Iron Goat rail trail along Stevens Pass Highway tells tale of old railroad route and historic avalanche that swept trains off the track.

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Trail: Iron Goat Trail (western portion)

Location: Off U.S. Highway 2 (Stevens Pass Highway), east of Skykomish

Trail length: 5.6-mile round-trip portion described here runs from the Scenic trailhead to the Martin Creek trailhead.

Elevation gain: 350-foot gradual loss in elevation from the Scenic trailhead to the Martin Creek trailhead; steep gain of about 700 feet if you take the Windy Point crossover trail.

Level of difficulty: Easy, wide dirt/gravel trail (suitable for wheelchairs). If you climb to the upper railbed, the crossover trails are steep.

Setting: This converted rails-to-trails path on the west side of Stevens Pass is notorious as the site of one of the worst railroad disasters in U.S. history (two trains were swept off the tracks in 1910 by an avalanche near Wellington near the east end of the trail). However, there are many railroad structures and artifacts along the trail itself, which follows the upper and lower sections of the abandoned Great Northern Railway grade, that make for a fascinating hike. The “Iron Goat” name comes from the mountain goat featured on the logo of the now-defunct Great Northern Railway (absorbed into BNSF — for Burlington Northern Santa Fe — Railway).

Start at the Scenic trailhead (also called the Iron Goat Interpretive Site) and head west. Interpretive signs along the trail offer helpful commentary. You’ll soon pass the turnoff on the right to the Windy Point crossover (this offers a long, steep climb to the upper level of the railroad grade, which parallels the lower level). Continue along the lower trail and soon you’ll come to an odd, very long and large wall in the middle of the forest, which was the concrete back wall of a snowshed that once protected the tracks.

Milepost replicas along the trail reflect mileage measured from St. Paul, Minn. (the railroad’s headquarters). Farther along the hike, the trail skirts two sets of tunnels, with timber remnants of structures. (Take a peek into the tunnels but for safety’s sake stay out of them and off old timbers.) Close to the Martin Creek trailhead, you’ll see the trails to two other crossovers (Martin Creek and Corea) leading up to the upper trail (steep but not as long as the Windy Point crossover).

Highlights: Keep an eye out for old railroad artifacts — pieces of old sheet metal or cables — but leave them where they lie. At the Scenic trailhead, study the kiosks with photos and displays about the area’s railroad history and the avalanche disaster. (For a detailed account, see “The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche,” by Gary Krist.) There’s also a good guidebook on the trail (free and downloadable — see website below).

Facilities: Accessible vault toilets at all trailheads.

Restrictions: Pets on leash; no bikes or horses. Watch for stinging nettles.

Directions: There are three trailheads for the Iron Goat trail. To reach the central Scenic trailhead from eastbound Highway 2, after passing Milepost 58 turn left on the Old Stevens Pass Highway, then turn right into the Iron Goat Interpretive Site. For directions to the other trailheads, see the website.

For more information: 800-627-0062 (select Ext. 3, then press 3) or irongoat.org. For trail conditions, see www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/. Stop at the ranger station on Highway 2 (soon after the turnoff to the town of Skykomish) to pick up a trail flier in the outside kiosk, and look for the trail brochure/map at the trailheads (or print information from the website before you go).

Renton-based freelancer Cathy McDonald, a geologist by training, has written about science and nature travel for 20 years. She’s currently a travel guidebook editor at Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door. Contact her: nwwriter@hotmail.com