The Washington Trails Association website describes the Iron Goat Loop trail perfectly, calling it a “delightful loop back into history, full of scenic surprises.” I couldn’t have said it better. Mark this trail down as my new favorite! It is the perfect trail for history buffs.
Chad, Greer and I ventured out this past Saturday with few expectations of what we would see on this hike. I admit, I read enough of the description on the WTA website to know that (a) it would be an interpretive trail and (b) we would at some point see a tunnel (because I saw a photo of it on the website). Other than that, I read that the trail would be approximately 6 miles long with about 700 feet elevation gain – perfect! I thought. This would be a nice easy trail for a Saturday afternoon.
The parking lot (and really, the trail) was closed, however there were many cars parked just outside the lot, so we ventured forth. The trail is officially closed in the winter due to avalanche danger and if you do decide to go in the winter, you should always check the avalanche conditions (call 206-526-6677). We went in perfect conditions, so there was no fear of an avalanche that day.
The Iron Goat Loop follows the Great Northern Railway route (truly rails to trails!). The Great Northern Railway was created by James J. Hill (who you read about on the plaques dotting the trail).
At the time, this railroad was considered an engineering feat, bringing commerce through the Cascade Mountains at Stevens Pass on to Seattle in 1893. The trail gets its name from the railroad’s logo which was a mountain goat.
There was a fresh batch of snow on the ground, which made the scenery idyllic. Someone even built a snowman in the parking lot!
We peaked at the vintage caboose in the parking lot before officially hitting the trail.
The trail itself splits quickly – we took the Iron Horse Trail which continues straight. Despite the number of cars in the lot, we hiked in solitude for quite some time. It was one of those truly peaceful hikes through varying degrees of shade and sun and it was fun to see icicles hanging off the hillside.
A short way in to the hike, we approached the first “snowshed” – a huge wall meant to protect the trains from oncoming avalanches.
The avalanche concern is a big deal at this particular site. In 1910, the neighboring town of Wellington was hit with what is considered the worst avalanche in US history, wiping out the railroad – hence the ability to have it as a trail today – and killing almost 100 people. The snowshed walls which were once timber and are now concrete line this trail to protect against this grave concern. (Again, be sure to check conditions before venturing on a hike in this region in the winter!)
There are mile markers on the trail which measure the distance from St. Paul, Minnesota, where the Great Northern Train originated.
About a mile after the first marker, we encountered the first tunnel.
Viewing these tunnels, built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, gave us an appreciation for the truly phenomenal hard work that was done to create this railway.
This part of the trail held many more visual surprises for us (older tunnels, numerous small waterfalls, a trestle bridge, and wonderful views of the valley below.
Beware, most of the tunnels are unsafe (like this one below) and should only be viewed from the outside.
This loop is really two trails: the lower grade (which is ADA accessible and has a bit more in terms of the historical sites and interpretive plaques) and the upper trail. After about 2-1/2 miles, we took the stair path to the right, heading up to the upper trail. Although we only climbed about 700 feet to the upper trail, there was a considerable amount of snow on the upper trail compared to the lower trail
From this point in our hike, we encountered no other humans, although we saw lots of rabbit tracks in the snow. It was serene, idyllic, and a little isolated. Especially when we made the only human footprints on the fresh snow.
We continued on the upper trail, marveling at the beautiful snow-clad trees and passing many more snow sheds.
Then we discovered an almost-hidden grotto – a tunnel buried in snow. It was like something out of a mystical movie!
With the sun starting to go down, we increased our pace until we reached the Windy Point tunnel. Just past the tunnel is a trail heading down the mountain. We missed this at first and ended up at the viewpoint overlooking the valley.
Great view, but we were starting to worry we wouldn’t find the trail down before the sunset. So we quickly backtracked and found the trail hiding just behind the directional signpost. We practically ran down the steep switchbacks (not recommended!) and were relieved when we found our way to the parking area – ours was the last car there!
We got a late start this day. We recommend newbies to this trail start it early – particularly in the winter, when the sun sets earlier. It is a great trail and is actually meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, which can be done if you allow the time. We loved, loved, loved this trail and plan to come back in other seasons. Below is a video summary of our fun day at Iron Goat Trail.
Important Travel Notes:
Directions to the Iron Goat Trailhead: Drive US 2 East. The parking lot is 9 miles past the town of Skykomish on the left side of the street as you head east. Look for the red caboose!
Required Credentials: Northwest Forest Pass