Iron Mountain Summit Trail in Northern San Diego County
Date Hiked: March 26, 2011
Best Season: Autumn Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: City of Poway Blue Sky Staff (858) 668-4781
- Distance: 6 miles round-trip
- Elevation Gain: 1,050 feet
- Route Type: Partial loop
- Trail Type: Dirt, rock
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Parking: Dirt lot (free)
- Locality: Northern San Diego County
- Nearest City: Poway, CA
- Kid-Friendly: No
- Dog-Friendly: Yes
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This has been a strange Winter and Spring. Much more rain than we’re used to having in Southern California, and the days that haven’t rained have frequently been quite hot, with very few of the moderate winter and spring days we believe are our birthright as SoCal residents. It has wreaked a bit of havoc in our planned hiking days, as we have alternately tried to avoid areas that might be too hot one day, and then looking for a place where we won’t get caught in a flash flood the next!
On one of these rainy March days, we had to cancel our original plans up in the Los Angeles high desert, because of the predicted storms and trail conditions there, but conditions in San Diego were predicted to be significantly milder and less likely to rain. We decided to pick a trail that was going to be too hot in the summer months, that would benefit from temperatures in the 50s and 60s, and where we would be unlikely to be swept away in the event of a sudden deluge.
Our choice was Iron Mountain, just outside of Poway. We’ve both had friends who had hiked it and recommended the trail in the past, and it is regularly listed as one of San Diego’s most popular hikes, but everyone who goes warns that the entire hike is exposed and to bring plenty of water or Gatorade, and if at all possible, to climb early in the morning and beat the mid-afternoon sun. If you know us, you know that “early in the morning” was not our first option, and we figured a nice cool day would allow us to hike straight into the afternoon without much difficulty. In the end, we believe we chose wisely.
It was close to a two hour drive from our home in North Orange County, but the trip down the 5 along the coast and through Camp Pendleton is always pleasant (when traffic is light), so we didn’t mind it too much. We then took the 78 east to the 15 south until we hit Scripps Poway Parkway, which you can take east until it dead ends at Highway 67. From there, you turn left, and are only a couple miles from the well-marked parking area, where Poway Rd intersects with the highway. This location serves as a Park-n-Ride during the week, has some vault toilets, and looks like it can get quite crowded on a nice day (which most people probably didn’t think this was). We were surprised to find it was operated by the City of Poway, and doesn’t require parking fees or a National Forest Adventure Pass.
We arrived at the trailhead at noon, with overcast skies, but no rain yet. The trailhead was hard to miss, with a big arch (pictured above) over the beginning, and a nice wood bridge over a little creek, followed by a fire road-style trail bordered by a wood fence that leads you between two neatly planted rows of trees, all within a quarter mile of the parking lot! That, plus the high percentage of kids we saw amongst the hikers out there, led us to immediately be concerned that this hike was going to be way too Disney-fied for us.
Fortunately, about a half mile from the trailhead, there was a smaller trail off to the right that was also marked “Iron Mountain.” We had heard that there was a quieter alternate route, so to avoid the crowded fire road, we hopped off on the spur. Immediately we were greeted by head high vegetation and a much quieter trail. It crossed little seasonal (I’m guessing) streams with little tiny waterfalls on the side, and we only passed a couple of hikers before re-joining the main trail less than a mile up ahead.
But from this point, the main trail had already diminished to something approaching a real trail, and looked much less like a dirt road. Somewhere between a mile and a mile and a half up the trail, there are a couple of nice views back towards San Diego and the coast before going behind the mountain for the remainder of the climb. This appears to be a big turnaround spot for the younger families and less fit hikers, as the still sizable crowd from this point forward seemed to be made up of more legitimate hikers and trail runners than the first half was.
Right around this point was a major trail junction that allowed you to turn left to go to something called the Ramona Overlook or the Miner’s Trail, or to make a bigger loop back to the parking lot (we’re saving this for next time), or to turn right and continue on up Iron Mountain.
Less than another 1,000 feet from there is another sign marking the official halfway (1.5 miles) mark up the hill, and on the other side of the trail, a sign pointing towards a “Helipad” trail. Our curiosity piqued, we decided to check it out, and less than 200 feet later, we did indeed come across a very unimpressive graded area with some metal sheeting that was clearly used for helicopters, I suppose during fires or rescues on the mountain or in the area. If it was any further than 200 feet, I’d say it was a waste of time, but it wasn’t like we had anything else to do, sooooo…
While the path had been steadily climbing ever since the trailhead, the mountain became significantly steeper in the next stretch, and the trail itself became much more trail-like, with much narrower, less maintained stretches, that included some stepping up boulders and up exposed rock faces. The trail also began to feature regular switchbacks as you climbed up the mountain, so there was a lot of back and forth as you ascended towards the summit. Some of the switchbacks were quite close to each other, creating an image of people looking almost like ants marching crossways up the hill in front of us.
Other than the sometimes crowded condition of the trail, we really enjoyed this stretch. The landscape and boulders were striking, with much of it showing the trademark reddish color from the iron that gives the mountain its name.
We hit the summit at nearly exactly 2:00, and spent quite a while taking in the views and relaxing at the top with the other hikers who had assembled. There were a couple of picnic tables, a mailbox with a logbook to sign (previous mailbox had recently been destroyed, but rebuilt), and an operating telescope, like the kind you have to put a quarter in to use on a pier, only free. There was also a nice variety of boulders to sit on or lean against while checking out the 360 degree views.
While the day was less than sparkling clear, we could still see the coast, Point Loma, and downtown San Diego towards the west and the south, and the Cleveland National Forest and the Peninsular Mountain Ranges to the North and East.
We made mighty good time heading back downhill, diverting from our original path only where our initial side spur on the way up joined the main path. For the descent, we continued down the main trail instead, which cut off to the right at the junction, fairly steeply to a little bridge over a stream big enough to possibly have water in it most of the year (but maybe not). Right on the other side of the bridge was a pretty little waterfall that you could get a nice view of by stepping just off the path to the left.
From here it was a little less than a mile back to the parking lot, and the trail was as unremarkable as it had appeared on the way up. But since we were already quite tired and had our fill of hiking for the day, we didn’t mind the wide, straight, relatively flat run to the finish line.
We were very pleased with this hike and even more pleased that we had so wisely chosen to go on a cool, spring day. There was little or no shade available anywhere on the hike, so do take precautions (or leave and return early) if you do this on a warmer day. I would guess that late winter, just after the brown vegetation turns green and you can get a nice crisp, clear day would be the perfect time for this hike. I do know that we intend to come back and explore some more, perhaps adding the extra loop back to the parking lot for a little variety.
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