Up and down, up and down - the Wonderland Trail in Washington State is not for the faint-hearted or unfit. This rough-country route shuns roads and human habitation as it journeys around mighty Mount Rainier in the National Park of the same name, arriving back at the starting point after 150 km (93 mi). As to that up-and-down element, the cumulative elevation gain during the circumnavigation is around 6000 m (20000 ft), which adds up to a serious physical effort as the Trail crosses ridge after soaring ridge.
But Wonderland it is - the Mount Rainier National Park offers a variety of eco-systems, from lowland forest to sub-alpine meadows, and Mount Rainier itself reveals a series of spectacular glaciers as the journey unfolds. The Trail crosses many rivers, often by simple log bridges, occasionally by more dramatic suspension bridges. Though there are a number of trailheads that will be busy in summer, many stretches of the Trail provide complete solitude amidst natural grandeur. But hikers should be aware that weather conditions can be treacherous, with dangerous storms always a possibility (especially in September). This is definitely not a journey for the inexperienced, but only the hardened wilderness hiker.
There are several campgrounds on the Trail (booking advisable in mid-summer), together with 18 trailside campsites at regular intervals along the way, each with a nearby water source and a bear pole for hanging food safely. A backcountry permit is required to hike the entire Trail, and the challenge is so alluring that early application is advisable (in March), as a ballot is held in April to allocate a limited number of permits, thus ensuring the Wonderland Trail will never be spoiled by over-exploitation.
WHEN TO GO
Late July to October (to avoid possible snow coverage).
TIME IT TAKES
An original ranger's cabin at Indian Henry's Hunting Ground, dating from the construction of the Wonderland Trail in 1915.
Mowich Lake, a pretty trailhead in the northwestern corner of the National Park that offers basic facilities to the weary hiker.
Longmire Buildings in the Nisqually River valley - a brief dose of civilization with an inn, museum and Wilderness Information Center.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
Each year, only two to three hundred people manage to complete the entire Wonderland Trail in a single, unbroken hike.