Wonderland Trail provides time to debate distance discrepancies

How long is the Wonderland Trail?

Depending on whom you ask, you’ll likely get an answer between 90 and 94 miles.

“It’s a debate that has gone on for a long time,” said Mount Rainier National Park ranger Daniel Keebler.

The National Park Service, caretaker of the trail, says it is 93 miles and just about everybody else is in the same ballpark.

So, why the differences?

Some have to do with methods of measurement and others are the result of changes crews sometimes have to make when repairing the trail.

While a mile or two difference hardly seems like much on a hike this long, Wonderland hikers are bound to notice their maps frequently don’t match the trail signs. How much farther to camp? Three miles or 3.3?

Hiking the trail last summer with three friends, we used the 2011 Green Trails Map 269S. At one point it offered a distance that was almost a mile farther than what was posted on the trail sign. We felt as if the map distances were more accurate, but we had nothing more to base this on than our experience.

While, like us, many hikers assume the signs aren’t as accurate as the maps, Mount Rainier Chief Ranger Chuck Young says the signs are correct. While mapmakers use GPS technology, Rainier rangers actually hike the trails pushing a measuring wheel.

“Usually the differences are only a matter of a few hundred feet,” Young said.

Alan Coburn, president and CEO of Green Trails Maps, says the distances on their maps are accurate to within 2-3 meters. For its Rainier maps, the company sent a crew of 17 people to hike the trail using GPS map grade surveying techniques.

“That’s our niche,” Coburn said. “Nobody else really goes out there.”

This method of using GPS technology is more accurate than simply hiking the trail with a GPS device, as many hikers do. By spending more time in certain locations, Coburn said his crews get more precise GPS readings.

While the signs might not match the map, they are helpful for pointing you in the right direction and don’t differentiate from the maps enough to cause any serious confusion.

Keebler and Young recommend using the NPS mileage and an up-to-date map. The trail changes almost every year as natural forces destroy sections, forcing rangers to reroute.

Measuring the trail is part of every rerouting project, Young said.

The total length of a Rainier circumnavigation can fluctuate between parties, too, because several trailheads and campsites are located off the trail (some more than half a mile).

So, how long is the Wonderland Trail? Long enough to leave you and your hiking buddies plenty of time to debate that question.