Backpacking Wonderland Trail Elopement in Mount Rainier National Park
Why we eloped on the Wonderland Trial
I remember when Bill and I first started talking to each other, he asked me what was one adventure I had not done yet that was at the top of the bucket list. My answer was simple, hike the Wonderland Trail. It was no secret that I had fallen in love with Mount Rainier the summer before meeting Bill. It was a place of un-understood beauty, possibility and healing to me. Our first summer together, Bill and I were scouting a trail for a client and that hike felt different. We were both SO happy, even though the clouds hid the mountain. We would since go back to that trail often to take different routes, say hello to our mountain goat friend at our couples elopements and experience some of the most beautiful sunsets we had seen. However, this trail meant a lot more, because it is where Bill knew he wanted to marry me. Mount Rainier truly has a special place in our hearts. When planning what we wanted for a wedding day, it became quickly apparent that we were going to need to break this up into two different events. One with family on adventures we could share with them and enjoy and one with just us, just our vows and one hell of adventure.
We decided to hike the wonderland trail for our actual marriage/vows probably about 4-5 weeks before actually setting out on the trail. Our work schedule is pretty intense from March-December yearly. So in the middle of the summer this year, we had one week where we could make it happen. So in between jobs, workshops, travel and scouting we started gaining the knowledge we needed about the trail reading books and blogs, talking to our thru hiker friends, practicing by doing big day hikes with our bags and many REI trips. We started making ideal itineraries knowing getting a walk up permit was going to be hard. The morning before our hike would start, we slept in the van near Ashford to arrive at Longmire at 4am, determined to be the first in line for the walk up with our 20 different ideal plans. We looked through the book left at the ranger station with the open campsites and racked our brains on how to put the trip together. None of our plans were available. We racked our brains looking at the camps trying to put something together and there were no options. We started looking into back up plan 1, the north loop, and it was possible.
However we both knew we wanted this and were bound to make it happen. Sometimes we shouldn’t be so stubborn lol. Thirty minutes before the ranger opened the door Bill found a 6 day plan that would work. Or we thought at least. We got our permit for that itinerary and started putting together our food caches to drop them off at our camps. This in itself took another three to four hours since the cache locations were so spread out and with driving in the mountains, you have to go all the way around it, not through it. Once this was complete, we headed back into Seattle to meet our photographer and friend at the Airbnb we rented for her and the cat. We had dinner and tiredly started putting together a new photo/wedding day plan based on the plan we had gotten for our hike/camping reservations. After some more hours of on the fly planning and then final packing, we tiredly drove back to the park to camp outside of the North side before heading into Box Canyon in the am.
Our wonderland trail itinerary
Day 1 – Box Canyon to Devil’s Dream Camp, 17 miles, 6000 ft gain
Day 2 – Devil’s Dream to Mowich Lake camp, 25.6 miles, 10,000 ft gain
Day 3 – Mowich Lake to Carbon River Camp, 8 miles, 2500 ft gain
Day 4 – Carbon River to Glacier basin, 13.3 miles, 7110 ft gain
Day 5 – Glacier Basin to Tamanos, 9.5 miles, 2500 ft gain (Get Married!)
Day 6 – Tamanos Creek to Box Canyon, 19 miles, 5400 ft gain – Back at Van!
Our Wonderland Backpacking Elopement Story
Day 1 of the trail we started a little tired, still not quite caught up on sleep, at Box Canyon heading clockwise on the trial. Despite the groggy eyes, we started our 17 mile, 5000 ft day with high stoke. We knew going into this day that it would be the least exciting views of the trial and it ran along side a road we had driven often. The mentality was beast mode, get to camp before dark. We went strong throughout the day playing the game of “can we drink that water” and counting every single bridge we crossed stopping to kiss at every 15th bridge. We passed our ole favorite, Pinnacle Peak and Reflection Lakes, and decided to stop for lunch a mile further in the forest. Everything was really smooth sailing until we got to those dreaded end of the day, uphill switch backs to our first camp, Devil’s Dream. By the time we got to camp, tired had for sure set in. We set up camp and made our dinners. Right after eating, we went to sleep as it was getting a bit chilly and rainy with a very, very big day ahead the next morning.
