Wonderland Trail: Timing, flexibility are key to landing camp permits

Editor’s note: The 93-mile Wonderland Trail is high on the bucket list of most Northwest hikers. This is the first story in a three-month series about preparing for and hiking Mount Rainier National Park’s iconic trail. Depending on the point of reference, a hastily scribbled note and my dilapidated fax machine either perfected or ruined our attempt to hike what’s arguably Washington’s most famous trail.

The first step in almost every Wonderland Trail adventure comes March 15 each year. This is when Mount Rainier National Park rangers start accepting requests for backcountry camp permits.

For 17 days the mail stacks up and their fax machine hums.

The Wonderland Trail is 93 miles long with about 22,000 vertical feet of elevation gain as it circles the mountain. It takes most hikers 10 days or more to complete.

It is no easy feat to carve such a hefty block of time out of a work schedule, so giving yourself the best shot at your preferred itinerary is vital.

All permit requests received March 15-April 1, usually 800-1,000, are treated equally.

“If it was first-come, first-served our fax machine would melt,” said ranger Casey Overturf.

Starting April 2, a team of park employees randomly select requests and assign the parties their camps.

“It’s like a huge puzzle,” team leader Daniel Keebler once told me.

Once a hiker’s itinerary is set, the person is sent a confirmation letter.

Hikers who miss the March 15-April 1 window rarely get what they request, but rangers try to accommodate them. This can take some creativity when on the trail. Last summer I met some hikers who logged 18 miles on one day and less than three the next.

Our plan last summer was for five of us to hike the loop in eight or nine days in August.

I filled out the form late on the night of March 31 and at the last second I got a little nervous. We were fairly inflexible, so what if we didn’t get our dates, I thought.

So, just before I put my request in the fax machine I scribbled a quick note in the middle of the form: “As a very last resort, we could depart Sept. 11 or any day that week.”

I pressed send and went to bed.

It wasn’t until late the next evening that I realized the paperwork was still in the tray. My ancient fax machine (I think it runs on steam power) had let me down.

I hit send again but, now I knew, it was too late.

Three weeks later, a letter arrived stating our permit was for Sept. 11-18.

The good news: the trip was happening. The bad news: I might be hiking alone.

A doctor and teacher who planned to come along immediately bowed out. This couldn’t fit in their schedule. Two coworkers were suddenly on the fence, September wasn’t ideal for them either.

For months I would ask others to join me, but my offers were repeatedly declined.

“The kids are starting school.”

“I can’t get that much time off work.”

“Doesn’t it rain more in September?”

Finally, I got a yes from Graham firefighter Thad Richardson less than two months before we were supposed to leave. He hadn’t done any serious backpacking since high school and didn’t even own hiking boots or pack, but he was fit and strong. He was a firefighter, after all. He’d have no problem.

Next, with about a month to go, News Tribune photographer Drew Perine and public life team leader Matt Misterek were back on board thanks to some creative schedule shuffling.

For the four of us, it couldn’t have worked out much better. Eight days on the trail. Not one drop of rain.

On the trail, I didn’t feel much remorse for the two we left behind, but now, when I see them, I admit I sometimes feel a little guilty.

Don’t put yourself in this situation. When the permit process begins Friday, give yourself the best chance to get your first choice. Here are some tips:

 • Don’t wait until the last minute. Sit by the fax machine until your requests goes through.

 • Don’t start your trip on a Friday. Most hikers request a Friday start, Overturf said, giving you more competition for backcountry campsites.

 • Consider hiking counterclockwise, Overturf said. Most people hike clockwise, so going against the flow might be just the advantage you need to score your desired permit.

 • “Be flexible,” Overturf said. Allow the rangers the ability to tweak your itinerary. This could mean shifting it by a day or two or changing the campgrounds. The rangers will try to keep the hiking distance as close as possible to your request, Overturf said, and they’ll call you before making any dramatic changes.

 • The later in the season you’re willing to hike, the better your chance of scoring permits, Overturf said. While a September trip might slightly increase your chance of rain at Rainier, it’s actually an ideal time for backpacking.

 • Make sure your itinerary is realistic. While it might be hard to get the time off work, so is a 93-mile hike with a vertical equivalent of 11/2 climbs to Rainier’s 14,411-foot summit. You can take up to 13 days.

“When in doubt, give yourself extra time,” Overturf said. “... Take some time to plan. Sitting in front of the map and envisioning your journey is one of the best parts of the experience anyway.”