Where the Wildflowers Are

Avoid the crowds at Iron Mountain with short hikes nearby

Starting on the Fourth of July weekend, thousands of wildflower lovers crowd the trail to Iron Mountain on South Santiam Highway 20. Don’t join them!

Instead, take an overlooked trail to Echo Basin, a mountain bowl of flowers where you’re likely to be alone. And because the hike is twice as easy as Iron Mountain, you’ll have time for two other nearby strolls — to an old-growth grove and a historic guard station.

Start by driving Highway 20 east of Sweet Home 39 miles (3 miles beyond the Iron Mountain trailhead). If you’d rather drive here via McKenzie Hwy 126, go all the way to a Y-shaped junction and turn left on Highway 20 for 4.8 miles. Near milepost 67 of Hwy 20, turn north at an “Echo Basin Trail” pointer onto Forest Road 055. After 2 miles park on the shoulder near an “Echo Mountain Trail” sign on the right.

Wear long pants and boots because the wildflower meadow has brushy, boggy spots. The hike is not difficult, but the path is poorly maintained. This is the price of solitude.

The trail sets out on the regrown bed of a steepish logging road that was used to clearcut the lower forest here in about 1980. The area has regrown with lush alder, Douglas-fir, huckleberries and woodland wildflowers. After half a mile the trail enters an old-growth forest of silver fir, hemlock and fir.

At a junction after 0.7 miles, start the 1-mile meadow loop by turning right across a footbridge over Echo Creek. Note the spiny devils club and delicate maidenhair ferns along the banks. The path climbs through a grove of big, shaggy-barked Alaska yellow cedars, rare this far south. Then the trail enters Echo Basin’s lush green meadow and views open up to this box canyon’s headwall, once home to a little Ice Age glacier. Red columbine, pale polemonium and pink bleeding hearts now bloom here amidst a profusion of broad-leaved hellebore and bracken fern. Pink stalks of elephantshead and white bistort bloom along half a dozen creeklets.

After crossing the creeklets and wading through the greenery, the trail loops back downhill to your car.

For the second short hike, drive back to Hwy 20, turn right for 0.3 miles, and pull into the Hackleman Old Growth Trailhead on the left. Keep left at trail junctions to complete the 1-mile loop through this grove of towering Douglas-firs, many of them 6 feet in diameter.

Next drive Hwy 20 east 5.1 miles, turn right on Hwy 126 toward Eugene for 1.5 miles and turn right at a sign for Fish Lake for 0.1 miles to a turnaround that serves as parking for a picnic area, boat launch and trailhead. The trail ahead, flanked by rustic posts, is the historic 1867 Santiam Wagon Road, a pioneer route across the Cascades. Hike this ancient track across a lava flow — the 3,000-year-old flow that dammed Fish Lake. Because the lava is leaky the lake fills briefly with snowmelt each spring but drains to become a meadow by mid summer.

After 0.2 miles, walk through corral gates and continue straight past several sheds to the Fish Lake Remount Station. This restored one-room log cabin was a way station on the old wagon road and served as headquarters of the Santiam National Forest in the 1910s. In winter this cabin and the nearby Hall House are available for rental from Recreation.gov, but then are accessible only by ski or snowshoe.

After inspecting the log cabin, return to the main road and follow a “Historical Site” pointer 0.1 miles uphill to the fenced grave of Charity Ann Noble, a 19-year-old pioneer traveler who died here in childbirth during an October 1875 storm.

With a view of the Three Sisters, the gravesite makes a good turnaround point. But you can continue on the old wagon road, now a broad hiking trail, as far as you wish. The next trailhead at Hackleman Creek Road 2672 is 2.2 miles away and House Rock Campground is 17.5 miles.

I used to love hiking to see the wildflowers at Iron Mountain each July. But that was before I discovered that the same wildflowers are blooming all over the Old Cascades. Depending on my mood, my favorite July flower hike now might be to Browder Ridge, Crescent Mountain, Middle Pyramid, Battle Ax, Bugaboo Ridge, Coffin Mountain, Tidbits Mountain, Tire Mountain or Horsepasture Mountain.

As for Echo Basin, it’s the easiest of the lot, and arguably the lushest. Try it and see!

William L. Sulllivan is the author of 23 books, including The Ship in the Woods and the updated 100 Hikes series for Oregon. Learn more at OregonHiking.com.