Thursday, July 14, 2022

Iron Mountain

Who knew Iron Mountain was such an amazing wildflower hike? The short answer is everyone but me, but that's not entirely accurate, either. I had heard rumors about the wildflower display on Cone Peak and Iron Mountain but had only ever gone on this hike either in winter or late autumn. During those two seasons, any vegetation capable of decorating the two peaks were either all dried up and shriveled like a mummified ancestor, or buried under a layer of snow like a mummified Eskimo ancestor. So, it was high time to make a July sortie out to the Tombstone Pass area and have a look-see.

The trail slices through some of
that Tombstone Prairie greenery

Accompanied by trusty side-kick Missy, I set out on the Santiam Wagon Road which immediately dropped down into Tombstone Prairie. Here, the verdant meadows of the prairie reposed in the valley laying between Cone Peak and Browder Ridge. Rampant greenery flourished under a deep blue sky and already we were off to a fine start.

Columbia tiger lily, always elegant and eye-catching

After an appreciative gawk-stop at the green prairie, we grabbed the Cone Peak Trail and began heading uphill in earnest. At least the hiking was done in a beautifully shaded forest which gave rise to more greenery and a different cast of wildflowers to admire, causing us to almost forget we were walking uphill. The forest floor was strewn with queen's cup, Sitka valerian, Columbia windflower, and other white-colored flowers. Representing the non-white end of the color spectrum were peavine, Columbia tiger lily, woodland penstemon, and a small reef of Merten's coralroot

Golden yarrow, one of the brightest flowers around

Maybe it was a pre-existing condition, but our opinion was that the flowers in the forest were pretty spectacular. Nothing could ever top this. Oh, we were naive then, so early on in our hike. After a mile or two of steady uphill walking, the trail began to break out into intermittent rock gardens with golden yarrow, rock penstemon, and stonecrop stuffed into the cracks between rocks. Nearby, bloomed single specimens of dark purple larkspur, hinting at the larkspur show in our near future.

The larkspur hordes

One larkspur is elegantly beautiful but multiply that by a factor of 4.7 googols and you have the Cone Peak experience in summation. The trail passed through open areas with massive armies of larkspur marching forward to champion the cause of all things purple. Interspersed among the larkspur hordes were occasional specimens of white larkspur, something I had never seen before. The purple meadows were simply amazing and beyond words, although it seems I've managed to come up with a few.

Cone Peak looms above its wildflower gardens

Eventually the path made its way into the pumice barrens below Cone Peak, although they were not as barren as I have seen them in winter. A veritable rainbow of colored petals resided at the end of various flower stalks, splotching the slopes of Cone Peak with color, like a geologic paint palette. All hiking came to a screeching halt as we perused and/or photographed the fields of flowers.

South Peak rises next to Cone Peak

Even without the wildflowers, the loop hike around Cone Peak and Iron Mountain is pretty cool. Views of nearby peaks abound and to the east of Cone Peak, rise South Peak, Echo Mountain, and North Peak, seemingly placed there just for hikers to admire. Apparently, the colorful flower displays are not limited to just Cone Peak, for the other mountains sported large swaths of yellow on their shoulders, to go along with their green meadows.

Missy leads the charge up Iron Mountain

After several miles of mouths-agape hiking through the scenery and wildflowers, we rounded Iron Mountain by hiking through a shady forest of mossy fir trees before intersecting with the Iron Mountain Trail. Yup, it was time to hike up Iron Mountain itself, and this trail definitely put the "up" in "yup"

Dizzying view from the trail

Back and forth and always up, the switchbacking trail went to and fro through the ever ubiquitous meadows and wildflowers, affording me the opportunity to gawk or rest, depending on who you listen to. Iron Mountain is a rugged beast, and accordingly, we hiked past a series of rocky outcroppings, jagged cliffs, and one lone arch. The elevation gained served up ever increasing views of the surrounding river valleys and mountains.

Mount Jefferson was like a ghostly pimple

There is a wooden observation deck on the Iron Mountain summit and a 360 degree panorama that allowed us to play the Name-That-Peak game, although a nearby signboard inspired some of us to cheat. Beginning with Diamond Peak to the south, the Cascades stretched north in a successive chain of volcanoes, the taller ones being snowcapped. The Three Sisters, Mount Washington, and Belknap Crater all loomed on the near eastern skyline, but it was snowy Mount Jefferson looming over Scar Mountain that commanded the most attention. Further to the north was Mount Hood and amazingly, we could even see Mount Adams from all the way in southern Washington.

Bunchberry bloomed in bunches

All good things come to an end though, and regrettably, we hiked off Iron Mountain's summit and then down to Tombstone Pass via the Santiam Wagon Road, which is actually a trail that follows the old historical wagon route. The Santiam Wagon Road ran through another shady forest that sported the same wooded and flowered scenery we had started out through, so many epic hours ago.

Iron Woman on the Iron Mountain Trail

So, now Missy and I both know Iron Mountain rocks in July! Not sure if I'm quite ready to say I'll hike here every July, but that's a distinct possibility.

The Cone Peak flower show

For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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