Iron Mountain Loop Trail
The Trail and the Plants
Iron Mountain, especially the Peak Trail, is one of the most popular in the county. On some busy weekends the parking area can be filled and overflow parking hugs both sides of Hwy. 67. I have been to the peak and enjoyed the great vistas but there are other trails here that are much less traveled and offer a more personal experience of this wonderful chaparral area. There are 3 beautifully unique plants found here, the fern leafed shrub Southern Mountain Misery, white flowered Snowdrop Bush and the flaming flowers of the perennial Indian Warrior.
The trails here are multiuse and dog friendly with 2 trailheads, the busy Hwy 67 area and the more obscure Ellie Lane site. I start from the Hwy 67 parking area, follow a quieter side loop and then the busy main trail for the first 1 ¼ mile, then veer north away from the Peak. Get there in the morning and avoid weekends and holidays. From the parking area a wide trail marked by an overhead sign and a rail wood fence leads to an Alee of Oak trees. You can go up through the young Oaks or take the access road on the far south side; both meet farther up. An open field is on the right and soon chaparral greets us on the left. The biggest shrubs are the evergreen Laurel Sumac with olive green, folded leaves and panicles of white flowers in early summer. Surrounding these are Chamise, Black Sage, California Sagebrush and California Buckwheat.
After a few hundred yards the short access road meets with the main trail. On the left the silver leaves of White Sage and deep green Coyote Bush make their first appearance. At a short ½ mile the Wild Horse trail comes in from the left and just beyond on the right is the quieter side loop of the main trail. Go right down into the valley drainage and then climb into a forest of blue flowered Wild Lilac. In with the Wild Lilac look for the semi climbing, white flowered Santa Barbara Honeysuckle and the papery white flowers of California Everlasting. Other chaparral plants here include Monkeyflower (mostly orange here), the long blooming Golden Yarrow (bright yellow flowers, grey foliage) and Our Lord’s Candle with its brilliant, tall white flower spikes.
As we work our way through the Wild Lilac large numbers of Mission Manzanita begin to appear with their dark green curled edge leaves. Although not a true Manzanita this winter flowering member of the Erica family has white Manzanita-like flowers that are followed by red aging to black woody berries which are favored by Coyotes and Birds. Tucked under this dwarf forest-like canopy are scattered perennials like Peony and Meadow Rue. 2 more shrubs also make their first appearance, the gray-green leafed Eastwood Manzanita (the real thing here) and Sugar Bush. At first look Sugar Bush resembles Laurel Sumac (another common name is Sugar Sumac) with similar folded leaves, but the flowers are very different, starting out as spikey clusters of reddish buds.
The sound of more hikers arrives as you reach the junction with the main trail and turn right to ascend the old rocky roadway. At the first shallow dip in the trail, on the right, the drainage features a single specimen of Canyon Silktassel. The stiff oval leaves are gray-green above and light gray below with fanciful tassels of small greenish-white flowers. Near the base of this plant is a native fern, Cleveland’s Lipfern, with its interesting rounded pinnae (leaf segments). Turn the frond over to see the Sori, the fruiting bodies that are always unique in shape and texture and help identify different species.
Next on the trail look for Hollyleaf Cherry a staple of the Native Americans, the first people who lived here. The gray-green leaves are spined like Holly leaves with late spring bringing a flush of small white flowers and then in fall large, red cherry sized fruits. The thin flesh was eaten when very ripe but the large kernel was the more important part, being ground into flour.
The trail is climbing towards a saddle where the Peak trail goes off to the right. Two of the rare plants for this area now appear. First on the right is Snowdrop Bush, a deciduous shrub that carries bright white hanging flowers in spring. There are many more of these shrubs father on. And next a large colony of Southern Mountain Misery comes into view. The unusual fern-like resinous foliage will be spattered with small white flowers. Also Slender Sunflower, the most common native sunflower in San Diego, can be found throughout the chaparral plants here. The trail reaches the saddle junction and we turn left away from the Peak trail.
Very quickly bird song begins to fill our ears. On the left the slope is dominated by Chamise with narrow leafed Bush Rue and gray leafed Cleveland Sage as accents. On the right a quiet valley stretches out to the east. Just ahead at a rise in the trail Ramona Valley comes into view.
The trail descends and large numbers of Eastwood Manzanita begins to fill the area and on the right the upright branches of Mountain Mahogany with its small dark leaves add more interest. And just past a Mountain Mahogany, just on the right side of the trail and about 20’ off the trail is Heart-leaved Pitcher Sage with unusual heart shaped leaves. This aromatic salvia relative has creamy-white flowers.
Start looking under the shrubs, especially the Manzanita for Indian Warrior. There are a few here and many more farther on. At the low point on the trail the path breaks sharply left and begins a switchback climb to a high saddle. This saddle is nearly as high as Iron Mountain Peak. In a wet spring the drainage on the right is filled with the sound of running water. The cone shaped mountain on the right is the Ramona Overlook, a side trail comes about ½ way up this pitch. The leafy clumps of Ramona Horkelia are on the left. This small scale perennial has sprays of small white flowers. There are Mariposa Lilies blooming here in early summer both the golden Weed’s Mariposa and the lavender Splendid Mariposa.
As we climb the slope much large numbers of Cleveland Sage arrive. Also the striking Bush Poppy with its large yellow flowers dot the whole area. About ½ way up a side trail to Ramona Overlook enters from the right. Go up there the view is great and there are many Weed’s Mariposa Lilies on the way. There is a well-known rock climbing face on the left. Look for a use trail a little farther up the switchbacks to get closer.
Back on the trail look for clumps of Southern Tauschia, with its shiny green sharply dentate leaves and umbels of yellow flowers. Here is where Snowdrop bush enters in large numbers too. Upon reaching the high saddle take a moment to enjoy the view, that’s Black Mountain in the distance. On the left, in the open ground are many Indian Warrior and on the right a very tall native grass, Giant Ricegrass, with blue-green clumps 12-15” and seed stems to 5’.
Now the trail descends the northern slope of the chaparral. If you go straight you head back to the parking area but I like to branch right about ½ way down, cross the drainage and head over to Table Rock. As you cross the drainage the felt gray leaf of Yerba Santa shrubs greet us. Just past these on the left on an open rock face is Red Skin Onion. There will be more of these edible onions farther on.
The trail drops sharply, climbs and in a short distance look for a trail on the left. Both trails will meet father up but I like to take the lower left trail. As you near the far side an open area features the low growing pink Fringed Spineflower. Then the two trails come back together and in a short distance a ‘Y” branch arrives; go to the right uphill toward Table Rock. There is another everlasting flower, Two-Color Everlasting, very similar to California Everlasting but with the underside leaf being tomentose (covered in white hairs). The taller shrubs around us are Hoaryleaf Wild Lilac. This is an early flowering, white blossomed Wild Lilac. At the end of this section of trail is our destination Table Rock, stop and enjoy this special place.
Just after this amazing area on the right are 2 survivor Live Oaks with a picnic table setting beneath. Past this bench is the downward trail to the Ellie Lane parking area. We head left from Table Rock down the valley back to the Hwy 67 staging area. Look for more Red Skin Onion in the open rocky areas on the left. At the bottom is an old cattle pond where the Red Wing Blackbird can often be found. Near the end of the pond veer right towards Hwy 67 and after the last small hill take a use trail on the left back to the parking area.