|Gene and Greg at the first flower meadow|
About that time Greg Lief, creator of the Oregon Wildflowers Facebook page and website, mentioned he was planning a trip to this area and was looking for company. Having met Greg last year on Dog Mountain, I immediately jumped at the chance.
|The larkspur was thick!|
So that's how I found myself one Sunday morning in mid-June, heading to Iron Mountain with two Portland hiking legends - Greg Lief, well-known wildflower expert, and Gene, prolific hiker and frequent contributor, better known as "pdxgene" on the OregonHikers site.
Iron Mountain's trailhead is located in the Central Oregon Cascades at Tombstone Pass, about 36 miles east of Sweet Home. A good two hour-plus drive from Portland, my hiking companions and I got an extremely early start. But the early bird gets the worm (or in this case, the prime parking spot) as we were the first car in the lot at 8 am.
|Twin blue butterflies|
Our loop began with a short jaunt through the Tombstone Nature Trail, featuring dense woods and a lovely meadow. On the opposite side of Hwy 20 we met up with the Cone Peak Trail, and our climbing began.
William L. Sullivan's "100 Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades" states that this entire ridge, from Iron Mountain to Echo Mountain, is a biological wonderland. This area supports 17 different types of trees (more than any other area in Oregon) and 60 plant species considered rare or unusual in the Western Cascades.
|Little bug on a flower|
Greg warned Gene and I that he stopped to record and photograph all the wildflowers he spotted, so he'd likely be hiking slowly. A pokey hiker myself, I wasn't too worried. But about a mile down the trail we came across the first of many fabulous wildflower meadows. There were so many larkspur blooms an entire slope was purple. Paintbrush, Mariposa lilies (aka "cat's ear") and many other colorful varieties decorated the area. Forward progress ground to a screeching halt.
|Paintbrush was fabulous too|
Gene's a photographer too, so at first he and I had a grand time meandering amongst the blooms, capturing all the beauty with our cameras. Then we both sat and waited for Greg. It took a long time before Greg finished his documentation. We were both beginning to get a little antsy (Gene did go back and check on Greg once), but finally he appeared on the trail and we continued on.
As we climbed higher, the forest gave way to a rocky clearing with amazing views. I could see Cone Peak's summit rising above, and Iron Mountain anchoring the western horizon. But, best of all, these meadows were chock-full of flowers.
|Gene wanders through the flower fields|
When I hike with my normal group of buddies, I'm always the one lagging behind snapping copious photos. So it was unusual (and a little nice) to be the one out front for a change. Greg encouraged Gene and I to go ahead if we wanted, so I followed Gene through a large meadow blazing with color.
|A look back at Cone Peak|
Cone Peak shadowed one side of this fabulous meadow. Although our trail wouldn't lead to the summit, passing by it's flowery shoulder was more than enough. Larkspur was especially plentiful, coloring the entire hillside purple. Gene and I saw so much of it, we started joking "ho-hum, more larkspur."
|Photo ops abounded!|
From his many posts, I knew Gene was an enthusiastic hiker, often visiting out-of-the way places and more popular trails during the midweek. He has an inflatable kayak that he carries in to explore remote mountain lakes. Gene explained how he'd pared down his lifestyle such that he could afford to work part-time. That enables him to play on weekdays when everyone else is at work. (This man has his priorities straight!)
|Greg on the ridge between Cone Peak and Iron Mtn|
Beyond Cone Peak's wonderful meadows, our trail descended slightly to a saddle. We contoured part way around Iron Mountain, first through more meadows, then climbing up into a shady forest.
I hung back with Greg for a bit, hoping to glean some more wildflower information. Greg's a self-taught wildflower expert and a wealth of information. He maintains the website Oregon Wildflowers that provides bloom reports statewide.
Greg pointed out a pretty yellow stonecrop flower, just starting to bloom, something I otherwise would've likely walked by without noticing.
|Looking up Iron Mtn's summit|
After a long walk along Iron Mountain, my companions and I finally came to a junction with the summit trail. From here it was a 650 foot climb to the top. Gene mentioned he wasn't fond of trails with exposure, but said he'd be okay if he followed my footsteps.
So Gene and I set out for Iron Mountain's summit, with Greg lagging behind to check out the flowers. Although many great specimens lined the trail, by this point I was hungry and ready for a lunch break on top. It was a tough, steep trudge. By now the clouds had lifted, and sunny skies made temps rise significantly. But I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, until finally I was looking ahead to the last rocky switchback.
|Nice observation platform atop Iron Mtn|
In place of a long-ago lookout tower, a huge wooden deck had been built atop Iron Mountain's summit. Gene wasn't fond of it's precarious position, and opted to head back down, promising he'd wait at the junction.
I plopped myself on one of the wooden benches and began devouring my lunch. Greg arrived a few minutes later, and joined me. Besides the stunning views, we were entertained by the antics of a few determined chipmunks. Although we didn't feed them, apparently other hikers had, as the critters ventured extremely close and weren't afraid to beg.
|Panoramic view atop Iron Mtn|
Oh - the views from the top were amazing! All of the major Cascade Peaks were visible and to the west you could make out Marys Peak and the Coast Range. Green foothills spread out in all directions like a rumpled blanket.
|The Three Sisters and rock penstemon|
Some gorgeous pink Rock Penstemon was blooming on a stony outcrop. With the Three Sisters anchoring the horizon, it made a lovely foreground subject.
|This butterfly finally posed for me|
Below the summit platform, a few swallowtail butterflies flitted about. One kept landing on a nearby tree, but would take off every time I pointed my camera it's way. Not easily deterred, I kept trying. My patience paid off in the end, when after a few minutes of waiting it finally settled on a branch and posed for several minutes. Greg noticed my luck, and tried to capture an image for himself.
|View towards the Coast Range|
Butterfly photo captured, it was time to meet Gene back at the trail junction. My trip down was quick, but wonderful. Now that I wasn't huffing and puffing, I could enjoy the spectacular views and flowers as the trail wound its way downhill. However, I was met with hordes of people trudging up, lots of panting dogs, and even a large family with several young children (Greg, following behind, witnessed one of them having a huge meltdown).
|Colorful flowers at Iron Mtn base|
Although we'd covered the 6.6 mile loop at a leisurely pace, I'd enjoyed having ample time to explore and photograph such a unique area. The day had been successful. My memory card was full of great shots, plus I'd met two new hiking pals and learned lots about the local wildflowers.
Back at Greg's car, I thought the day was over. But Greg and Gene wanted to check out Echo Basin, a short nearby trail into a beautiful meadow, reputed to have a terrific wildflower bloom. So - stay tune for my next post and see what we found!
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