Day 2 started out cold. I honestly stood crying in my sleeping bag as Bill broke down camp. I was honestly scared of the day ahead, it was unlike any hike the two of us had ever done and let’s be real, I have Arizona blood, I don’t do well in the cold. We woke up initially at 3, to start hiking at 4, but the cold and rain kept us tucked in our sleeping bags until about 6. The day ahead would be 26.5 miles with 9,997 feet elevation gain up and over ten thousand down. Once we were ready to go I was feeling good, even though the weather was a gloomy mist. It started out in this beautiful meadow and then came the forever ending uphill switch backs of the Wonderland trail. We hiked and hiked, passing through the famous Emerald Ridge without being able see even a couple of feet in front of us.
We stopped and made breakfast after the first full pass, running into many hikers talking about the rain and chill during such a scenic part of the trial. As we made breakfast I got so cold down to my bones, starting our hiking back up pretty slow. We went over the next pass as it still rained. Back into the meadows with still no views, we began to enjoy eating the fresh blue berries. The rain stopped, but the plant life on the next pass was very unforgiving, dumping water into our shoes and drowning our pants. I slipped on the skinny wet pass, my knee and poles catching me from sliding down the mountain thankfully. We kept trekking only really stopping this day to admire a waterfall at a beautiful camp site, North Puyallup River Camp. A group of older men camping took their time to truly express their concern for us and the hike we had ahead of us for the evening. We knew we were only half way through and it was probably 5pm, but they really wanted us to know lol. We kept going through the forest and up another pass where we saw the first pretty view of the day, not Rainier though.
We got to Golden Lakes just at the sun was setting and stopped to make dinner while there was still light and hopefully help Bill regain some of his energy as it was starting to get low. We kept hiking down towards the river where we knew a very important bridge may still be out. If it wasn’t there we had decided to camp by the river per the rangers permission, and do the last push in the am. If it was there, we were going to have to do the final three miles, 3000 ft of elevation gain to Mowich Lake Camp. The first river bed we got to was a bit confusing to follow in the dark at midnight. The River was very rock and very wide, so our headlamps could only guide us so much. Fortunately all the bridges were there when we needed them and we were able to follow the tough to find cairns to make it. The moment of truth was ahead. After a couple more miles, the new bridge was there! The night got longer you could say at that point. I was feeling good, thanks to energy chews, but Bill was really getting exhausted. He didn’t let me know until the literal last ten minutes of our hike, but he had started having full-blown hallucinations for the last three hours.
We had one moment on trail where he stopped to mention the mushrooms on the tree and how amazing and beautiful they were. He asked me, “do you see this!” And I responded “yeah Bill, it’s great, let’s keep going.” When we talked later, this was near the beginning stages of his delirium, and what he was seeing was dew drops on the mushrooms that looked like rainbow disco globes, and my response led him to believe that it was in fact that way. He also stopped abruptly on trail at one point for the “baby raccoon” in the middle of the trail just 40 feet ahead. Spoiler, it was very obviously a log. After he realized he was hallucinating, he kept it to himself at that point. We kept pushing. We ran into some fresh bear scat in the middle of the trial I put on our wedding playlist quietly just to let them know hikers were still around. Bill was truly experiencing exhaustion, sitting down in the middle of the cold and wet trial, closing his eyes, scaring me half to death, we could not stop here. Once we finally made it to camp after 22 hours of hiking, we set up camp and went to sleep only to be awaken soon after by the normal hikers schedules lol.
Day 3 started with our feet in so much pain. Like the most pain either of us have ever experienced on our feet. Bill also developed the worst chaffing all over his private parts area, so at this point his feet felt like blistered balloons and every step was rubbing what he was referring to his “legendary rash”. We got our new food cache and made mountain house breakfasts before starting out on our super scenic easy day, or so we thought. I was so excited to see Spray Falls for the first time. We made the extra trek off the wonderland trial to go see it. Quickly, it became apparent Bill was not feeling well do to the rash that had engulfed him from the previous day. After the falls started those unavoidable up hill switchbacks and for me the exhaustion really set in from getting somewhere between 2-4 hours of sleep after hiking 22 hours straight. We pushed through and got to the meadows. It seemed like it would be a great rest of the day from there. It had incredible views and seeing all the plant life, looking for bears was for sure fun. We didn’t have time to waste though because we both wanted to get to camp before dark so we could relax and actually spend some non-hiking quality time together.
