Saturday, June 13, 2015

Wildflower Hikes: Iron Mountain

As Highway 20 writhes, snakelike, over Tombstone Summit on its way from Sweet Home to Sisters, observant travelers will notice a rugged peak with a "finger" pointing skyward. This peak is Iron Mountain, one of the stellar wildflower areas of the state; in fact, over 300 different species have been noted on its rocky slopes. Peak bloom time varies depending on snowmelt, but by early July the flowers are usually in full splendor and snow fields are confined to near the peak. This year (2015), however, snow pack is light and the flowers are blooming in June.

This short hike is not for the faint of heart, as it climbs nearly 1300 feet in a little over a mile and a half. The wildflowers begin almost immediately, though, and as the trail climbs, the species change and the views improve; photo stops are inevitable and give hikers an excuse to rest.

To find the most popular trailhead, drive 34 miles east of Sweet Home and turn right on Forest Road 15. A short road leads to a small parking lot. The trail begins in lush woodland, then heads up the mountainside.

Cone Peak
This is an out-and-back trail, but we have also done Iron Mountain as a loop with the Cone Peak trail. To find that trailhead, drive a little further to the Tombstone parking area. There is a small, moist meadow here known as Tombstone Prairie, itself known for its wildflowers. Walk along the edge of the meadow, cross the highway, and head uphill. This trail passes along a shoulder of Cone Peak and meets up with the Iron Mountain trail. After visiting the summit, descend on the Iron Mountain trail, then look for a tie trail to the Old Santiam Wagon Road, which will take you back to your car. While this route is several miles longer, it is less traveled and passes through more extensive wildflower areas.

Panorama from Cone Peak, Iron Mountain to the right
Another trailhead for Iron Mountain is accessible from Civil Road (FR 035), about 33 miles from Sweet Home. This approach reduces the length to one mile, but we have not taken that particular route. We invite comments from hikers who know this part of the trail.

However you may choose to reach the summit of Iron Mountain, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views in all directions. This was once the site of a fire lookout, and until recently the charred and twisted remains of the old building littered the mountaintop. Now the Forest Service has replaced the old lookout with a wooden viewing platform.

If You Go
Be prepared to pay a parking fee (currently $5) if you do not have a Northwest Forest Pass. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and carry drinking water. Keep children and dogs under control, as this trail passes along some steep dropoffs. A walking stick can be helpful when crossing snowfields.

The closest camping is available at House Rock Campground to the west and Lost Prairie Campground to the east. Lost Prairie can accommodate trailers, but please note that individual camping is only available here when the campground is not reserved for groups. House Rock is best suited for tents and small campers.

This is a rewarding hike any time during the summer and fall. Hikers who miss the big spring show will enjoy the quieter trails of late summer and early fall, and the views are always well worth the climb.


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