We discovered the Iron Goat Trail while conducting research on trails with tunnels. We know, it sounds oddly specific and slightly creepy, but October is the season of rainfall in Washington State. What better way to guarantee a day on the trails than seek shelter and fun facts while on the walk? After narrowing down our hiking pursuits to a day hike within driving distance of Seattle, and mild elevation gain to get our hiking glutes under us, we settled on the Iron Goat Trail in the Cascade Mountains off of Highway 2.*
We took off on a Saturday morning in October with a bag of breakfast sandwiches in hand. We packed light and brought day packs, Camelbak bladders, and fall layers. The drive along Highway 2 was stunning, spotted with fall colors and rolling blue mountains as you dive into the Cascades. The Tye River rode along the journey with us, beginning to grow aquamarine and more rapid as the rainfall intensifies with the fall season. The drive was well-populated with commuters, hikers, and campers, not yet brimming with snowbirds heading to Stevens Pass (…yet). Just past Deception Falls Picnic Area and just short of where Highway 2 turns into Stevens Pass Highway, we turned off onto the Old Cascade Highway for the western end of the Iron Goat Trail. The west trail head is less than a 10-minute drive up the side of the mountain under shaded trees. We arrived to 10 parking stalls–only half of which were filled–and the cleanest pit toilet we have seen all year.
We cinched up our bags and headed off on the lower trail in pursuit of tunnels. Lucky for us, there wasn’t a rain cloud in sight! The lower trail is flat and, when walked west-to-east, falls at a barely-perceptible decline to encourage your feet along the path. It is also the handicap-accessible portion of the trail. The upper trail lies to your left, elevated behind large concrete walls along the walk. These concrete walls are historical evidence of the deteriorating hillside–due to coal-induced forest fires, logging, and avalanches–and the threat that drove the Great Northern Railway off of the side of Windy Mountain. Most of the lower path is well-maintained, wide gravel or dirt trails. We were lucky to catch the foliage just past the peak of fall colors with plenty of leaves left on the trees and just enough on the ground to add crunch to our journey. As we made your way along the first mile, there were peek-a-boo views of the hills and mountains across the Highway 2 corridor with placards of historical facts about the railroad that once operated there. We could also see railroad tracks across the valley that followed the same route that once connected to the Iron Goat Trail portion of the tracks in the 1890’s. Today they are owned and operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway system.
We encountered the first of three tunnel ruins on the lower trail just over a mile into the hike at MP 1718.51. The concrete arches that reinforce each end of the tunnel are still intact, while the middle originally covered by a wooden snowshed is broken down and deteriorating. Signs clearly marked the danger of entering the tunnels, but the cool breeze that hit us from within indicated just how deep the tunnel goes. As we made our way between tunnel ruins, adits–short inlets created to gain access to the center of the tunnel during excavation–emitted cool air and whistling noises as we passed by. A beautiful wooden bridge completed the short journey from the first to the second ruin on the lower trail, this time with wooden infrastructure reinforcing the snowshed used as protection against avalanche debris. A wooden footpath delivered us over some marshy land to the final ruin, less than a mile from the first tunnel and two miles from the start of the trail. This marks the twin tunnels, built in 1916 by blasting through granite for a combined covered length of 2,057 feet (holy smokes!).
As we made our way the final mile to the end of the lower trail, we were presented with the option to exit to the east parking lot complete with red railroad car, turn around and hike back the way we came on the lower trail, or tackle some elevation gain to hike back on the upper trail. We decided on the upper trail, fortified by our delicious breakfast sandwiches and hoping for a view. The entire 700 feet of elevation gain is packed into a single mile of switchbacks up the mountainside; we advise bringing lots of water and a snack for this portion of the journey. There are peek-a-boo views at a few switchbacks along the hike where you can see down the Highway 2 valley. When you reach the top, you have the option for an 1/4 mile offshoot hike to Windy Point Viewpoint with views of the Stevens Pass Highway hillside and the still-operational west entrance to the 7.8 mile tunnel between Scenic and Berne. This tunnel took three years to build and is still one of the longest in the Western Hemisphere.
The three mile hike along the upper trail provided an elevated view of the mountainsides that accompanied us on the lower trail, with a few different stops for tunnel ruins more deeply deteriorated by the elements. These tunnel points reduced exposure to the elements when in operation and sped up travel time. Trains often had to slow to a crawl to make turns before the tunnels were in place; so extreme, they were at risk of derailing if they went over 5 miles per hour at certain points. We may or may not have entered the Windy Point Tunnel just to stand in total darkness, silence, and cold. We re-emerged to hike alongside birches and mushroom varieties on top of the concrete wall that hold up the upper trail. The sun rose and fell directly along the trail walk, so we were lucky to have golden light throughout the entire return journey. Hunger hit during the last mile of our 6 mile endeavor and we decided that a stop at Zeke’s was necessary to complete the car ride home. With burgers, milkshakes, and onion rings in our belly, we tackled the Sunday evening drive home to the tunes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
*This hike shares a lot of characteristics with but is not to be confused with the Iron Horse Trail in Snoqualmie area off of the I-90 corridor, whose tunnel closes seasonally November 1 through May 1. Stay tuned for a trip report spring 2019!