As soon as the snowy downhill started, things changed fast. The rock, snow and declines instantly made my feet scream in the most severe pain from the blisters and swelling from the day before. I hiked literally sobbing for at least a half mile before sitting down in the middle of the trail. It was at this point Bill asked me if we should turn around and exit the trial at Mowich. I wasn’t sure, but we decided we would get to our next camp and sleep. If you’ve been following one of our main themes here, we were extremely sleep deprived coupled with lots of physical exertion now. We needed at least 8 hours of rest. We went along slowly, in pain for a while. The 8.2 mile day with 2,600 ft of gain and 4,300 ft of loss was truly starting to feel like a never ending nightmare until I turned the corner and saw a bear eating in the meadow. I turned to Bill and said bear. He rang our Mr and Mrs bear bells so he would know we were there and we slowly started hiking towards the corner again, only for the bear to cross the trial 30 ft in front of us. My camera did get fired up fast enough, but I will never forget it’s beauty and stillness even when it walked, crossing the trail infront of us, circling behind us and then carrying on from where we had come from. For whatever reason, this gave us the boost we needed. We just needed to get to camp, asap. After nine hours of hiking we finally made it to camp. Bill decided to set up camp basically naked to let his gaining issue of the legendary rash get some relief while I made dinner sitting on the ground barefoot, eyeing my crazy swollen in pain feet. It was at this point we knew we had to get off of trail before we would be able to complete it. We were not moving fast enough and we were not having the experience we wanted leading into our wedding. We set the alarm for 8.5 hours from the time we went to sleep, we knew at this point the most important thing was rest.
Day 4 started well rested which was a huge blessing. We got up and started cooking breakfast and looking at the map to make an exit game plan. The trickiest part was making it well rounded: what would we be okay with, what was possible, how do we communicate with our photographer and what makes the most sense. Going back to Mowich was out there and there wouldn’t be any service and it would be a hard road to get out of even though the camp sites are easy to get to. Mowich Lake is both a front and back country camp site. The rangers make a trip out there to drop off the food caches, but it isn’t every day of the week like other locations. We played with Carbon river as it was only 6 miles out and it would be mostly flat since was an old road along the river. This appealed to Bill, but scared me because of its off the beaten pathness. Bill and I are not quitters, we are stubborn, we are determine, we do not quit. So we decided to continue to Sunrise for a few reasons. This way we would complete 67 miles on the wonderland trail. We started out both feeling good, rest really did us some good. Quickly though, Bill started feeling some un-ignorable pains. Despite this, we kept going and enjoying the day. We ran into many other hikers and enjoyed the meadows and slight views between the clouds of the glaciers.
We met a couple of girls hiking the North loop and explained to them we weren’t going to be able to make our original plan and that we were hoping to find someone who would share their camp with us at Mystic Camp. They happened to be camping there that night and they invited us to crash their camp with them! Things worked out perfectly, it was our first relaxing day. We actually stopped to have lunch at a waterfall and to admire the glaciers and take photos. We got to camp and waited on our “camp hosts” to arrive. Once they arrived we set up camp at 5pm both so excited to enjoy camp, eating and just hanging out with some fellow hikers. We shared stories from the trail, swapped out some foods and talked about our goals and future adventures. One of the girls works at a bike shop and happened to have a packet of icy hot chaffing cream on her. Talk about the perfect timing. As if that wasn’t enough of a blessing, one of the girls had a two-way SOS phone, so we were able to communicate with our photographer to let them know when and where we needed to be picked up and to abort the initial plan. Thankfully we had such a flexible friend capturing our day for us. Since w were in the back woods we had no idea what this really meant for our wedding, but our fingers were crossed.
Day 5 started out even better than day 4, minus that initial mile of up hill switchbacks lol. However, from there it was stunning views of the mountain with a beautiful cloud conversion. We even saw Fremont appear on top of the mountain like a movie scene. Birds flew and chirped all around us as we hiked. Finally we meet up with several chipmunks and marmots, keeping an eye out for mountains goats, but no luck. It was the most beautiful morning we had on trail. We got back to the Sunrise visitor center early as we waited on our photographer to rescue us lol. I went to talk to a ranger about the weather conditions and get an idea of what our wedding options may be. Around noon there would be a break-in the clouds on the North side, otherwise a total white out of clouds and rain for the day with similar weather the next day. I came back to Bill with the news that we were getting married asap.
