Thursday, October 31, 2013

Iron Goat Trail, October 2013

THE IRON GOAT TRAIL FROM SCENIC TO WELLINGTON The Iron Goat Trail between Skykomish and Stevens Pass is one of the best fall hikes around. Though Halloween has passed keep this hike in mind for next year if your friends and family enjoy Halloween-related themes - it is a great Halloween hike (spooky tunnels, oh my!) and with snow-sheds that haven’t been used so long that stalactites are growing from the ceiling. The “trail” is an old railroad grade once used by the Great Northern Railroad. Engineers didn’t realize how dangerous the route was across Stevens Pass until it was too late when in 1910 an avalanche knocked a train asunder in which many lives were lost and passengers trapped for days awaiting rescue from nearby settlements. The transformation of the railroad grade to trail began in the 1980s thanks to the dedication and efforts of the late Ruth Ittner, a prominent member of the Seattle branch of The Mountaineers. Ruth Ittner, employees of the Skykomish Ranger District, Volunteers of Washington (VOW) and others worked tirelessly to turn the abandoned railroad grade into a hiking trail for hikers of all ages and abilities. Ittner was also the founder of VOW and is honored by Washington Trails Association (WTA) as one of the 12 Hiking Legends. Ruth was hard to say “No” to – she’d take you aside and gently ask “Wouldn’t you like to volunteer for ____ (fill in the blank)”. Ruth was never too old to take on anything new and exciting including climbing courses and The Mountaineers photography courses. There are three trailheads to access the Iron Goat Trail; the Martin Creek trailhead (off the Old Cascade Highway), the Iron Goat Interpretive Site (at Scenic) where we started our hike and the Wellington trailhead at Stevens Pass. Of these trailheads Martin Creek and Scenic are the most accessible; getting to the Wellington trailhead is challenging if you are coming from the west because you must first drive east to Stevens Pass, turn around and head back west to find an easy-to-miss, steep gravel service road to the trailhead. If you start from Scenic take time to admire the red caboose and look at the interpretive kiosks to get a thumb-nail sketch of this historical railroad. Further along the grade other interpretative signs tell of the avalanches that doomed the route and cost the lives of many. The trail from Scenic to Windy Point is a good length for this time of year. There are 30 switchbacks from Scenic to Windy Point and in late October the trail was in good condition. The fleet of foot can continue beyond Windy Point as far as time, weather, energy and daylight allow. Though most of the fall color has past its seasonal blaze you’ll find colorful mushrooms of all shapes and sizes bordering the trail. At the first signed trail junction keep right and head uphill toward Windy Point. You can also turn left and walk a short distance for a view into a tunnel (you cannot hike through the tunnel). Peek inside where an interpretive kiosk gives a brief account of the Wellington disaster. On our hike clumps of mushrooms snuggled beside the trail, peeking out from pale bracken, still-green sword ferns and other vegetation. More forested switchbacks lead to a talus slope with a view to the west and US2. After negotiating the switchbacks and rocky steps the trail levels out on the railroad grade; here hikers can opt for a loop by turning west and following signs back to the trailhead. The railroad grade is easy-going once you are on it. Our goal was Windy Point for its views – plus Windy Point is situated in the sun making that an ideal spot for lunch or turnaround. In October the seasons were in transition; fireweed had gone to seed in silvery swirls and the leaves of Solomon’s seal were thin and translucent. Only the heart-shaped leaves of Wild Ginger were still green though something likes to nibble on the leaves. Before you get to Windy Point you’ll pass a sign for a toilet (right); a toilet with a view set far enough off the trail to ensure privacy. A little past the toilet sign you’ll come to Windy Point; here there are big views and the trail appears to end in a jumble of boulders (it doesn’t end there). Even though we planned to hike further we stopped to take in views of the first snow of the season dusting the peaks and ridges near Stevens Pass. Here you can also look straight down to US 2 and views across to the Chiwaukum mountains. Another feature of Windy Point (especially if it isn’t windy) is that it’s situated in the sun with plenty of places to settle a while. Just above Windy Point is a collapsed tunnel where the trail continues along the footing of the tunnel – the footing is about 2-1/2 feet wide but is covered with fallen leaves and could be slippery in frost or snow. Since the footing is also a few feet above the ground; some hikers might find this stretch a little spooky. You may wonder – as I did – what is the difference between a tunnel and a snow-shed? A snow-shed is open on one side, a tunnel is closed. After exiting the footing along the tunnel the trail continues through a shady, forested stretch and skirts seasonal waterfalls along an old retaining wall. When the light is right you might get lucky and see rainbows in the waterfalls. In about 4.5 miles we reached the west portal of the Wellington snow-shed. Here, you will see a tangle of rebar and a sign warning hikers of “extreme danger”. Stay on the established trail and watch for rock fall. Bring a flashlight not just for safe footing but also for better views of the ceiling and mineral formations along the concrete wall. Look up for old insulators along the grade – you may also spot old railroad ties on the open side of the snow-shed. About the mid-way through the tunnel a spur (right) leads to a platform designating the site of the Wellington train disaster (1910); here you will need a good imagination as no artifacts are within view (if any exist at all). This is also a pleasant place to linger as it is also situated in the sun with a bench. Shortly past the eastern portal you’ll come to the Wellington trailhead (this trailhead may be closed as it will soon be winter and it may not be possible to drive to the Wellington trailhead). Here we found a picnic table in the sun (the restrooms were locked) and enjoyed a leisurely lunch before retracing our route back to Scenic. Getting to the Iron Goat trailhead (Scenic trailhead): From Monroe on US 2 continue east to milepost 58.3. Turn left (north) onto the Old Cascade Highway and then immediately turn right into the trailhead, facilities and parking lot. While there is a sign for the center on US 2 the turn comes up quickly (look for the red caboose). A Northwest Forest Pass is required. Stats: Scenic to Wellington is 8.9 miles round trip with 1,550 feet of elevation gain. The map is Green Trails No. 176 Stevens Pass. For information on access to the Martin Creek trailhead or the Wellington trailhead and/or a detailed history of the Iron Goat trail visit their website for Volunteers of Washington (VOW): www.irongoat.org Additional Information: For trail and road conditions contact the Skykomish Ranger District – call 360-677-2414. You can also visit the WSDOT websites for up-to-date road/mountain pass conditions. To view photos of the Iron Goat Trail click on the link below, scroll down to the set for the Iron Goat Trail: www.flickr.com/photos/karenseyes/ . Karen Sykes

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