Monday, October 30, 2017

Iron Bear

Mount Rainier and western larches from Teanaway Ridge
6.5 miles round trip, 1900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required

Iron Bear, in the Teanaway of Washington State's Cascade Range, is an underappreciated hike with beautiful color in both the spring and fall. Each spring, profuse wildflowers fill the slopes of Teanaway Ridge, while fall brings bright yellow color to the western larches dotting the nearby valleys. Views from Iron Bear cover much of the Teanaway, with cameos by Mount Rainier and Mount Stuart, two of the more impressive peaks in Washington State. This is a fairly easily accessible summit, with few challenges on the trail itself, although hikers do share this trail with bikers for much of the year.

I hiked this trail twice within a year, first visting in June for the profuse wildflower display and then in October for the western larches. On my October visit, I hiked with two friends on a warm, sunny fall day. From Seattle, we followed I-90 east across Snoqualmie Pass to Cle Elum; exiting at Cle Elum, we drove through town on Highway 903 and then continued east on Highway 10 towards Ellensburg after passing an interchange with I-90. At the junction with Highway 970, we stayed to the left to head towards Blewett Pass and Wenatchee. After Highway 970 connected with US 97, we continued north until reaching Forest Service Road 9714, which was not well marked and easy to miss; we turned left onto 9714 and followed the gravel road along Iron Creek. Towards the end, the road crossed over a small creek and became rougher; we parked right before the creek crossing and walked the rest of the way to the trailhead. There was parking right after the creek crossing as well.

The trail dove into the forest, quickly crossing a stream and then heading gradually uphill, cutting through a forest of ponderosa pine and larch; at points, switchbacks helped moderate what was already a fairly gentle ascent.

Iron Bear Trail in spring
During my June visit, the trail was filled with blooming wildflowers: I spotted paintbrush, penstemon, lupine, glacier lilies, columbine, and arrowleaf balsamroot. One oddly shaped flower near the trail had grown a broad, curved stem unlike the stems of the flowers nearby; my friend and I wondered if this was simply a variant of the flower, or some unique genetic mutant.

What is this?
Glacier lilies on Iron Bear in spring
Arrowleaf balsamroot in spring
The trail soon exited the forest onto rocky slopes, where there were partial views of the Iron Creek valley. After crossing the creek, the trail began to climb uphill on the other side of the valley, on the slopes of Teanaway Ridge. At this point, we began to see the many western larches dotting the bottom and sides of the valley, most of which had turned bright golden; a few trees had progressed further, with duller yellow needles.

Western larches fill the valley of Iron Creek 
Although the ascent was continuous, the open views of the trail made the hike seem quite easy. The upper reaches of the Iron Bear Trail featured views out to Tronsen Ridge and passed by trees adorned with fluorescent lichen.

The ascent towards Teanaway Ridge
Fall is perhaps the best season for hiking this trail: this is one of the most easily accessible spots for seeing western larches for hikers from the Puget Sound area. While the alpine version of these deciduous conifers are often more highly prized, the lower elevation western larches are equivalently colorful and often have beautifully symmetric crowns. The low angle sunlight of fall often lends an almost magical glow to these trees.

Golden western larches on Teanaway Ridge
About a mile and a half into the hike, we came to a saddle on Teanaway Ridge where the Iron Bear Trail intersected the Teanaway Ridge Trail. A nice campsite with a fire ring and a log chair was situated in the saddle at the junction. We took the Teanaway Ridge Trail north towards Iron Bear Mountain, which meant taking a sharp right turn to follow the ridge to the north. Iron Bear itself was visible through the pines at the saddle.

Looking towards Iron Bear from Teanaway Ridge
Hiking above the saddle, the trail passed through an open section of ridge with views to both sides. To the east lay Tronsen Ridge and the Iron Creek valley through which we had ascended; to the west were the Bear Creek Valley and the many layers of ridges of the Teanaway. Here, the fall color of the larches were joined by the yellows of deciduous bushes.

Fall colors in the Teanaway
The trail stayed mostly in the open as it ascended Iron Bear, yielding views of a forest of larches on the west side of Teanaway Ridge. Mount Rainier was soon visible to the south; further up in the ascent, we were able to spot the Goat Rocks and the very top of Mount Adams, as well.

Mount Rainier rises above the Teanaway
Trees of the Teanaway
The trail switchbacked up the side of Iron Bear, alternating between forest and open slopes. There was one downed tree along this stretch of trail; otherwise, the path was clear and easy to follow. We saw a decent number of people on the trail, but in general this hike was reasonably quiet considering that the weather was so nice and the larches were at peak color.

At points, the trail was built out of cinder blocks- an odd choice that my friends and I puzzled over. Were the cinder blocks meant to prevent erosion? Perhaps this had something to do with the multi-use nature of the trail? Odder still was a pile of unused cinder blocks off to the side of the trail a short distance before the summit.

After catching our first view of Mount Stuart while hiking through forest, the trail made a final ascent with open views to the east of Tronsen Ridge and out past the wind farms to Kittitas Valley.

Tronsen Ridge
The summit of Iron Bear was slightly off the trail, accessible by an unmarked spur heading off to the left. If the trail begins to descend, you've gone too far. The summit was broad, with a number of outcrops that made for good lunch spots. The views to the west were sweeping: the Teanaway was laid out at our feet, with a few summits of the Stuart Range rising beyond. Larches were interspersed with the pine forests that covered the dry slopes of the Teanaway. Mount Stuart, the second tallest non-volcanic peak in the state, poked out from the gap between Earl and Navaho Peaks, two of the taller mountains of the Teanaway.

Mount Stuart rises above the Teanaway
Mount Rainier rose far to the south, floating above the foggy blue ridges of the Cascades. The Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers formed a great white cloak over the eastern side of the mountain, while Liberty Cap capped the steep sides of the Willis Wall. Inversion fog still filled the valley of the Yakima River. The fire lookout was visible atop Red Top, although the green and gold forested slopes of Red Top begged the question of why that peak was named Red Top.

Mount Rainier and the Teanaway larches
We had the summit to ourselves for the better part of an hour, enjoying the sunshine and the fall colors. Although it was quite windy at the summit, we found a spot where a clump of trees formed a windbreak to sit and gaze out at the Teanaway and Mount Rainier. I was loath to leave, reluctant to yield the glorious views of the high country of the Cascades to the oncoming grip of winter.

Endless layers of ridges

No comments:

Post a Comment