As for me the most important thing in our images would be this mountain we just hiked around. We cooked breakfast on the side walk of the visitor center, prepped water for baths and started doing my make up and taking my braids I had hiked in out. Christina arrived with her gear and our wedding attire just in case, not knowing at all that it was literally “go” time. We got ready in her van and then headed to the trail, where we ended the Wonderland for a first look. We then hiked in our wedding attire back up the trial towards the best view we saw that am hoping the weather would stay for a bit longer. It did not. The big thick clouds were here. We headed back to the parking lot. It was important to Bill that we get married this day, and I agreed as the weather wasn’t looking much better the next day. We decided to get married at a place in the park we knew was beautiful no matter the weather that also still offered some privacy. We shared our super intimate and emotional vows with each other and celebrated with a glass of champagne before heading back home to our van and then back to the Airbnb to reunite with Indy. Christina cooked us a lovely first meal as a married couple, Salmon with stuffed mushrooms and we split a three layer chocolate desert to end the night.
Overall, the wedding day and hiking experience wasn’t what we had imagined, but it was worth it. For the trail, I knew it was going to be intense, hard and almost unreal even if we got one of our ideal itineraries. It was so much more than that. We both realized we were really just craving time together at camp to cook, eat, cuddle and talk together. We had brought a marriage book along we wanted to read together, but there just wasn’t time with the plan we got for the camping permit. However, we did get a real life experience, we had to make choices together. Very real and consequential, hard choices. We had to push each other and support each other. We had to survive together. We had to be positive together. Honestly, there is no other human on this planet I would have wanted to go through that experience with.
For the wedding day, I am glad we called it “quits” when we did. We both thought to ourselves, we don’t want to go into the wedding day completely exhausted and miserable. So we probably could have finished the trial, but I am glad we didn’t so we could not just think about our woes during our vows and could actually just enjoy that moment together. We choose to get married on a backpacking trip because we believe that your wedding day should reflect life. This is your best day ever because you are becoming life long partners, but marriage is real. It will test you, it will you surprise you, it will provide you with support, beauty, teamwork, but it will also push your limits. It is a journey and our elopement was for sure a journey.
As you may know Bill and I love hearing marriage advice from those in it for the long haul. We wrote a blog about it and we keep a little journal full of marriage advice from folks we have met. While I was getting ready on the side walk at Sunrise two ladies stopped to talk to me and they gave me some of my favorite marriage advice we have gotten so far:
Married 35 years – “How the uphills on the trial feel like they are endless and awful, but also how those amazing and rewarding downhills feel so good, that is marriage”
Honeymoon Backpacking Trip Outside of Mt Rainier
I still couldn’t imagine getting married without Indy being apart of the events. Since we decided to do the wonderland trail which is inside of a National Park there was no way he could go. So we decided to do a separate, smaller back packing trip with Indy a week or so later on a trail overlooking Mount Rainier. We ventured off road in the van for a few hours to get to the trailhead. Packed up our gear and headed out for the 3 mile in trek. We for sure ended up carrying the cat most of the way up the mountain to get to the top for sunset. We were blessed with an incredible view of the mountain, and I am pretty sure I could see a part of the trial we hiked from where we are dinner that night, left overs from our hiking cache lol. We got all dressed up again for some self portraits with furry child and “our” mountain. Once the sun had set and the stars came out we all sat cuddled up in the base of a tree looking at the stars over the mountain chatting about our crazy adventure, what we want to do for our intimate family reception next year and life.
That evening in our tent I gave Bill a book I had began writing in July 2020 making a daily diary entry recalled a memory together for that day, or why I love him. In the morning we woke up to an incredible sunrise. Before taking down camp to start our hike back we put Indy’s paw prints on our copy of our marriage license. We ate one last mountain house meal over looking the mountain, this would also be our goodbye to the mountain until next season in Washington. It was a wonderful hike down as an official family. <3
Here are a few of the other vendors we used that we highly recommend to any of our own couples planning their elopement: Joey’s Doing Your Make Up for my hair/makeup on our hike with the cat, Lauren Yvonne Design for our Vow books and Brides for a Cause for my dress.