Just west of the Stevens Pass summit is a little town called Skykomish — most people travel right on by without even stopping. Little do they know this town is rich with history and great outdoor activities for folks of all ages and abilities.
My love for this area began when I took a job as trail crew boss for the Skykomish Ranger District of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest about 10 years ago. My position landed me on the Iron Goat Trail — a real gem of the Northwest that’s just 9 miles from Skykomish — working side by side with hundreds of dedicated volunteers who had a love of railroad history, the outdoors and volunteerism. The must-see trail runs along the historic rail line of the Great Northern Railway, which was part of the U.S. transcontinental railway in 1893.
The old railway section was abandoned in 1929, when Great Northern opened the 7.7-mile tunnel on the other side of Highway 2. The tunnel was the solution to a problem that resulted in the deadliest avalanche disaster in U.S. history. On Feb. 23, 1910, two trains that had been delayed by snow in Leavenworth headed west for Puget Sound. One was a passenger train and the other a mail train. After passing through the Cascade Tunnel, snow and avalanches forced the trains to stop near the small town of Wellington, just minutes from the summit of Stevens Pass. The trains were forced to wait out the blizzard for six days. On March 1, sometime after midnight, an enormous avalanche tore through Tye Valley, snapping trees like toothpicks and knocking the trains off the tracks, sending them plummeting down the mountainside 150 feet. The avalanche claimed 96 lives, and it took three weeks for the Great Northern to repair the tracks.
The Iron Goat Trail has been a real labor of love for many caring volunteers and Forest Service personnel who dedicate every Wednesday and Saturday during spring and summer months to its maintenance and improvement. The majority of the trail was built in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, so that people with disabilities — such as folks who use a wheelchair — can still enjoy the trail and the history of the area. It has three trailheads: Martin Creek, Scenic and Wellington. Each trailhead offers a different experience and something incredible to see.
The Martin Creek Trailhead offers two options for adventure: those who are able can hike up a switchback (not ADA accessible) that connects with the upper grade of the trail system, where hikers will find relics like old snowshed walls. Or folks can hike the entire upper grade all the way to the Wellington Trailhead. The lower grade at Martin Creek is ADA-compliant, and its trail features old railroad artifacts along its length (hikers are free to view these, but must not remove them from the trail). There’s also an old railroad tunnel and adit, which is a hole in the side of the tunnels the railway crews created to help remove bad air from inside the tunnel. The lower grade connects Martin Creek Trailhead with Scenic Trailhead.
Scenic Trailhead is marked with a beautifully restored railway car, which gives a sense of what this trail is all about. From Scenic hikers can continue on the lower grade — maintained for ADA — or take the crossover trail to the upper grade, where they can choose to hike to Martin Creek or Wellington trailheads.
At Wellington, hikers can see the old railway tunnel and can also walk the trail that runs under the old snowsheds built so long ago. Each trailhead offers a unique experience, and all you need is a sense of adventure to walk the line.
The U.S. Forest Service requires a day or annual Northwest Forest Pass for Martin Creek and Wellington trailheads. Other federal recreational lands passes that can substitute for the Northwest Forest Pass include all of the America The Beautiful, the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands passes (Annual, Senior — formerly “Golden Age” — Access and Military). You can purchase a day or annual permit from the Skykomish Ranger Station, Leavenworth Ranger Station or at discovernw.org.
You can also obtain a free annual pass by working two days on a volunteer work party on the Iron Goat Trail. Work parties are held on most Wednesdays and Saturdays from May through October. If you would like to volunteer some time on the Iron Goat Trail, visit trailvolunteers.org/calendar.asp to sign up. No pass is needed to park at the Interpretive Site/Scenic Trailhead. (Make sure to check out irongoat.org for more information.)
It’s best to dedicate an entire weekend to the experience, so you can see it all. Whether you stay at a hotel in Leavenworth or prefer to camp out in Skykomish, there is something for every type of adventure seeker. Carve out some time for this amazing trail, and walk the line back in time.