November 3, 2015.
7.8 miles | 1900′ ele. gain | 2.5 hours
Tombstone Prairie > Cone Peak Meadows > Iron Mtn Trail > Santiam Wagon Road
I can’t believe this is my first trip report for Iron Mountain. Located conveniently on Highway 20, with easy access to an incredible wildflower display in spring and summer, Iron Mountain is by far the most popular stop for hikers traveling through the South Santiam River Corridor. Even Portlanders have heard of Iron Mountain. Coming from Corvallis, this is a pretty standard hike for me, and I’ve been on these trails several times since moving here.
But today would be an unusual visit to Iron Mountain. The flowers have long since disappeared, and the large parking area at the trailhead sat completely empty. It was a dreary November Tuesday with hardly any visibility and a lousy weather forecast. Most fair-weather hikers have hung up their boots for the year and have settled in to wait for spring.
This was precisely my best opportunity to pounce on a popular trail, and today I would not be disappointed.
The first half a mile of trail descended to a small meadow just below the noisy highway. The slick mud made for an attention-getting start to the hike. After crossing a small creek on a bridge, the trail led up to the highway for the first of two road crossings (the most dangerous parts of the hike). Then, the trail switchbacked through the forest to rock outcrops and meadows below Cone Peak.
This was the part I’d been looking forward to. Much of the forest floor and tree branches had a light coating of snow from recent snowfall, and it looked like more would be dropping down today. As I proceeded up to the awesome vistas on the south flank of the mountain, I spun around to appreciate not endless views of the rugged landscape, but instead a snow-frosted wonderland enclosed by a dense fog. It was incredibly quiet; the road noise had faded away. Tiny snow flakes drifted down from the sky. Winter had arrived.
I plucked myself out of the mesmerized state I found myself in and continued traipsing along the trail. Some parts were quite narrow and eroded, prime locations for some trail work next year. As the trail left the meadow it dropped back into the woods. Now on the northwest side of Iron Mountain, I could feel the winds blowing from the west and sending snowflakes right into my cold face. I pulled my sleeves down tighter over my hands and kept charging down the trail.
Once at the junction with Iron Mountain trail, I set off on the last climb of the day, gaining over 500′ of elevation to reach the wooden platform on the summit. Walking uphill is a very efficient way to stay warm, so I appreciated the opportunity to keep going without having to add another layer. Icicles formed on the exposed rock beneath the summit. Visibility dropped significantly, and as I continued up I began to get really excited about dreaming up some winter adventures. Surely there would be snow this year.
At the top, an inch or two of solid snow covered the platform and all the interpretive signs. I ducked behind a stubby tree to sit and eat my lunch out of the wind. It was incredible to feel the cold air on my face after an endless summer of warm weather hiking.
On the way down, it was all business as I moved quickly to stay warm and get back to the car. The weather was continuing to deteriorate and I’d seen this all before, anyways. The best was behind me, so now it was time for some cardio conditioning.
I crossed the road once more and reached the junction with the Santiam Wagon Road, which read 1.0 mile to Tombstone Pass. I looked at my watch and started jogging down the trail. I had a lasagna to make tonight. Arriving at the car 9 minutes later, I decided the sign was inaccurate.
According to William Sullivan’s guide, that last stretch of trail is only 0.6 miles, which seems much more likely considering my pace and time. (Don’t trust those FS signs!)
The mountains are saying it’s winter! I’m ready for it. Time to dust off the traction devices, break out the big puffy coats, hats and gloves. I’m so much in love with hiking in Oregon.