Advice From a Ranger: How To Get a Wonderland Trail Permit (and What To Do if You Can’t)

The Wonderland Trail is a bucket-list hike for backpackers around the world. The trail circumnavigates Mount Rainier and offers countless breathtaking views of the mountain and its neighboring volcanoes and ranges. At 93 miles with three food cache opportunities, I’d say it counts as a small thru-hike.

I was lucky enough to work as a Wilderness Ranger at Mount Rainier National Park for a couple years, during which time I was able to thru-hike it twice and section hike it almost every week. I also issued Wonderland Trail permits and got to know the system pretty well.

Whether you hit the permit lottery with an early reservation date or you’ve got a wild hair to try for a walk-up permit in August, this guide will help you build the best Wonderland Trail permit itinerary possible.

The Ground Rules

Not to be a total Ranger Rick, but before we get to building itineraries, we should lay down some ground rules.

1. Get a Permit (and Pick It Up in Person)

First, you must get a wilderness permit to hike the Wonderland Trail, and you must pick it up at a Wilderness Information Center (WIC) in person. The number of permits allotted directly correlates to the number of backcountry sites available, and there is no wiggle room. If you don’t have a permit, you’ll be camping illegally, and oftentimes there isn’t a leave-no-trace way to do so.

Luckily, you’ll want to stop by the WIC anyway. The rangers there will have all the latest, real-time updates about trail conditions that you just can’t get on the internet. Some important information you’ll get at the WIC:

  • Snow levels and what gear and skills you will need to handle them
  • Water crossings and what bridges might have gone out (a regular occurrence at Mount Rainier)
  • Water sources that have gone dry (including at campsites)
  • Where to be particularly careful about habituated bears, how to avoid an interaction, and what to do if there’s one in your camp
  • Active wildfires, where they are, and which way the smoke will be blowing over the next several days
  • Cool tips like where to be on the lookout for wolverines and where you’ll find the best blueberries

When you are getting your spiel from the ranger, be humble! Even if you are a seasoned thru-hiker or lifelong backpacker, you’ll probably learn something when you pick up your permit.

I came to Mount Rainier having completed the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, and I was in way over my head with the curveballs Washington threw. It may be only a couple hours from Seattle, but Mount Rainier is real wilderness! Despite the requirement to pick up permits in person, there are still dozens of Search and Rescue incidents every year. Please take the rangers’ advice seriously.

2. Camp Where You’re Meant To

While hiking the Wonderland Trail, you absolutely must stay in the designated backcountry campsites listed on your permit every night. There is no way around it. Trust me, this is best for everyone! This trail is highly trafficked, so if people were allowed to camp willy-nilly, it would be in rough shape. The Wonderland Trail wouldn’t be the spectacular hike it is today without careful protection and visitor compliance.

3. Cancel Unwanted Permits

Finally, if you get a Wonderland Trail permit (or any other wilderness permit) and you can no longer use it, please cancel it so the spots become available online right away for others to use. As a bonus, you’ll get $20 back as long as you cancel it four days in advance. Also, if you get an itinerary and start your hike but have to end it early for whatever reason, please stop by the WIC on your way out of the park so the rangers know to free up the rest of your itinerary.

READ NEXT – How To Thru-Hike the Wonderland Trail

How To Build a Wonderland Trail Permit Itinerary

This is your cue to get your map out. You can also use this handy Wilderness Trip Planner Map and this Wilderness Trip Planner Aid. Please note that you are almost definitely going to hike more slowly than you think. The Wonderland Trail has challenging topography, with long climbs and descents. River crossings might take you longer than you think they will.

Plus, you’ll spend more time ogling than on your average hike. The scenery is almost as breathtaking as the 5,000-foot ascents! Keep this in mind when building your itinerary.

The website used to make backpacking reservations at Mount Rainier National Park ( will cap you at 17.5 miles/day. If you want to hike farther than that on any given day, you will need to call a Wilderness Information Center and make your itinerary with them over the phone.

But honestly, even if you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it. I have hiked the Wonderland Trail in four days twice, and both times I wished I was doing it in 14 (which is the longest permit you can get). If you have the time to do this hike in 14 days, you totally should. Most folks do the hike in about seven or eight days.

