by Joan Burton
Iron Horse, Iron Goat, and Iron Bear—these are all names of popular Northwest trails. You may not see these animals on their namesake trails, but the history behind their names adds to their appeal. Whatever their namesake, from trains to terrain, these three trails are great hike options for families.
Washington is full of trails along old railways. If you're looking for more historic, family-friendly hikes, try a rail trail from our list of suggested statewide locations. Most are hikable year round, but of course, check conditions and read trip reports before heading out.
Palouse to Cascades Trail State Park
Location: Snoqualmie Pass
Mileage: 212 miles, one-way
Elevation Gain: minimal
The 19th century nickname for a railroad, our Iron Horse Trail is the old railroad grade for the Milwaukee Road, which stretched from Chicago to Seattle. The mostly level trail spans the state, running alongside Lake Keechelus, through a long spooky tunnel and then parallels I-90 down the Mountain to Sound Greenway. Hikers, cross country skiers, and mountain bikers enjoy its gradual ascent or descent.
Though the popular-with-kids tunnel section near Snoqualmie Pass is closed in winter, the trail is accessible at many other locations along its Mileage, including Ellensburg, Yakima, and Washington Creek. Whatever your plans, be sure to bring lots of warm clothes, warm drinks, and headlights or flashlights. And be sure to save the tunnel section in your MyBackpack so you don't forget to explore it in summer.
Mileage: 6.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1900 feet
Not named for a railroad grade, Iron Bear's name is a mashup of two Teanaway area creeks—Iron Creek and Bear Creek, whose headwaters originate on a steep ridge near Mount Stuart. Accessible from Highway 97, the trail switchbacks up the ridge through fields of flowers to a high pass with an overlook. Continuing on another mile to the highest point, hikers find themselves staring straight across at close-up views of Mount Stuart and the Stuart range.
In spring, which is the best time to hike this area, steep dry rockslides along the way contain tiny blossoms of pink Lewisia, looking like little waterlillies in an incongruously dry setting.
Iron Goat Trail
Location: Highway 2
Mileage: 6.0 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 700 feet
The Iron Goat refers to the signature Great Northern railway's Rocky Mountain goat. This railway spanned the Cascades along what is today the Stevens Pass Highway. The trail contains a number of old tunnels and snow sheds, and one area is the site of the infamous Wellington Slide in 1910, which killed 98 passengers. After the slide, the railroad was rerouted to a tunnel through the mountain, complete with snowsheds to protect trains from future avalanches. The old grade was abandoned, and eventually turned into the Iron Goat Trail.
Although the trail has the gradual grade of a railroad, there are steep scenic overlooks and left over relics of railroading days next to old snow sheds. This trail was restored with help from Volunteers of Washington.
**Note: This trail closes in winter, since the avalanches that proved so deadly in the 1900s are just as dangerous today. Save this hike for summertime.