Iron Horse Trail

I headed east to avoid rain, get in a long hike, and checkout the progress of spring wildflowers. I expected sun most all day. I also expected wind. A cold steady 10-15 mph wind in your face all day gets a little annoying. A lot annoying. Still, I was ready to take my chances on the wind to get a day of sunshine. Very little traffic as I headed out of Seattle at 7:00 am. The drive took less time than I planned. I exited at Cle Elum and drove through South Cle Elum. The main road continues under I-90 and a little more than a mile later at the sharp right turn I pulled into the small lot on the left. It was only 8:30 am. 94 miles in 90 minutes. As expected it was chilly but the wind was still pretty light. For the first time I saw many horses between the railroad grade and the Yakima River.

The Iron Horse Trail from South Cle Elum to the tunnel is a lonesome walk. I seldom see more than a few mountain bikers in the spring or fall when I hike it. A very good variety of spring wildflowers and some great fall colors. My first visit was in 1990. I've hiked it nearly a dozen times now. The grade is as flat as possible while following a river. Maybe 100' of elevation change in the 7.5 miles to the tunnel. At times it is right along the river. At times the river is out of sight. The uphill side is steep. This is a canyon walk. I-90 is far above, out of sight and sound.

In 2009 I hiked the route one week later and the wildflowers were at their peak. In 2011 It was 4 weeks later and peaking flowers. I knew I as a little early but hoped for the best. No wildflowers in bloom near the trailhead. Balsamroot are leafing out but still several weeks from blooming. Lots of leaves along the trail. There is a mix of evergreens and deciduous trees along the grade. A nice mix of colors. A short way along I did see one patch of Oregon anemones. Tough to get a photo as the wind was picking up. It was a tail wind so not too cold in the morning. I would have a headwind for the return. The sky was completely blue. I hardly saw a cloud the whole hike.

I expected to see some skunk cabbage in bloom. At first I was disappointed. The left side of the trail has desert wildflowers. The right, uphill side, has forest wildflowers. I find that seeing both types virtually next to each other is a highlight of this trip. Seeing that I was early in the season the forest flowers predominated at first. The more forested first part soon showed its bounty. I have figured out where to look and soon found a patch of trillium in bloom. There was false Solomon's seal there too. The skunk cabbage began and there is a lot of it in bloom. Creeks come down the steep hillside and run along the grade before culverts divert the water into the river. Those wet spots were full of skunk cabbage. I stopped to check out the junction of the Yakima and Teanaway Rivers. Both are full with spring snow melt.

Farther along there is a meadow full of balsamroot and lupine in season. The vat majority have not begun to bloom. I did find several small patches of balsamroot and some large yellow violets in bloom. In a week or two there will be a riot of color. Next up is the power line corridor. Power from the dams on the east side heading to the cities on the west side of the mountains. On the opposite side of the river are farms and old Highway 10. This is the largest flat spot in the canyon. There are several apple trees below the grade here. They are just beginning to leaf out. There are gates on both sides of the power line corridor. On both of them the locking chains are broken. I jury rigged them as best I could. The eastern one was wide open when I arrived. When the lock failed the wind blew the gate open. State Parks might want to check into it.

I kept a look out and finally found the old water wheel on the opposite side. It is slowly falling apart. It is no longer round as part of it has fallen off. I've been taking photos for over a decade and comparing them. It will probably be gone in a few years. The river soon goes out of sight. Steep canyon on the south and trees blocking the river on the north. This section is very lonesome. The big field on the right came up and for the first time in many visits there were no horses. The grade began to open up. The river came back and some wildflowers appeared. I saw lots of bright yellow Oregon grape flowers and some ballhead waterleaf. Just a few spring beauty and one clump of woodland stars. The wind continued to make it tough to photograph. On the plus side it was not as windy as I had feared.

Soon the wild farm came into view. I was really surprised when I saw them for the first time. The sit right above the river. The last mile to the tunnel seemed to take forever. After a lot of photo stops the first half I picked up the speed considerably. Miles six and seven were the fastest of the day at 17 and 16 minutes. it is a flat railroad grade. I was glad to finally reach the tunnel. I arrived just in time for lunch at 11:52. 3:17 total travel time. On my last few visits the tunnel was closed due to danger of rocks falling from the ceiling. I have walked through a few times over the years when it was open. It is now open once again.

The parks folks have placed a raised box with a clear opening top in front of the tunnel. It contains liability waivers. You can go through the tunnel but you must agree to accept the risk. An interesting way to handle the situation. Fifteen miles was enough for me this day. The tunnel can wait for my next visit. The wind was steady but not too bad coming back. There were a few spots were it was very strong and very cold. Short sleeves part of the way out turned to long sleeves all the way back. A mile back I met the first people of the day. Two bikers heading east. And they say that trails are too crowded. I went 8.5 miles before I saw anyone. I did notice several other varieties of desert wildflowers on the east end of the trip. Not many yet but they are starting to bloom. I missed the small old building at Horlick and made a point of seeing if it's still standing on the trip out. Yep, it is still there. Brush has grown up all around it but it's still standing.

As always, the bottom of my feet start to complain after a dozen miles on gravel. A small price to pay for a lonesome river walk. After crossing the power line corridor I met the third person of the day. He was biking and had two fluffy white dogs on leashes.  A mile later I saw a runner, the fourth and last person of the day. There are three picnic tables at rest stops in the first three miles. One has a nice view from right above the Yakima River. I had to stop there and take a longer break. It was still pretty early and I only had a mile to go. All too soon I packed up and headed back. I did see one more patch of Oregon anemones.

I arrived back at my car at 3:30 pm. Seven hours total time for a 15 mile hike. As it turned out I was a little too early for the peak flower show but I did see limited numbers of a variety of wildflowers in bloom. It was definitely not too early to enjoy. Once again I was nearly alone the whole day. Not even many bikers this time. I cold bike this route in two hours round trip but continue to hike it. Many of the small wildflowers I would not have seen on a bike at three times the speed. I just enjoy the slower pace and more time enjoying the views far and near. A fine sunny day of hiking on a day that was wet on the west side of the mountains.

Getting Started
Spring Leaf Color
Reaching Yakima River
Picnic Overlook
Blue River
First Skunk Cabbage
Forest Plants
Moe Skunk Cabbage
Open Trail
Mile Post 2080
Oregon Anemone
Teanaway & Yakima
Light Shine On River
Light & Shadows
Cabbage Bog
Small Yellow Flower
Yellow Violet
Blooming Balsamroot
Colorful Leaves
More Balsamroot
Power Lines
Water In The Chute
Ranch Across River
Green Hills
Columnar Formation
Enclosed Grade
Oregon Grape
Bright Leaves
Back Along River
Wind Towers
Rocky Cairn
Tunnel Ahead
Inside Tunnel
Warning Sign
Sign Waiver Sign
Balsamroot Bunch
Heading Up River
Ballhead Waterleaf
Light & Dark
Spring Beauty
Woodland Stars
Horlick Depot
Close Up
On The Road Again
Oregon Anemone II
Stuart Range
Peaks & Horses
Click on thumbnails to get larger pictures.

Trips - 2014