Hiking Wonderland:

With grueling switchbacks and breathtaking views, Washington trail lives up to its name

8/4 noon Emerald Ridge

Catching breath on shaded boulder. Blessed relief removing 37lb backpack, sweat-soaked sunhat. Becky and Felicia not far behind: can hear strike-scrape of their trekking poles on glacier-ground andesite.

“Only three more,” Becky gasps, dropping onto boulder beside me.

“Switchbacks?” I ask.

“… miles,” Becky admits.

Ridge affords direct look into Mt. Rainier’s volcanic crater. Tahoma and Puyallup glaciers glow icy blue on mountain’s broad shoulders.

“It’s beautiful,” I say, as I do 40x daily. Then: “I can’t go up another step.”

We announce intentions to cease and desist this ridiculous, 11-day, 96.2-mile, 25,000 elevation gain/loss hike. Trail planned by sadists. Emerald Ridge is 3rd mountain today! We fantasize aloud about ranger airlift rescue.

Felicia says: “Helicopter rescues cost up to $25,000.”

Only certainty my family would never shell out $25k for rescue will keep me trudging up, up, up next three miles.


Can someone morph into an outdoorswoman after forty years living comfortably indoors? As a child I attended a summer camp I considered rustic: we slept in cabins and could bring just one plug-in hair appliance. I spent most of my time feeding Fruit Rollup pieces to birds and squirrels.

Twenty years later, I was living in Portland, Oregon, and discovering an outdoor world that offered more than the torture trifecta I remembered from camp: humidity, poison ivy and mosquitoes. The Cascade mountain trails we took offered warm sun, cool shade, and food: raspberries, blackberries and huckleberries. One day I stood atop Mt. Hood’s ZigZag Canyon on a clear, 72-degree day, breathing in the juniper and pine, and told my husband: “I’m going to hike all of it someday.” Instead, we moved back to Baltimore, and my vision of hiking the Cascades faded.

Another twenty years passed. My friend Felicia completed a 200-mile hike on the John Muir Trail through the Sierras. She told me: “I fell asleep every night to the sound of running water.” That statement sparked the feeling I’d had in ZigZag Canyon. I wanted that.

She invited me to join her next year on the Wonderland, a 96.2-mile trail that loops Mt. Rainier in Washington state. “I can’t,” I started to say, but my husband stopped me. “You’ve always wanted to,” he argued. (Yeah.) “You’re not getting any younger.” (Thanks.) “Felicia is a doctor.” (True. And potentially useful.) Finally: “You’re running out of excuses.” I was.

Felicia’s husband says backpacking is the most money you can spend for a miserable vacation. He’s right about the expense. I first bought my boots and pack, watching the REI staff’s smiles widen when I confessed I had no camping equipment.

Felicia advised me to train loading my backpack to 35-40 pounds and “getting on the Stairmaster for three hours.” I loaded my backpack with college textbooks … and realized I couldn’t lift it. I had to use props — a table, a car hood – to wrangle myself in.

I hiked the hills at Cromwell Valley State Park, succumbing to rigorous self-debate over my life choices (“There are easier mid-life crises. I could have learned to surf.”) Then I’d repeat a few delusions (“I’m strong! I’m not going to barf!”) and continue. One time I kneeled to tie my shoe and wheeled backwards, the pack pinning me to the ground with my limbs waving like a belly-up beetle.

My neighbor, an experienced backpacker, worriedly suggested I take an REI class. I signed up for a weekend on the Appalachian Trail, learning how to lift my backpack, filter water and set up a tent.

You need a permit to hike Wonderland, or at least to sleep in the camps. Felicia and I joined forces with three women Felicia met hiking the John Muir Trail. Now a party of five, we each entered the permit lottery, submitting a range of possible start dates and itineraries to increase our chances of winning the golden ticket.

Seventy percent of Wonderland permits are selected through the lottery. If we weren’t selected, we could, in theory, still go. We’d have to show up at a ranger station, where they’d assign us a starting trailhead and itinerary based on campground availability. They could give us a five or 12-day itinerary, or anything in between. Or they could turn us away.

But Felicia’s itinerary won. Our permit afforded us an 11-day trip starting from White River, on Mt. Rainier’s northeastern flank. We could now plan in greater detail – and, most importantly, cache food at three ranger stations along the trail, mailing buckets in advance. Caching allowed us to carry just four days of food at a time, keeping our pack weight down.

Sending away my food … and hoping it will end up where/when I need it.