Unless you lucked out with an early reservation date in the Mount Rainier National Park permit lottery, you probably won’t get your absolutely perfect dream itinerary.

Planning for Summerland/Indian Bar and Golden Lakes

There are two sections that, due to their logistical difficulties, are the crux of building an itinerary. Your best bet is to first identify when you can get a campsite in each of these two areas and build the rest of your itinerary around that.

Generally, the biggest headache is getting over the “Panhandle” (east of Fryingpan Glacier) because the camps at Summerland and Indian Bar are some of the most competitive backcountry sites in the entire park.

Another tricky spot is around Golden Lakes. There aren’t any other campsites close by, so if it isn’t available, you’ll have to hike about 12 miles between campsites in the best-case scenario, and more if the campsites neighboring Golden Lakes are fully booked.

Start by determining which dates Golden Lakes and Summerland/Indian Bar are available and go from there. Also try playing around with different starting points. You can start the Wonderland T rail from Longmire, Box Canyon, White River Campground, Sunrise, or Mowich Lake.

If you can’t work a night at Summerland or Indian Bar into your itinerary, one option is to hike about 17.5 miles from Nickel Creek (a less popular campsite) to White River Campground (a car campground with several sites reserved for Wonderland Trail hikers).

If you’re a very strong hiker (and you book your permit over the phone), you can push it a little farther by hoofing it about 20 miles from Nickel Creek to Sunrise Camp. This option isn’t ideal because this is the most challenging stretch of the trail, and in my opinion, the most beautiful (and I’m not just saying that because I used to be the Indian Bar ranger). You won’t want to rush it. But if you have to, that’s OK. You can come back to savor it another time.

Wonderland Trail Alternates

If you don’t want to push it with a big mileage day, you can take an alternate: the Eastside Trail via Olallie Creek and a short road walk near White River Campground. I’m going to be honest: this alternate isn’t as spectacular as the section of the Wonderland Trail you would miss. It is, however, still beautiful, less crowded, and my favorite hike in the park on a rainy day. This is Washington, after all! It could rain!

If you decide to reserve this alternate on your itinerary, there is still a bit of hope. Keep checking online to see if Summerland or Indian Bar has opened up. You can make changes to your itinerary online – the only thing you can’t change is your start date. If you aren’t able to make the change in advance, ask the ranger if Summerland or Indian Bar has opened up when you come in to pick up your permit. There may have been a cancellation, a no show, or a party who had to end their trip early.

If Mystic Lake and Granite Creek and/or Dick Creek aren’t available, take the trail just north of the Wonderland Trail that goes past Lake James. It also goes through Windy Gap, one of my favorite parts of the Park. The whole alternate is gorgeous and won’t disappoint. Just know that this alternate adds a couple miles to your hike.

Another popular alternate is in the northwest corner of the park near the Carbon River Ranger Station. Many folks opt to go through Spray Park instead of taking the official Wonderland Trail. Considering this alternate can also open up some options.

Off-Peak Itineraries

If you keep coming up short when trying to build an itinerary online, consider a different time of the season. The peak backpacking season at Mount Rainier is from mid-July to late August.

If you are very comfortable with snow travel, navigation, and camping, try for a little earlier in the season. If you aren’t afraid of a little rain, September tends to have more availability because a lot of folks aren’t willing to take the risk with the weather.

It depends on the year, but sometimes September offers bluebird skies. Regardless, I love seeing the slopes of the park turn red. The air gets cool and crisp, and the trails are a lot quieter. Also, September is elk mating season. Hearing the elk bugle is otherworldly!

wonderland trail permit

Mount Rainier in early autumn

How To Get a Good Wonderland Trail Walk Up Permit

Lets say you’re striking out online. Fear not! About a third of all wilderness permits are reserved for “walk ups.” This means you can go into a Wilderness Information Center to make a reservation in person the day before or the day of your planned start date.

Something to note, though: a walk-up hiker will build an itinerary pulling from the stock of backcountry sites in the coming days. Their itinerary might be as long as 14 days. This means that not every campsite will be available as a walk-up every day. Consider that in your planning and expectation setting.

Do Your Research

It helps to do your homework before you go in to get a walk-up permit. The ranger will help you make an itinerary, but everything will go much more smoothly if you come in prepared. Look at the night before and note which backcountry sites are marked with a “W.” This means that the site is still available as a walk up.

