Trailhead access to the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier
Trailheads of the Wonderland Trail
There are currently five trailheads giving one access to the Wonderland Trail:
Other access points of minor note are at Cougar Rock Campground, Mirror Lakes, and White River, but I don’t recommend these for anything other than day hikes as they are within close proximity to either Longmire or Sunrise which offer better parking.
Longmire: The Popular Option
The most popular starting point is from Longmire, about a two hour drive from Seattle (three hours from Portland). This is where the Wonderland Trail has its largest brush with civilization; Longmire is a village with all the amenities you might want: a lodge with restaurant and hotel accommodations, a convenience store, laundromat, post office, and nearby car camping at Cougar Rock Campground.
Another popular place to start is Sunrise, in the northeast section of the park. When the Wonderland Trail is hiked clockwise, Longmire is usually reached on the third or fourth day. For those of us who don’t wrinkle our noses at modern comforts, it can be quite nice to have a brush with an Americano and a club sandwich three days into the trip when you get to Longmire. In addition, since Longmire is so heavily trafficked, it is also quite likely that you could bribe someone to give you a ride up to Sunrise in the rare event that you have an injury flaring up and want to cut your trip short.
Sunrise is fairly easy to get to from Interstate 5 coming from Olympia or Seattle (about 2.5 hours in good traffic). For an early start at Sunrise, car camp at the White River Campground just twenty or so minutes down the hill. In my opinion, White River is one of the quieter and nicer car camp grounds in the park.
I have never seen any data on car prowling incidents in the park, but I suspect that your car will be safer at Longmire or Sunrise than at a remote trailhead.
There is mail service to the range stations at Sunrise, Longmire, and Mowich Lake so these are the only locations to have food caches sent to. Conveniently, these places are about equidistant from each other. Look at the page on food caching for more on this.
Mowich Lake is also a decent place to start and end your trip, but the road is only open for the short window of mid to late summer, and can close early if inclement weather hits. This option would be best for a trip in August to early September.
The Box Canyon visitor area is in the southwest corner of the park. It is not a particularly attractive place to start and end your trip, except that it’s marginally closer (32 minute drive) to Yakima than Longmire. There are no facilities here beyond a restroom.
Once a popular car-camping destination in the northwest corner of the park, the Ipsut Creek campground and trailhead are currently only accessible by foot or bike about five miles beyond where the Carbon River Road was washed away during heavy rains in 2006. If you choose to access the Wonderland Trail from this trailhead, the hike along the closed road will add five miles on each end of your trip. I have only listed this as an option because I have met a handful of people who chose to use this trailhead.
The only reason to use this route would be if the Mowich Lake road was closed while the Carbon River Road was open. The Carbon River Road branches from the Mowich Lake Road and follows the Carbon River valley, ending before the washout. It is usually open year round. In 2011, MRNP announced plans to develop the section of road beyond the washout into a permanent bike and pedestrian path.
Getting to Mount Rainier
FAQ: Is there shuttle service to Mount Rainier from Seattle?
Answer: There is currently no public transit for backpackers to get from Seattle to Mount Rainier. You may have luck hiring a private cab, but I do not recommend this, as it may be difficult to arrange a ride back out of the park when you’ve finished your hike. Budget for at least $200 each direction from SeaTac.
If you are flying into SeaTac just to hike the Wonderland Trail, your best option is to rent a car for the entire period of your hike. As of July, 2012, small sedan two-week rental rates for mid-August, 2012 range from $730 to $1300 on Priceline. You might be able to arrange a lower rate from rental agencies not located at the airport.
Getting most of the way by public transit (not recommended)
This can be tricky due to timing and still requires either a cab rental or a bicycle to make the entire journey. It also requires that you start and end your trip at Longmire and on weekends. The National Park Service runs a shuttle from Ashford to Longmire on the weekends only. You can take King County Public Transit to Graham, about 40 miles from Ashford. This cuts down the cab ride to about 40 miles. You can stay at Cougar Rock Campground near Longmire if you need to wait a day or two on either end of your trip to get your itinerary to line-up with the shuttle schedule.
Some buses are equipped to carry bicycles, so if you’re a serious car-free person, you could bike along the highway from Graham to Ashford to meet the weekend shuttle to Longmire. I have never bicycled this stretch of road, nor have I talked to anyone who has actually done this. Please only try this ride if you know what you’re doing in regards to long-distance cycling. It might be a miserable ride, and you might get killed riding your bike along the highway.
Once again, the MRNP shuttle from Ashford to Longmire runs only for part of the summer on the weekends only. See the link below for the most up-to-date schedule info.
- Take King County Metro to Graham, Washington
King County Trip Planner
- Hire a taxi to Ashford, Washington (~36 miles)
Taxi services in Ashford, Washington
- Take the MRNP shuttle service to Longmire
Mount Rainier National Park Weekend Shuttle Info
Before you attempt this, please thoroughly do your homework, call the King County Metro customer support, the taxi companies, and MRNP to make sure that this plan is feasible.