I packed, planned, trained, and spent hours at REI. I read backpacking blogs, social media groups, magazines and books. I conducted extensive research into backcountry bear safety, until Felicia told me to stop watching bear-attack videos on YouTube.

Before I was ready, it was time to go.

The view from the other side of Panhandle Gap. Photo credit: Rebecca Metea

5 a.m. 7/28 BWI

Backpack flagged by security. TSA suspicious of instant coffee packets, opened meticulously arranged backpack. Jammed everything back in. Backpack wouldn’t zip! Put pack on floor, sat on pack. No luck. Took out fleece and rain jacket, tied both around waist. Pack zipped.

2 p.m. 7/28 Seattle

Seattle-based friend Laurel picked me up at airport, took me for dim sum in Chinatown. Then to REI to pick up fuel and — seized by sudden panic over scurvy — fruit bars. Instead discovered caffeinated jellybeans. Laurel suggested I buy bear horn.

6 p.m. 7/28 SeaTac Hilton

Met trail companions! Collective trail name: G-5, like summit. Felicia represents California, Becky — New Hampshire, Sandra and Hilke — South Africa. South African women conquered mountains on every continent, including two hikes to Mt. Everest base camp. Becky completed John Muir Trail every summer for six years. Felicia also did JMT — and assisted in two helicopter rescues. My experience? I took a class.

Despite my glaringly inferior skills, the G-5 welcomed me warmly, then gleefully ripped open my backpack, removed 5lbs of carefully curated gear. Becky tossed my dishwashing soap. Hilke and Sandra laughed heartily at bear horn before tossing it.

9 p.m. 7/29 Ohanapecosh

Picked up permit, then spent first night camping – in “front country,” read: clean water, electrical outlets, flush toilets. Pitched tents under cathedral of ancient, moss-draped firs. Becky, Hilke and Sandra took MORE stuff from my bag, cheering when my pack hit 36.6 pounds on scale. I did not cheer: they took my shampoo! Their packs are 30 pounds. How?? My $$$$ air mattress sounds like potato-chip bag when I move. Becky said eventually I’d be too tired to notice.

First night’s camp at Ohanapecosh.
The trail to Summerland.

7/30 White River to Summerland

Hike began with terrifying river crossing. Bridge = wobbling log tossed over water, while river lifts, heaves boulders against it.

Climbed through sun-dappled forest with Ewok-forest-sized trees. Waterfalls, blue skies on four-mile climb past tree line to meadows exploding with honey-scented wildflowers. Paintbrush, lupine, mountain brobont, purple daisies, pasqueflower, aster, and more.

Planned to cook mac and cheese for dinner but cheese packet exploded in bear vault and ruthless chipmunk descended on it, all tiny fangs and claws.

Every part of body hurts.

Our tents in twilight. Photo credit: Rebecca Metea

7/31 Summerland to Indian Bar

Learned to love trekking poles. Crossed Panhandle Gap: glacier draped over steep, narrow ridge. Scary as hell. Method:

  • Plant trekking pole.
  • Don’t look down.
  • Move foot.
  • I’m serious: don’t look down!
  • Plant other pole.
  • Don’t don’t don’t look!
  • Move other foot.
  • Repeat.
Panhandle Gap

Rewarded with sweeping view south to Mt. St. Helens and even Oregon peaks.

Steep descent over glaciers into tree line where wildflowers carpeted meadows. World smelled of juniper and honey, buzzed with bees. Dozens of waterfalls sprung from ledges and glaciers.

Bear scat greeted us at camp. Every camp has latrine toilet! Hurray! But not necessarily walls surrounding toilet. Some have views instead. The better to watch for bears.

Washed clothes in river before dinner. Sandra told stories of South African animals: spitting cobras that sneak into houses, homicidal hippos. This may explain Sandra and Hilke’s adoration of/borderline-obsession with chipmunks. Chipmunks aren’t bent on murder.

Everything hurts.

8/1 Indian Bar to Nickel Creek

My companions can break camp in 20 minutes. I take two hours! Plagued by proper packing sequence. Felicia says I am over-thinking. I doubt this. Don’t pack for entire journey, she says: just that day.

Meadows effused with wildflowers as we trekked across emerald roof of Cascades, icy patriarch Rainier looming. At lunch we draped dew-drenched tents over blueberry bushes to dry. Then steep descent into hushed pine forest.

