Wonderland Trail: Author makes case for hiking route counterclockwise

Editor’s note: The 93-mile Wonderland Trail sits high on the bucket lists of most Northwest hikers. This is the second story in a three-month series about preparing for and hiking Mount Rainier’s iconic trail. Nine times Tami Asars has hiked the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, making her an expert on what she calls “one of the toughest trails in the state.”

She used to teach classes on preparing for the trail. Newbies packed REI conference rooms to glean information.

Last summer she was one of two Northwest hikers to publish a Wonderland guidebook. Douglas Lorain of Portland wrote “One Best Hike: Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” (Wilderness Press, $14.95) while Asars, a North Bend resident, wrote “Hiking the Wonderland Trail” (The Mountaineers Books, $21.95).

Both are loaded with useful information, but a larger format and engaging photos elevate Asars’ work beyond guidebook to a perfect coffee table adornment for both Wonderland hikers and dreamers.

With the trail currently covered by snow, I was able to track down Asars to compare Wonderland notes:

Q: What is your favorite stretch of the trail?

A: That’s like asking, ‘What’s my favorite dessert?’ There’s so many. I really like the Mystic Lake area. That’s shocking to a lot of people because it’s just a lake without a great view of the mountain, but there is so much to see and do there. There is great scrambling and I’ve had fun just sitting and photographing bears. I get a special vibe there.

Q: I hiked the trail counterclockwise with some friends last September and we were repeatedly asked how much harder it was hiking in that direction. You’ve hiked both directions; is clockwise really easier?

A: Clockwise is the direction most people go and it is the lesser of two evils. Going clockwise you get a gentler grade going uphill and a steeper descent. So it depends on if you’d prefer steeper uphills or downhills. I feel like I get there faster going counterclockwise because you are huffing and puffing on the uphills and before you know it you are standing on top. I would say clockwise is probably a better way for newbies.

Q: What do you recommend people consider when deciding if they will hike through Spray Park or over Ipsut Pass?

A: Spray Park is beautiful and Ipsut Pass will make you say, ‘Wow, I feel small.’ There are some giant trees if you go take Ipsut Pass, but there are other places like it on the trail. If you don’t mind missing the trees, skip it and do Spray Park. There is also bragging rights for some who want to say they stayed on the actual Wonderland Trail (Ipsut Pass). The mileage is about the same, but you will be adding more elevation (more uphill, more downhill and more chance of snow on the trail even in September) if you go through Spray Park. But the great thing is this is a great day hike so you can come back and do the other section later.

Q: I always tell people to allow at least 10 days for this hike. My friends and I were comfortable doing it in a week but we met a number of people doing it even faster. Some in three days. Are you seeing more people doing faster trips?

A: I usually take about eight days. It can be hard to get 10-12 days for the hike, but a lot of those people doing it in eight days or less don’t finish. We’ve had to help people who’ve gotten in over their head. It might be a generalization, but I think Northwest hikers are better prepared to hike a tough trail like this (22,000 vertical feet), while even fit people from flatter areas like the East Coast are astounded and the mountain absolutely kicks their butts. I recently talked to a mountaineer who told me the Wonderland was tougher than anything he climbed in the Himalayas. It’s climbing Rainier 21/2 times. I tell people 10-12 days and that’s what the rangers will tell you. I have itineraries on my website for as along as 14 days.

Q: Does an experienced backpacker really need a guidebook to hike the Wonderland?

A: Unlike most trails in the state where you can just grab a pack and go, you can’t do that on the Wonderland. From the permitting process to understanding the locations of the latrines and water sources, you really need to have your ducks in a row. Plus you can get some recommended itineraries and learn some little things you might not know like good side trips and that you can’t camp at Longmire but there is a hotel and a restaurant.