On a dreamy summer morning, the South Santiam River flows fast and clear and provides a fine place to start a day that promises a simmering afternoon.
US Forest Service Ranger Jennifer O’Leary said that Yukwah Campground puts you in touch with Cascade Mountain adventures. “There are so many recreation opportunities available along the river corridor; developed campgrounds and dispersed camping, river recreation and lots of hiking trails.”
The camping and especially the hiking are all right with me, 30 miles east of Sweet Home along State Highway 20, where the spacious, barrier free Walton Ranch Trail provides wheelchair accessibility and leads you up a gentle grade through a lichen-draped forest.
The payoff of your hiking effort is a sprawling viewing platform that’s more than a hundred feet long and gives you a peek at views of the South Santiam River and a huge meadow beyond where Roosevelt elk are often seen too.
The short hike is a fine warm-up for a dandy just up the road, too. If time is on your side for a day-long excursion, discover the spectacular bursts and hues of an amazing array of red, blue, and yellow alpine wildflowers that steal the scene at the little-known geologic wonder named Iron Mountain.
This destination will challenge you with its 1.7-mile hike and 1,500 feet of elevation gain. Cesar Barajas is an avid hiker who said that when he tackles Iron Mountain, he carries food, plenty of water and – of course, his camera. “The hike is not easy,” noted Barajas. “You are definitely going to drop some sweat along the way, but the spectacular views and all the wildflowers make the trip so exciting.”
The Iron Mountain Trail leads through stands of trees and up the side of the mountain at a moderate grade. It branches about halfway up – stay to the right and you’ll soon be zigging and zagging along a series of switchbacks up an even steeper grade. There’s quite an impressive show as you ramble through meadow after meadow exploding with wild color.
Pause often, catch your breath and savor the likes of sapphire lupine or crimson paintbrush – plus larkspur, penstemon and columbine; there are so many wildflower varieties that are always at your side. Practically every wildflower that grows in the Western Cascade Mountains – more than 300 species – can be found along this trail.
Jennifer O’Leary added that the wildflower show peaks in July, but many varieties continue blooming through September. “You can experience not only the wildflowers that grow here into the fall, but you can look out across the Cascades – in fact, the top of Iron Mountain was actually the site of a former lookout.”
The fire lookout days are gone and now there is a spacious wooden platform with benches that provide a fine resting place. You can sit and drink in the gorgeous views of a dozen snowy Cascade Mountain peaks.
You can also discover the unique geology of the place: 6 million years ago, successive eruptions from Iron Mountain reached across the landscape. Through the eons, oxidation has cast many of the ancient and exposed cliffs, outcroppings and spires in varied hues of burnished red. “Everywhere I look up here,” noted Barajas, “There’s something to view: you have all of these mountains and then this carpet of color. It’s all so awesome.”
While the hike is steep, narrow in places and has many switchbacks, the summer alpine wildflowers steal the scene. Early mornings and late evenings are best.
Oregon’s Iron Giant will capture your heart and offer you an invitation to return. And you will!
Directions: From Portland travel south on Interstate 5 to Albany and the junction with U.S. 20. Take U.S. 20 east through Sweet Home. At 19 miles beyond Sweet Home you will reach Yukwah Campground, one mile further is the Walton Ranch Interpretive Trail that is wheelchair-accessible. To reach Iron Mountain Trailheads: travel Hwy 20 east for 34 miles to FS Road 15 and turn right. The parking area is 0.5 mile down the road to your right. A second trailhead can be accessed by traveling approximately 32 miles from Sweet Home and then turn left on 035. Travel 2.6 miles on 035 to the trailhead. A restroom is available at this trailhead. Not at the other. An interpretive brochure is available at the trailhead. A NW Forest Service Pass is required.