At camp, Hilke and Sandra jumped into glacial creek. Even after 8-hour sweatfest, my teeth chattered dumping creek water over limbs. Washed shirt but forgot to bring dry one. Had to walk back to camp in sports bra. Hadn’t passed anyone all day: now, of course, we passed four men.

Tried out trail names. Felicia, permit winner/spokesperson, is The Fixer. Becky, zip tie and duct tape wizard, is MacGyver. Sandra, deftly maneuvering in black, is Ninja. Hilke, ever-positive, is Sunshine. I am Pacer, hiking like metronome: from training as group fitness instructor, probably: 135 beats per minute! Pacer better than trail name I’d feared: Badpacker, or Why Is She Here?

Everything hurts. But whatever.

8/2 Nickel Creek to Cougar Rock

Woke to Pacific Northwest mist/unmotivated rain. Packed in one hour!

Hiked under thick umbrella of Douglas fir, western redcedar, white spruce, lodgepole pine. Crossed steep Stevens Canyon with loose, rain-slippery rocks below and above us. Trail width narrowed to 12 inches of unreliable stones that tumbled at touch of foot or pole. Composed love sonnets to trekking poles. After hour of creeping, trail released us into towering, misty forest, its pine needle carpet muffling our cheers of relief. Quick break at Martha Falls: too chilly to stop moving long. Emerged from forest at Lake Louise and Reflection Lakes – reflecting nothing today.

Crossing Stevens Canyon. Photo credit: Felicia Sapp

Sunshine struggled through layers of mist as we climbed above Louise. Remaining five miles dropped again then crossed unruly Nisqually River. Having made 6 a.m. start, we limped into front-country Cougar Rock camp after 5 p.m.

Never too tired to appreciate electricity. Sitting outside bathroom guarding our charging phones/cameras. Tomorrow: Longmire, with (spotty) wi-fi and food pickup! New food will be … more power bars. Ugh! Why didn’t I at least purchase variety pack? Have foisted bars on Sandra and Hilke. They’re intrigued by American food, but even they are getting sick of them.

8/3 Cougar Rock to Devil’s Dream

Packed in 45 minutes! Short walk to Longmire (semi-civilization) for breakfast at National Park Inn. Restocked food and contacted family through Facebook messenger, wishing I could call instead.

Beastly 5.7-mile climb to Devil’s Dream. Soaked brutalized feet in shocking-cold creek during break.

Camp lived up to buggy reputation. Fifteen mosquitoes greeted me as I dropped pack. Water accessible only through complicated team effort/gymnastics routine. We laughed all night, cooking dinner in mosquito gear, fantasizing about cheeseburgers.

8/4 Devil’s Dream to Klapatche Park

MacGyver saved me last night. Noisy $$$$ mattress pad popped. Couldn’t find hole. Becky warned I’d get hypothermic sleeping on ground, even in $$$$ sleeping bag. Fortunately, Becky had SPARE pad. How? Her 30lb pack is like clown car.

Hiked up mountain to Indian Henry’s, down to bounce across Tahoma suspension bridge. Up, down another. Then, as noon sun beat down, began Emerald Ridge.

8/4 Emerald Ridge [above]

8/4 8 p.m. Klapatche Park: camp!

Grueling elevation changes, steep ledges, loose rocks. Then, like mirage, St. Andrews Lake appeared, clear to its rocky bottom. We dropped packs, jumped into surreally warm water. Sandra helped patch my pad.

As we floated, we heard insistent call across lake, like whining child. It was baby black bear! We watched, awestruck, as mama and sibling lumbered over ridge, nudged baby. Locked eyes with mama. You go your way, her look said. We’ll go ours.

Lakeside camp at Klapatche Park surreally gorgeous under orange-pink sky. Drank tea watching ice on Rainier glow in sunset, reflected in lake.

What had seemed impossible earlier today was now impossibly beautiful.

8/5 Klapatche Park to Golden Lakes

Three miles down, four miles up. Rainier place names are hyperbolic: Paradise, Sunrise, even Wonderland. But everything lived up to its name (esp. Devil’s Dream.) Until Golden Lakes. Fetid pond promised to clog water filters with mud scum. Still, incredible views from camp. After dinner, Sandra noticed halo encircled Rainier’s peak. “That’s snow, not a cloud,” Sandra said. “It’s an avalanche.” Ranger helicopters buzzed overhead. [Later we learned the Tahoma Glacier, which we’d crossed the day before, had burst, causing avalanches, flooding and trail damage.]