Get to the WIC Early … Or Late

There will almost certainly be other folks hoping to get a walk-up Wonderland Trail permit, so it can help to go early in the morning. Try to be the first hiker standing in line when the WIC opens. The WICs open at 7:30 a.m., so in the peak season, you might need to show up as early as 6:30 a.m.

Alternatively: go late. “No shows” are canceled in the early afternoon. Sometimes these no-shows give up absolute gold. You might get lucky! Also, the Wilderness Information Centers tend to be a lot slower in the afternoon, after everyone has picked up their permits. The rangers might be more available to help you build a killer itinerary.

Stay Flexible

Even when you are trying for a walk-up permit, it helps to have a flexible start date. You can try to go to the WIC the day before you plan to start your hike to increase your chances of a good itinerary, but be prepared to start hiking that day in case there is an awesome itinerary available right away.

If you don’t get a great permit the first day you walk in, you might have a better shot the following day. There is plenty of dispersed camping near the Park, so you’ll have somewhere to sleep nearby if it doesn’t work out right away.

Pro Tip: Pick Your WIC

For a greater chance of walk-up success, avoid Longmire WIC. You’ll have less competition at White River WIC or better yet, Carbon River Ranger Station. Later in the season when mountaineering season is over, the Paradise Wilderness Information Center gets very little traffic and makes for a great place to get a walk-up permit.

wonderland trail permit

Back-Up Hike Ideas

Coming all the way to Mount Rainier National Park in the hopes of snagging an uncertain walk-up permit can be nerve wracking. However, there are so many amazing hikes in the park and nearby. Even if your Wonderland Trail itinerary doesn’t come to fruition, you can have an incredible backcountry experience in the area. Here are some back-up hike ideas.

Section I of the Pacific Crest Trail

This section of the PCT is White Pass (Packwood) to Snoqualmie Pass. At about 98 miles, it is a similar length to the Wonderland Trail, and you’ll even pass through Mount Rainier National Park on the eastern boundary. You will still get some excellent views of Mount Rainier. This trail is also a lot quieter than the Wonderland Trail, so long as you aren’t there at the same time as the PCT “bubble.” There are some fantastic swimming opportunities, too.

Goat Rocks Wilderness

Goat Rocks is beautiful, and it has several good trail options. The PCT passes through it, and many thru-hikers note Goat Rocks as a place they want to return to. The permits are self-service at the trailhead, so they are a lot easier to acquire than Wonderland Trail permits. Goat Rocks can be crowded, though, especially on the weekends.

The Northern Loop (Mount Rainier National Park)

Here’s a hot take: I like the Northern Loop even better than the Wonderland Trail. It still has stunning views of Mount Rainier, with the added bonus of being less trafficked. It’s still popular, for sure, but you are more likely to be able to score a permit on a whim, whether through or as a walk-up. The Northern Loop has the best blueberries in the park (I did an extensive sampling) and a high chance of seeing bears.

Other Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier has much more to offer than just the Wonderland Trail. Take advantage of the time you have bookmarked and string together various iconic, shorter backpacking trips. Some of my favorite hikes are Shriner Peak (best view of Mount Rainier), Berkeley Park (quiet, and amazing during wildflower season in July), Upper Palisades (only one site — have it to yourself!), and Three Lakes (so much action during elk season in September!).

wonderland trail permit

Early season at Mount Rainier. Expert navigation required!

No Bad Hikes

If you can’t make a good itinerary in advance, and you don’t want to take the risk of trying for a walk up, you can always try again next year. I have had visitors come in telling me they finally got their dream itinerary after 10 years of trying. Why not keep shooting your shot? That said, I truly believe trying for a walk up permit is worth the risk.

In my experience as a ranger, I was almost always able to make an itinerary for a visitor that they were excited about. They key is flexibility. Even in the worst case scenario where you don’t get to do the Wonderland Trail at all, you can’t go wrong with hiking nearby in Washington.

Featured image: Madeline Newel photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 2

  • WolfOftheWoodandWind : Apr 4th

    Just the few pictures posted for this article are incredible. Looks like a truly amazing hike.

  • Abby Evans : Apr 8th

    This was so helpful! Hoping to potentially do the Wonderland Trail after my PCT thru this year 🙂 thanks for all the great info!


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