SOTA Summit: W6/CT-056, Iron Mountain
Trail: Mix of traditional trail and use trail.
Hike: Strenuous – 14 miles round trip.
Elevation gain: ~ 6800 feet
Self Spot: Yes via AT&T
I have wanted to hike Iron Mountain for years. The allure for me has a lot to do with its difficulty. I enjoy adventurous hikes and this one qualifies in spades. As they say on Summit Post, “According to John Robinson, author of Trails of the Angeles, ‘8007 foot Iron Mountain is by far the least accessible peak in the San Gabriels….No trail approaches its isolated summit, and to climb it you must start miles away and thousands of feet below.’ In this local hiking legend’s view, “Big Iron” is the most strenuous one-summit hike in the entire San Gabriel range.”
Since it is not activated often (the only other activator is Patrick (KK6KUM) – who has activated it 3 times!), I thought I’d put together a trip report for those interested.
Iron Mountain works out to approximately 14 miles round trip with roughly 6800 feet of elevation gain. While there are multiple ways to achieve the summit, the most common approach is from Heaton Flats, that is the way my son Nick (N6NGG) and I did it.
An early start is important, both for the hike and for the parking. The parking area at Heaton Flats is also the starting point for folks going to the Bridge to Nowhere, so it fills up quickly in the morning. Nick and I headed out from the parking lot hitting the trail at 7:30 a.m., by which time the main parking lot was full and we had to park down the road a bit. Roughly a quarter mile into the hike you’ll hit the turn off for Heaton Flat Trail. At the turn off there is a sign giving a good overview of the area. Once you make the right and head off to the north-east, you’ll be leaving the day hike crowds behind.
Iron Mountain really breaks down into a two part hike. The first part takes you from the start to Allison Saddle (also called Heaton Saddle) and is a straightforward 4.5 miles with 3200 feet of elevation gain. The trail is in good shape and easy to follow. Early in the morning, you’ll have great views of the surrounding area, including Rattlesnake Peak (W6/CT-091). It is a nice hike and one I’ve taken Boy Scouts on as a training hike for Philmont.
Once you reach Allison Saddle, look for a shaded grassy area off to the right. It is a good spot to take a break and relax. We also used it as a spot to stash our water for the return hike so that we did not have to carry it to the summit. Don’t worry, you can’t miss Allison Saddle – you’ll drop almost 200 feet onto a saddle where the trail abruptly ends, terminating into the south side of Iron Mountain. For hikers trying to go to see the remains of the old Allison Mine, you’ll see a faint use trail heading off towards the west along the flank of the slope.
This is where the second part of the hike begins. To reach the summit you have 2.5 miles to hike and a little over 3600 feet of elevation to gain. Starting at Allison Saddle, the trail ends and depending on the time of year, you’ll have to follow what is best described as a use trail that will fade in and out on its way to the summit. Just head north up the south ridge of Iron Mtn. Make sure you are prepared, as the trail is steep from the start.
The approach to the summit of Iron Mountain follows the south ridgeline straight up from Allison Saddle. There are a few dips where you will loose and then have to regain the elevation but as long as you stay on the ridgeline, it will lead you to the top. It is extremely steep and slippery in certain spots, probably best described as Class 2. Just watch where you are putting your feet and you’ll be fine. According to my GPS, a few spots topped 55-57 degree slopes. Of course we tried to take pictures capturing how steep it was, but you know how it is; the photos always look tame compared to the reality.
If you hike a lot in Southern California, I’d compare this second portion of the hike to hiking San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) via Register Ridge. Bottom line: you just keep going, slowly gaining elevation and soon enough the summit is within sight. One big reward of the hike is the great views, particularly of the west side of Baldy and the San Antonio Ridge connecting Iron Mtn. with Baldy.
Keep in mind that this is an exposed hike, so you’ll want to do it when the temperature is comfortable and be sure to carry enough water for the entire hike. During summer months this would be a tough hike. Also keep an eye out for the yucca plants; they are everywhere, and I managed to get stabbed a few times during the hike.
A little after 1:30 p.m., Nick and I achieved the summit. We were immediately rewarded with 360 degree views of the San Gabriels with Baldy looming off towards the east. We went about signing the register, taking photos and getting setup for SOTA. (Be sure to get a picture with the “W15” sign post – the unofficial proof of summit.) We brought our 2 meter handy talkies due to weight considerations. If you are interested in doing HF, there are some trees within the activation zone which would work for random wire antennas. This is a perfect summit for a Mountain Topper style lightweight CW radio. As of yet no one has activated the summit with HF gear.
We were using APRS to beacon our position throughout the hike and while monitoring 2 meters we could hear Charles (KM6CEM) and Hal (N6JZT) discussing our progress as we neared the summit. Once on top, Hal was kind enough to put out some spots and we quickly logged 11 contacts on 2 meters. We were able to get AT&T coverage, so self spotting is also an option. Nick and I spent roughly 45 minutes at the summit, then it was time to head back down.
The hike back to the car took longer than we expected, mainly due to the steep descent. You had to carefully pick your way back down to Allison Saddle. Trekking poles came in handy. It took us roughly 2 hours just to get back to the saddle. From there, we were back on the traditional trail and then just trucked on back to the car. When all was said and done, we were out for little over 11 hours.
Looking back, this was a great hike. I really enjoyed sharing the adventure with my son and we got a real sense of achievement with Iron Mountain. I have two more younger sons, so I look forward to more exciting trips up Big Iron.
Thank you to all the chasers who helped to make this a successful activation.