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Beauty of Iron Goat Trail hides tragic legacy of one of America's deadliest rail disasters

The trail follows a railroad grade as it climbs a portion of Stevens Pass in a six-mile loop between the Martin Creek and Scenic trailheads. NW Forest Pass required.

Darlene and I aren’t alone in our desire to #optoutside during the pandemic, trails have been very busy lately. As a rule, we don’t hike a trail if the parking lot at the trailhead is full. It’s easy to find a backup if the trail we were hoping to hike is too busy. The point is not just to get outside, but to do so safely.

To clarify, you don’t need to wear a mask the entire time you are hiking, you just need to don a face covering when you are passing other hikers and can’t maintain a safe distance. 

It is also worth mentioning that not all facilities are open at all trailheads, check trail reports, and web sites before you head out and remember, if you bring it with you pack it out. Many services have been cut due to the pandemic resulting in slow garbage pick-up; you may need to take your garbage home with you. The National Park Service has information on its website about safe trail etiquette.  

It’s also a good idea to verify if you need a pass to park at your chosen trailhead. The Iron Goat Trail requires a Northwest Forest Pass. 

There is room for all of us on Washington’s trails if we all commit to hiking responsibly. If you are concerned about over-crowded trails you can hike on weekdays or you can do what we do, hit the trails very early in the morning. 

When we arrived at the Marin Creek Trailhead to hike the Iron Goat Trail, we were greeted by an empty parking lot and beautiful early morning light. Named in honor of the Great Northern Railroad logo, Iron Goat Trail is a gentle stroll through northwest railroad history.  

The trail follows a railroad grade as it climbs a portion of Stevens Pass in a six-mile loop between the Martin Creek and Scenic trailheads. It also includes a three-mile spur trail to the former town of Wellington, the site of one of the nation’s worst rail disasters.

On March 1, 1910, the passenger train the Spokane Local No. 25 had been stuck in Wellington for days, glued in place by the notorious "cascade concrete,"  wet and heavy late winter snow. Then during a late-night thunderstorm, the unthinkable happened. An avalanche swept the No. 25 and the nearby Fast Mail Train No. 27 from the tracks, killing nearly 100 passengers and crew.

It also all but wiped the town from the map. Now the main attractions of the Iron Goat Trail are the remnants of the snow sheds and tunnels built to help prevent a similar tragedy. At the time these structures were engineering marvels, now the tunnels and sheds are in various stages of collapse as the forest reclaims the grade, only a few are safe to enter.

The trail is dotted with signs and kiosks detailing the history of what was at the time of its construction the northernmost transcontinental rail route in America. The hike can be eerie, as the sounds of the current rail line below can be heard while you peer into the past. 

The loop trail is very popular. We started at Martin Creek and headed up the grade in the clockwise direction.  A counterclockwise hike will include a very steep series of switchbacks at the halfway point near the Scenic trailhead. You will gain the 700 feet in just shy of a mile. Hiking clockwise spreads this gain out over nearly the entire length of the loop trail and includes a hike down the switchbacks instead of up them. 

Since most hikers choose the easier clockwise option this trail provides excellent opportunities for social distancing, you will seldom encounter other hikers on the upper grade. While the upper portion of the railroad grade can be slightly overgrown and narrow in places, (especially the spur trail to the old wooded spillway and reservoir) the lower grade’s three miles of ADA certified trail is wide enough for easy social distancing. At the halfway point of the loop, you will encounter a split in the trail, to the right is the spur leading down the switchbacks to the lower grade, the left is the trail that extends another three miles to Wellington.  

A quarter-mile up the trail towards Wellington you will find the Windy Point Overlook, an excellent spot to take a break and enjoy a lovely mountain view before heading down the switchbacks to the lower trail. 

The Scenic trailhead is the only of the three that currently has usable bathrooms, the others are locked due to the pandemic, so you may want to take a quick break there. The trail is very shady and features plenty of streams for your four-legged friends to cool off in. 

Safe hiking. 

About the author: Originally hailing from the Southwest Washington coast, Ben Rupp has been a Washington state resident for all but two days of his life, the first two days. His mother gave birth a week early while visiting family in Oregon. He eventually forgave her for this misstep. When he is not pushing buttons as an engineer at KING 5 News, Ben can be found snowboarding, skateboarding, traveling, digging through record stores for obscure vinyl records and going on adventures with his wife Darlene and their 65-pound husky mix Bonnie, all with a camera firmly attached to his person. 

The music in this video was provided by Jim Goodreau.

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