8/6 Golden Lakes to South Mowich

Packed in 30 minutes. Seven-mile, 41-switchback descent (Sandra always counts.) Is trail giving up its quest to break us? Maybe not. Mowich River crossing scariest yet. Met solo-hiker Candace with 50lb pack. Without intervention, my pack would have been 50lb. [We later learned Candace quit.]

Basked in sun next to roaring, silty, boulder-hurling Mowich River. Trail runners everywhere today: organized group with pre-set camps. Runner wearing hydration vest asked if we’d seen his colleague. We had, an hour before. To thank us he opened his hydration vest and pulled out … two cans of Rainier beer. We cooled them in river. Will putting cans under pillow summon beer fairy again?

8/7 South Mowich to Cataract Valley

Apparently: yes. Climbed four miles to Mowich Lake to find … beer fairy, who offered us cherries, said we helped him find lost runner who sprained ankle.

Mowich Lake resupply

Resupplied at Mowich’s unmanned ranger station. Dumped more bars into share bucket of unwanted food. Cousin Deb sent me care package! Becky packed sausage, crackers, peanut M&Ms. Hilke found spiced rum and tiny shampoo bottle in share bin. Claimed shampoo. One night I woke from awful smell, thinking rodent died in tent. It was my hair.

Breakfast of Champions

After Mowich Lake, trail splits into northern/southern routes. We took southern: slightly harder but better views. Sausage, gummy bear, spiced rum breakfast did not ameliorate climb. But stunning waterfalls, meadows, flowers, mountain views, mountain goats. Even Julie Andrews would gape.

On Rainier’s rugged north face now. After Spray Park, landscape became moonscape. Red and black boulders scattered among glaciers. Each side of the mountain is its own universe. Each mile, really. Each step.

At camp we met father-son hiking duo: trail names The Miscalculator (underestimates trail mileage) and his teenaged son Yard Sale (his backpack explodes at campsite.) We shared maps. Miscalculator realized he’d planned hell march. He shared wine, whisky. We partook — only to lighten load for his long hike.

Spray Park
The Miscalculator and Yard Sale

8/8 Cataract Valley to Mystic

Climbed Carbon River Valley through layers of cloud glowing in morning sun like silver wisps of cotton candy. Trail swallowed by river in places. Carbon glacier mostly hidden under layers of silt. Then, trail seemed to end at cliff wall. Looked up to find rope dangling. Tugged to ensure rope was tied to … something, then climbed on faith.

Photo credit: Rebecca Metea

At camp, met distracted/frantic woman. Learned mice decimated food in her bear bag. She feared contracting Hanta virus. Felicia asked if she was physician, as few are familiar with rodent-borne illness. She was. I made her take all my loathed bars. We bestowed her trail name: Tante Hanta.

Miscalculator and Yard Sale arrived at Mystic around cocktail hour, ate dinner with us before tackling their second eight-hour hike of the day. Poor Yard Sale.

Hilke and I took sunset walk on lake, met college-aged man clad only in black briefs. Shared trail news: weather rumors, bear sightings, river crossings. Lounging in snug underwear along Mystic Lake, his trail name, of course, became Calvin Klein.

8/9 Mystic to Granite Creek Sunrise

Reached Granite Creek by 10 a.m. Learned thunderstorms would hit tomorrow, right as we (and metal-frame backpacks) would be crossing high ridge to Sunrise. Could we hike eight more miles today, while sun shone, camp at Sunrise, then tomorrow descend last three miles – all downhill — to White River and out? Only if we could get walk-up permit for Sunrise camp. And permits were usually gone by noon. Someone had to run. Rocky theme song playing in head, I volunteered. Took off running, pack and all.

Reached Sunrise by noon, got permit, saw mirage-like snack bar, bought five cheeseburgers and met G-5 at trail junction. They cheered like lottery winners. Mostly over burgers. New trail name: Burger Queen.

8/10 Sunrise to White River — and out

Woke in rain, packed silently. Becky and Felicia left first, anxious to finish. Hilke and Sandra lingered. I walked in middle, feeling both desperate for shower and reluctant to hike out.

Reflected on 96 miles of steps, sights, sounds, smells as we climbed, slid and scrambled up and down 25,000 feet. Could not have dreamed of better companions than G5 for my first backpacking trip.

Packed Felicia’s car, drove to National Park Inn for breakfast: wall of pancakes. Mood jubilant but subdued by impending goodbye. But maybe goodbye is premature.

“What trail are we doing next year?” I asked.

Everyone spoke at once.

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