonderland Trail seems too daunting (cumulative elevation gain: 22,000-plus feet) or time-consuming (common itinerary: seven or more days), you might wonder if it’s possible to section-hike the entire trail in a series of day hikes.

“If you are a really eager, high-energy hiker, I think you could see a majority of the trail on day hikes — but we’re talking days with big miles,” said Tami Asars, author of the Mountaineers Books guidebooks “Hiking the Wonderland Trail” and “Day Hiking Mount Rainier” (and its companion app).

“You’ll have to work for it,” she said. “It’s not a gimme.”

The WT is indeed wondrous, a linear, open-air gallery that wows hikers with a wealth of eye-popping natural splendors. But it can be a beast of a trail. 


Often the route precipitously rises and falls over Rainier’s volcanic ridgelines like a manic roller coaster — up 2,000 feet, abruptly down 2,000, then up again. The remote west section between Mowich Lake and Longmire travels 34 miles and confronts hikers with 11,300 feet of lung-busting elevation gain.


How tough can it be? Once, as I descended from 5,600-foot Emerald Ridge, one of the west side’s numerous grand scenes, I crossed paths with a laboring uphill backpacker. He paused his slow-mo ascent as I approached and asked, wearily, “Does it ever stop going up?”

The Wonderland Trail can feel like that. While not every day hike involving the Big Loop is a spirit-draining test of will, some suggestions in this article are better suited for athletic hikers comfortable with double-digit mileages and vigorous pacing.

Pack the 10 essentials and remember that bikes and dogs are not permitted on Rainier’s trails. If you dig the long haul, here are some Wonderland options.

South side

Hike the entire 12.5-mile route between Longmire and Box Canyon (on Stevens Canyon Road) in a single one-way push. Or, as suggested by guidebook author Craig Romano, get dropped off at Reflection Lake and hike one-way downhill in either direction. Hiking west to Longmire (passing Narada Falls) loses 2,100 feet in 5.5 miles. Hiking east to Box Canyon (passing Martha and Sylvia Falls) drops 1,500 feet in 7 miles. All these options require a car shuttle.

The Wonderland’s forested south side offers several waterfalls but few long-distance views. “You rarely see day hikers on the trail between Reflection Lake and Box Canyon,” Romano said. “It’s a quiet section that makes a great choice if you’re there on an overcast or rainy day.”

The trail near Martha Falls is prone to slides, and the bridge over Stevens Creek was out in the early season. Check the trail conditions report at nps.gov for updates.


East side

One of the park’s most popular day hikes is the 11.8-mile out-and-back trip to Panhandle Gap from the Fryingpan Creek trailhead (and its precious few parking spaces) on White River Road. Casual hikers often regard this as a steppingstone hike to test their readiness for more arduous trips.

Hikers gain 2,100 feet during a 4.4-mile ascent to the flower-dotted meadows of Summerland (5,940 feet) — a turnaround spot for some. Those who push on abruptly enter Rainier’s barren alpine netherworld while climbing an additional 1.5 miles to 6,800-foot Panhandle Gap, the Wonderland Trail’s high point. Snow lingers long here; footing is often tricky. Views are glorious.

Beyond lies superb WT waypoints such as the deep-valley splendor of Indian Bar trail camp (5,120 feet) and heart-clutching views along Cowlitz Divide (5,930 feet). Day hikers are rarities here. The nearest road lies 7.5 miles away, way down at Box Canyon on Stevens Canyon Road (3,300 feet).

“That crest of the Cowlitz Divide is my favorite part of the trail,” Asars said. “It has flowers everywhere and there are insane views in all directions. It’s beautiful.”

The WT travels 16.5 miles between Box Canyon and Fryingpan Creek, with a cumulative gain of roughly 4,500 feet for northbound hikers, including a fiercely steep 2-mile climb (1,700 feet) from Indian Bar to Panhandle Gap. To do it in a demanding one-way push requires a partner and two vehicles for a car shuttle.

“It is excruciatingly hard,” Asars stressed. “It’s important for people to know that. It has a lot of really hard, steep sections. You’ll say, ‘What were they thinking when they built that?’ Start early, take lots of breaks, and you can do it. It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re getting into.”


North side

Nearly as popular as the Summerland-Panhandle Gap hike is the out-and-back trip out of Sunrise to Skyscraper Pass (6,735 feet), the Wonderland Trail’s second-highest point. 

If, as you should, you include a side trip to the top of nearby 7,079-foot Skyscraper Mountain (a half-mile jaunt on an unofficial but obvious path), it’s an 8-mile, almost treeless walk from Sunrise, with nearly 1,800 feet of cumulative elevation gain. Attainable for most hikers.

From the pass, the horizon-filling view of Rainier’s north face seems like payoff enough. Yet the scene actually improves atop Skyscraper Mountain, offering a 360-degree view that overlooks the uncommonly flat expanse of Grand Park to the north, a rare sight amid Rainier’s volcanic topography. Worth the extra effort if you don’t mind the height.

Farther west, beyond the rocky/watery melt zone of the Winthrop Glacier and pretty Mystic Lake, are the picturesque flower fields of Moraine Park. Beyond that lies the low-elevation hulk of Carbon Glacier. Roughly 12 miles one-way from Sunrise or the Carbon River entrance (in the park’s northwest corner), typically the only day-trippers who reach these remote spots are trail runners. 

Fastpacking mixes backpacking and trail running. Here’s what it looks like

West side

Out of Mowich Lake, the hike to the airy meadows of Spray Park (about 8 miles out-and-back, with 1,700 feet of elevation gain) is a certified Rainier classic within the reach of most day hikers. If you catch an early-season, short-lived display of glacier lilies, give yourself bonus points for good timing.


Hikers with a strong motor can make an all-day, 17-mile loop hike beyond Spray Park, into Seattle Park, down to Cataract Valley and eventually up through tall forest to Ipsut Pass and back to the lake. 

Ipsut is the official WT route, but a ranger once told me the original mandate of the Wonderland Trail was to construct a path as close to the mountain as possible. That’s Spray Park. But the Ipsut route melts out sooner, so it was designated the official trail, enabling more hikers to complete a WT circuit in high-snowpack years. 

You can access the mountain’s southwest side using the Westside Road, a permanently closed remnant of a proposed round-the-mountain highway envisioned in the 1930s.

Near the Longmire entrance, the graded road is barricaded at the 3-mile mark due to flooding risks. From there, people can hike or bike 3-plus miles to a connector trail (hidden in the brush) that leads 2.2 miles to the South Puyallup River camp and a wall of curiously angled andesite columns, then 2.5 more miles of stiff uphill walking to Emerald Ridge. 

Or climb the road for 3 more miles to another connector trail and hike 2.5 steep miles to lovely Klapatche Park. Return the way you came, or use a map to make loops or side trips suited to your energy level.

Out of the historical Longmire area, Romano said ambitious hikers can climb 3,000 feet-plus on the WT to the meadows of Indian Henry’s, a forested 12-mile out-and-back trip. Or dial it back, Asars suggested, and create a moderate loop that follows the Trail of the Shadows to Rampart Ridge, then to the WT and back to Longmire: 5.2 miles and 1,350 feet of climbing.

“It’s a gorgeous forest hike,” Asars said. “There are pockets of wonder in these deep forested areas. The Wonderland Trail leads to so many beautiful places. It’s not all about giant, in-your-face views.”