Wonderland Trail: A land of never-ending ups and downs

As I prepared for the Wonderland Trail last summer, a veteran hiker told me the trail is so hilly the only flat spots I’d find would be the places where I pitched my tent.

Now that I’ve made the 93-mile trip around Mount Rainier, I can assure you that description is not accurate.

Several campsites have a noticeable slope.

The trail, indeed, is relentless. It’s Washington’s toughest walk, and with more than 22,000 feet of climbing and just as much descending, I’m hard-pressed to remember many steps that were flat. It was like spending a week on a StairMaster.

The ups and downs are part of this trail’s legend. They’ve kept many from finishing and many more from even trying.

On the Wonderland Trail, you’ll climb above 6,000 feet three or four times (depending on whether you choose the more challenging Spray Park alternative route), and you’ll dip below 3,000 feet four times for a vertical equivalent of 21/2 climbs from Paradise to Rainier’s summit.

So, if you don’t already love hills, you better start working on that relationship.

Big hills require more than strong legs. They require confidence.

The more uphill you log before your Wonderland trip, the more enjoyable the journey.

There is plenty of time to train if you start now. The problem is, in the middle of April, snow still covers most trails that most closely resemble a day on the Wonderland. For me and my hiking partners, Matt Misterek, Drew Perine and Thad Richardson, our average day was 13.25 miles and 3,137 vertical feet.

There is, of course, Washington’s most famous training trail, Mount Si. This North Bend trail climbs 3,150 feet in four miles, and while it’s typically not snow-free until May, you usually can hike portions of it year-round.

“Carry a full pack, and hike the eight miles,” said Tami Asars, author of “Hiking the Wonderland Trail” (The Mountaineers Books, $21.95). “When you’re done, see how you feel, but keep in mind you still might have another four or five miles to go (during a typical day on the Wonderland).”

It might be another month or two before the best training hikes and the Wonderland are hikable, but in the meantime, take what you can get. Every uphill step counts.

Here are some hills perfect for getting your legs and mind ready for bigger challenges.


You probably don’t have to drive very far to find a hill. One of the great things about living near Puget Sound is that, from its shores, pretty much everything climbs upward. Tacoma and Olympia are packed with steep sidewalks that will test your legs. Throw on your pack, and hike up and down your neighborhood’s hill.


This paved trail in Gig Harbor offers rolling hills perfect for year-round training. Misterek got himself Wonderland ready by loading his pack with a sack of grout and walking back and forth on the Cushman Trail.


On weekend mornings, Five Mile Drive is closed to motorized vehicles, leaving the road open for some peaceful walking. The road isn’t particularly steep, but it is far from flat. Ramp it up with a few trips up and down the hill to Owen Beach, or venture outside the park to walk up North Vassault Street, the hill that serves as the grueling one-mile finish to the annual Sound to Narrows race.


A few trips up and down the paved trail along Lake Tapps Parkway that climbs upward from Sumner Meadows Golf Links will give your legs a good workout.


The paved multiuse trail around the Chambers Bay Golf Course has some steep sections, but consider repeating the hills a couple times when you reach them because the loop trail is otherwise pretty flat.


Mount Si might be the most crowded trail in Washington, but it’s busy for a reason. It is a great training hike. If you can hike it and nearby Little Si (5 miles, 1,200 vertical feet) in the same day and still feel ready for more the next morning, you’re ready for the Wonderland. Nearby Mount Teneriffe (14 miles, 3,800 vertical feet) is another ideal training hike. Mailbox Peak (6 miles, 4,100 vertical feet) is short but steeper than anything the Wonderland will throw at you.


U.S. Highway 101 along the Hood Canal can be a great place to find a springtime uphill hike. Drop by (or call) the Quilcene Ranger Station (360-765-2200) for the latest on ideal Olympic National Forest training hikes such as Mount Rose, Mount Jupiter and Mount Townsend. But you almost always can count on Mount Walker. This 5-mile hike climbs 2,000 feet. On a clear day, you can get a glimpse of Seattle from the summit. The Duckabush River Trail (10.6 miles, 2,300 vertical feet) also is hikable almost anytime.


Those who train on the sidewalks that run along the roads between South Puget Sound Community College and tiny Tumwater Hill Park are rewarded with a view that includes the capitol dome.


Poo Poo Point (7.4 miles, 1,650 feet), or any of the uphill trails on Tiger Mountain, is a great way to train when steeper and higher trails aren’t passable because of snow. At Poo Poo Point, you might even see paragliders launching from the top.


Pass on the scenic but flat waterfront walk, and instead walk up North 29th, 30th or 31st street hills. Better yet, make a couple trips up each.


Olympia athletes call the sidewalk that climbs along Lakeridge Drive from Capitol Lake Courthouse Hill. It’s a great hill worth repeating several times with a loaded pack to strengthen your legs.


Hugo Peak, located near Eatonville in the University of Washington’s Pack Forest, has less than 1,000 feet of climbing in a 5-mile round trip. The view from the top won’t blow you away, but the trail almost always is snow free, making it a great place to get in a workout in any season. A network of more than 50 miles of trails and roads in the forest allows you to easily extend your hike.