This is the third of a three-part series about doing a 3-day trail run/hike on the Wonderland Trail. It’s typically done as a week-long backpacking trip, or at the fast end of the spectrum, as a fast ultra run in under 1.5 days. To understand what is involved in a 3-day, here is a primer about day three.
White River to Longmire
31 Miles, Elevation Gain/Loss +6,800’/ -5,900’
If waking up on day 3 of a Wonderland circumnavigation knowing that 31 miles lie ahead doesn’t make your legs and heart cringe you are superhuman. For the mere mortals among us take comfort in the promise of spectacular views. While it’s only been a few days the sense of time and space begins to blur. An impending completion merges with the eternal present in which it seems that all of one’s energy and focus have always been about running, moving, and being on the trail.
White River To Panhandle Gap
From camp, and what had better be an amazing breakfast, the trail picks up at the climbers parking lot, dips through the trees and crosses the White River. The first 4 miles of the day are the flattest of the entire loop and the soft trail and old growth forest wake the body into form. At Frying Pan Creek it’s time to greet the switchbacks that will transport runners to Summerland a wildflower filled meadow on the edge of the treeline. Here the big views of the day begin. Climbing higher, crossing snow melt creeks, one is consumed by the alpine. Rocky trail, dramatic waterfalls, and the immensity of Rainier fill the vision. Panhandle Gap is the high point on the Wonderland Trail and persistent snow patches can hang on late into the season. Trekking poles are advised and early season runners would be wise to consider microspikes if the overnight lows have been below freezing.
Panhandle Gap to Indian Bar
Dropping into the south of the divide a wide vista of deep valleys and views, on clear days, that can stretch across Mt. Adams, Helens, and even Hood. The trail through Ohanapecosh Park is winding ribbon of rolling landscape of wildflowers and waterfalls. It’s runnable terrain if you can overcome the urge to pause at every vista. The descent into Indian Bar follow a steep ridge dividing what ultimately becomes the Ohanapecosh and Cowlitz river drainages. Here high in the hills a deep basin of waterfalls converge and flow through a high meadow before sharply crashing through Wauhaukaupauken Falls. This is the place to take in the scenery and fill water bottles before climbing the Cowlitz Divide.
Indian Bar to Box Canyon
By Wonderland standards is a moderate climb to gain the ridge. Measured in beauty, the view behind the climb is incredible. The trail follows the divide for almost 5 miles before turning west and descending a groomed set of switchbacks to a crossing at Nickel Creek. A short section of trail bring one to a road intersection and camera wielding tourists at Box Canyon. This is the idea spot for supported runners to meet their crew for cold drinks and snacks before making the final push into Longmire.
Box Canyon to Longmire
The trail from Box Canyon to Longmire is the most accessible of the entire loop. The trail touches asphalt roads six times in the next 12 miles which feels strangely out of place after so many miles of remote single track. This isn’t much of a consideration at this point because really the attention is on finishing. 5 miles of trail paralleling Stevens Creek brings one to the final climb of the trip. Dotted with waterfalls and some touch and go with the road one crests the divide at Reflection Lakes. Avoid the gawking crows and social trails before picking up the trail and what is “mostly” a downhill ride.
The nature of all circumnavigations is to end at the beginning. Which ultimately means that the purpose of the experience is not the destination but rather the journey. Between the alchemy of the sweat and blood, the physical immensity of the mountain, the transcendent beauty of it all it’s hard not to gain more than was offered on the altar of experience. And if that’s too much woo woo, then those 93 miles sure make the food taste good.
Aspire Adventure Running organizes single and multi-day running adventures in wilderness terrain across Cascadia. They provide logistical and emergency support paired with delicious meals and community for a unique and memorable backcountry running experience. In partnership with Mt. Rainier National Park they organize supported runs on the Wonderland trail. Check out their website for 2019 dates!