Hiking History: Iron Goat Trail

A few weeks ago when a friend asked me to take her on a spooky hike, I knew exactly where to go. The Iron Goat trail is by far the creepiest trail I’ve been on. Not only does it have train tunnels and collapsing snowsheds, but the trail leads to the site of a horrific tragedy. In 1910 the worst avalanche in American history swept two trains off their tracks and killed 96 people at Wellington.

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Menacing crooked trees along the Iron Goat trail.

The Iron Goat trail follows the old Great Northern Railroad route that switchbacks high above the valley floor on its way to Stevens Pass. This high route perched on the steep slopes of Windy Mountain was an impressive feat of engineering, but it also received 20-30 feet of snow in the winter. This in combination with recently burnt exposed slopes above the tracks made the stretch from Scenic to Wellington a dangerous one. Efforts were made to hold the heavy and wet Northwest snow by building giant concrete walls, snowsheds and tunnels. But ultimately nature won the battle with the railroads and a tunnel was built in 1929 to avoid the switchbacks to the pass all together.

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Decaying fall leaves.

We started our hike at the Scenic trailhead, the midpoint of the trail, and headed up steep switchbacks to the old railroad grade. From here we headed east on the easy grade toward Wellington, the site of the avalanche. It was a foggy fall day, perfectly setting the mood for this macabre hike. We soon approached Windy Point, a tight turn that required the train to slow to a crawl before a tunnel was built in 1913. We then followed a tall concrete wall along a slope so steep that you must walk along a narrow concrete base carpeted in moss to the end of the tunnel.

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Snow retaining wall along the foggy Iron Goat trail.

We explored the tunnel, but not too much. The western end of the tunnel is collapsed making the tunnel dark as could be and not a place for lingering. We shivered and continued on through the foggy trees. The snowshed wall continues along this part of the trail, looming. But nature is slowly reclaiming the walls. Water cascades over them in places and full grown trees tower up from the ledges. We heard the echos of the modern day train tooting its whistle in the valley below and I got goosebumps.

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Windy Point Tunnel

As we rounded a corner I caught a glimpse of the snow shed at Wellington. I told my friend that we were getting to the creepiest part of the trail, muuuhahahahaha. And then we both jumped and squeaked. Two other hikers emerged from the bushes and scared the crap out of us. We scared them too. We neared the snowshed and marveled at the collapsing concrete clinging to twisted rebar like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. The rest of the snowshed is intact and complete with a boardwalk. We made our way to an overlook, halfway through the shed for a lunch break.

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Boardwalk to the Wellington overlook (site of the avalanche).

In the winter of 1910 an unprecedented snow storm hit western Washington.  Thick, wet snow piled on the tracks at a rate of a foot an hour and the snow blasting plow engines could not keep up. This was not unusual for this area that receives up to 35 feet of snow in some years. But what was unusual was the length of the storm. It lasted for nine days and the snow never let up. Two trains traveling to Seattle from Spokane, one a passenger train and the other a mail train, were trapped by slides at Wellington. Rescue efforts were thwarted by the ever-piling snow.

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Fall color along the trail.

Some of the passengers braved the weather and hiked out the 3 miles to Scenic while others waiting to be rescued, their supplies dwindling. Then on March 10, 1910 a rare thunderstorm came through and the heavy rain loosened a mass of snow from Windy Mountain above. The snow smashed into the trains, toppling them off the rails like toys. The scene was chaos and the few surviving passengers rushed to dig out others, but it was not long before many of the buried suffocated and died. The last to be rescued was Ida Starett. She muffled out a scream when she regained consciousness and found herself face down buried in snow with a large object pinning her down and her dead infant pressed against her belly. Rescuers heard her cries and dug her out of the snow. Earlier her son, 7 year-old Raymond, was recovered with a 30 inch splinter in his forehead. His rescuer, a doctor, removed it with a shaving razor.

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The snowshed at Wellington, built after the deadly avalanche.

In all, 23 passengers survived and the bodies of the dead were put on Alaskan sleds and taken down the steep avalanche slopes to Scenic. Other bodies weren’t recovered until the snow melted in the following July. The news of the avalanche took the country by storm and the town of Wellington was renamed to Tye soon after so that weary passengers did not have to pass through the doomed Wellington. The concrete snowshed that still stands was built in response to the deadly avalanche, but it was not long before the route was rerouted all together to the modern Cascade tunnel. In the 1990’s the trail was built by Outdoor Washington with boardwalks and interpretive signs making the site accessible and preserving the history for future hikers.

More info about the Iron Goat trail:
Outdoor Washington’s Iron Goat Trail website

Bonus Camp Read!

The White Cascade by Gary Krist
This gripping account of the 1910 avalanche and the days leading up to it is a must read for fans of the Iron Goat trail. Krist compiled the narrative from events recounted in letters, diaries, memoirs and court documents. It brings together the stories of the passengers, workers, rescuers and the turmoil that plagued the leaders and decision makers of the Great Northern Railway during those days into a complete package that is impossible to put down.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Backpack
This is obviously best read while hiking the Iron Goat trail and listening for the chugging of the ghost train to Wellington.

Hikes featured in this Post:
Iron Goat Trail

See also: Hiking Washington’s History by Judy Bentley

4 Replies to “Hiking History: Iron Goat Trail”

  1. Lainey Piland says: Reply

    Great post! That trail is spooky enough with its tragic history, but that foggy scenery makes it look positively eerie. I love the photos with the fog and concrete and fall colors – gorgeous!

    1. Thanks, Lainey! We had the perfect weather for that hike, and by that I mean foggy and just a little rain. 🙂

  2. You do such a great job of combining history and factoids with excellent writing and photos in your blogs, like this enjoyable read. My creepiest hike was a Halloween weekend overnight to the Olympic Hot Springs on a wet, drippy weekend. At night the mist from the hot springs glowed in the dark night from candles people wedged along the rock around the primitive old pools. It felt very spooky and haunted. And today in the news is a story that the hot springs are closed indefinitely now because a man was found dead in one of the pools! Yikes!

    1. Thanks, Jill. What a creepy place to spend Halloween night and now made even creepier by the news – so sad! I wonder if they will reopen the trail…

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