Wonderland Trail – Day 1 & 2

Disclaimer: The Well Pickled Wonderland trail journal is more about my experience on the trail vs. descriptions of the trail itself. If you are looking for specific details on the actual trail, terrain, etc. I recommend picking up the book – Hiking the Wonderland Trail, written by Tami Asars. Listed mileage and elevation were sourced from the aforementioned book.

  • Day 1 – Box Canyon Trailhead to Cougar Rock Campground
  • 10.7 miles: 2254 Gain, 2180 Loss

Today was a day of contrasts. On one hand I’m flippin ecstatic to be on the trail, but I’m also shit your pants nervous too. I’m thankful for many of the people I came across, and yet extremely annoyed at others.

I pull into the trailhead about 9am and see Dave. Who’s Dave, well he was in line behind me at the Longmire ranger station, another tired soul waiting at the crack of dawn to try and secure a walk up permit to hike the trail. We talked while waiting for the ranger station to open, going over our planned itineraries and chatting about what called us out to hike this beast of a trail. Back at the trailhead, we say hello and bid each other good luck. There’s a group of roughly 10 (who I would later learn are a great bunch of people from the Sierra club) kicking off, and so I start walking just before to try and get ahead of them. Why do I do this you ask, because I’m out here for solitude, not to start my hike with a group!

Looking down on Reflection Lakes

With the exception of going a bit too fast every so often, a bad habit I contend with throughout the hike, it was a fairly flat, quiet and relatively easy section of the trail. All is good until I get near Lake Louise and Reflection lakes which is where I encounter day hikers. No offense to those people I ran across but when you are carrying a full pack and trying to get into a solitary state of mind, the last things you want to get asked are: How far till I get to the lake, where does the trail go, is there a waterfall? I wanted to reply with…I don’t know, I’m not a damn ranger and do your own research. But mostly I just shrugged my shoulders and moved on.

I kept moving until I reached Paradise River Camp, which was a good spot to take a break and filter water for the night and next day. I learned quickly to make the most of my stops. As soon as I start hiking again, I see four guys up ahead and they don’t look like you’re typical day hikers. Yes, I’m about to stereotype. The group didn’t have packs, were wearing jeans, wife beaters (err tank tops), and in one case…the dreaded shirtless man who in my opinion should not have been shirtless. I got that intuitive weird feeling and slowed my walk considerably so I wouldn’t be in view. You’re probably thinking…stop being a baby Tara. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s never to ignore that gut feeling that something might be off. Had I known if other hikers were close by I would’ve kept on at my normal pace, but as it were I had been alone for quite some time. Eventually they veered off on another trail and I went back to walking my normal pace.

It pissed me off momentarily that I let the situation bother me, that I felt fear in a place I had not expected to. I went back and forth on whether to include my feelings on this portion of the hike, as I believe the Wonderland trail to be as safe as any other trail in WA, if not more so. But I also believe that an element of caution is warranted for solo female hikers when a trail comes close to a road, neighborhood, populated area, etc. Thankfully throughout the remaining days, I came across many other groups of men hiking, none of which gave me that gut feeling to stay back.

The thru hiker camp section of Cougar Rock was a bit off the trail but I found it easily, thanks to directions from a couple of thru hikers I met earlier in the day. Midway setting up camp I met three ladies, one from Portland and two from Oklahoma City as well as some of the Sierra club hikers that kicked off the same time as me. It was great to hear other’s stories from the trail and what they experienced thus far, it got me excited for the days ahead!

Reflection Lake

I noticed by the end of the first day the different types of thru hikers I would meet. There are those that want to share where they’ve been and pass on helpful information, those seeking information from you on what they might encounter, and those that stay silent and only nod when you say hello. I respected the silent greetings but didn’t come to fully understand it until later in my trail journey.

Despite the trail tourists, it was a good first day and I felt better than I expected to feel. In hindsight, it was beneficial to complete this section first for a couple of reasons. 

  • You get one of the most populated sections out of the way on day 1
  • It’s a great section to work out the kinks, figure out your rhythm and make any pack adjustments as it’s probably the flattest, easiest section of the entire trail
  • Day 2 – Cougar Rock Campground to Devil’s Dream
  • 7.3 miles: 2506 Gain, 520 Loss

So to set the stage, I’m not a morning person. My pleasant demeanor doesn’t develop until I’ve had at least one cup of coffee (some would argue that I don’t have a pleasant demeanor even after coffee but different topic for a different day). And the campground I stayed at is a front country campground, meaning it is accessible by car. There was an area just for thru hikers, but it was still close to the regular camp sites.

So shortly before going to bed last night, a group of young girls came into camp and thought it would be a good idea to sit around with a strobe light. At about 11pm I kindly asked them to turn it off as it was ruining the wilderness camping vibe I was trying to achieve, and it was f’ing annoying. That would be the least of my problems because there was a very large group in the regular camping area partying till who knows when in the night, which meant I got very little sleep and made for a very ornery Tara in the morning.

I went straight for my coffee injection and then headed over to the camp bathroom to wash up while I still had the opportunity to use running water. I was super fortunate to get stuck in the bathroom for the second time with someone who I can only gather had spent the last 12 hours giving birth to the most massive shit ever. I will be nice and skip describing the disturbing sounds that came from that stall. I still question whether what was next to me was human.

Needless to say, I couldn’t get out of Cougar Rock campground fast enough. If the thru hike experience has taught me nothing else, I have learned:

  1. To avoid front country campgrounds on your route if at all possible
  2. That shitting in the woods can be much more pleasant than the shared front country camp bathroom experience (now, if you are on an exposed ridge line with a bunch of other hikers than this does not apply)

Once back on the trail, life got quiet again and it was an easy, flat stroll to Longmire. I needed that time to mentally get back into trail mode and let go of the frustrations of last night and this morning. Once at Longmire, it was time to pick up my food cache and get moving again. I will admit I underestimated how much weight three days’ worth of food would add to a pack containing a full day’s worth of water. The crazy thing is that after a short period of time I didn’t even recognize the weight anymore, my pack just became an extension of me.

From Longmire, I had a roughly 5.5 mile uphill slog until my first backcountry camp, Devils Dream. From this point on, I rarely encountered anyone on the trail and those I did were thru hikers, which was AMAZING! It was the first time I was able to get into this sort of automatic mode where the chatter in your mind stops and you’re moving purposefully, contently.

There’s a very basic way of life in thru hiking, but by that I don’t mean easy. You have a goal, you have to get from point A to point B. If your anal retentive like me, you study the map at night and again in the morning to understand what terrain you will go through to reach point B, what water sources might be viable, what potential obstacles you will face. You pack and unpack strategically, based on what you think you will need throughout the day and on what the weather looks like. You continually assess your supplies to understand what you are using more or less of. You do this so you know what supplies you may need to look for in the free bins at the cache locations, or what you might donate to drop unnecessary pack weight.

First view of Mt Rainier

There was one spectacular view of Rainier but beyond that most of the hike was uphill through forested areas. There was one washout to cross and well as my first dry riverbed crossing around Katz creek. It was pretty easy to follow the cairns and they were obvious as long as I remembered to slow down and look ahead, to study where I needed to go next vs. just plowing along. I didn’t know it at the time but I would have many more of those dry riverbeds to cross.

I reached Fisherman’s Hornpipe creek and knowing this would be my last good water source till camp, I went about completing my daily water chores. While filling up I came across two women who I would later learn are the mother/daughter duo Tamara and Bear. They were hiking together while Tamara’s husband and son were overseas on a boy’s trip.

We ended up camping next to each other and they so kindly invited me over to have dinner with them! As we were talking about planning for our respective hikes, they mentioned researching which camps had the best views and I thought oh no, they’re gonna take my good camps. And then I thought…so what, stop being so petty Tara! How stupid would I be to rush to a campsite to sit and do nothing just to get the good campsite, and what does that even mean?! So what if everyone makes it before me. As long as I have a place to camp and don’t get stuck on the trail in the dark, I’m good. It was the reminder I needed to just enjoy the dang hike, the experience, and not get caught up in details that don’t matter.

Dry riverbed crossing

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