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Joyce Endee

Iron Mountain: a worthy snowshoe trek from any side

March 10, 2011
An established trail ascends the north side to the summit, starting on the upper end of Green Hill Road in Jackson. Unfortunately in winter, the upper mile and a half of the road is unplowed, adding 700 vertical feet to the climb and a mile and a half to the trekking distance. I've often thought the most interesting features on Iron Mountain lay on the south side the old iron mines and the open south ledges; why climb it from the north side and then down-climb half a mile to those features?

An interesting snowshoe bushwhack can be made up the south side, starting out on old logging roads, then following the long abandoned path up the steep hillside to the mines. Drive 2.5 miles west on Jericho Road from its junction on Route 302. Pass the settlement known as "Little Seabrook" on the left, watching for a Forest Service sign on the right reading "Don't Burn When Windy." Just beyond this sign an old log landing on the right gives way to several overgrown haul roads that climb up the south flank. Two ledges can be seen above through the trees. Park at the winter turnaround a short distance west, by the closed gate.

From the log landing, head uphill to the northeast, climbing steeply at times through open woods, skirting around the dense brush in overgrown clearcuts. The south-facing terrain features several brooks flowing in deep gullies full of boulders. Between the brooks are steep forested ridges. Ascend one of the ridges, always bearing to the right (northeast) toward the saddle between the ledges above. At about 1,500 feet (650 feet above the winter turnaround), the steepness of the terrain eases. Bear to the right to a shallow brook gully above a dark hemlock grove. Follow the west bank of this brook gully uphill, encountering a few scraps of faded yellow and pink surveyors along the brook bank. These tapes mark the remains of the old route to the iron mines. If you feel lost, bear right and go uphill toward the ledges. The remnants of the mines - pits and tunnels - are located between the two visible ledges.

At about 1,700 feet, the brook becomes a frozen, snow-covered waterfall on steep slab rock. Ascend the waterfall, gaining about 200 feet, to a tree with a red tape wrap. Angle right at this tree and begin climbing the rock steps above. There are a few more tape fragments along this steep ground, but eventually they peter out. In summer the way is marked with old rock cairns, but when I recently climbed it, I saw only one cairn, the rest apparently buried in snow. I went a bit too far left and came up on the left side of the mines, which I recognized by three, rounded piles of snow-covered tailings. I should have stayed right on the easier ledges.

Crusted snow overlain by a few inches of powder provided an excellent climbing surface, even on the steep slabs. With the right snow conditions, exploring the south side of Iron Mountain on snowshoes is an exhilarating trek. The ledges and sparse trees offer views to the southwest with plentiful afternoon sunshine. Animal tracks abound, including hare, fox, coyote, and deer. One set of tracks high up on the ledges looked like bobcat.

While I was exploring around the mines, the wind picked up, convincing me to head down before I reached the views on the exposed south ledges. On the descent, I stayed to the right of the tailing piles and found the easier way I had missed on the way up. The highest of the mines (at about 2,200 feet) is a long trench in the rock ending at a tunnel covered with icicles. Another tunnel opening can be found about 100 feet lower.

The mine diggings are located on steep terrain. Exposed, overlapping granite slabs, interspersed with oak filled gullies make up the hillside. It's hard to imagine how the miners got the ore down the mountain. I found no information about how the ore was transported from the digging area to the so-called ore-house located at the upper end of the old cart road, on flatter ground, 800 feet below the mines. The modest extent of the diggings suggests the mining operation was limited. Most historic sources cite the period between 1840 to 1876, as the time of mining operations. Prior to the iron mining, the mountain was known as Bald Mountain, probably due to the number of exposed ledges.

Early in the 20th century, Iron Mountain was the focus of considerably more hiking activity than it sees today. Its close proximity to Jackson and the numerous tourist hotels there made it a favorite destination for trampers. The 1922 AMC White Mountain Guide described four distinct routes on the mountain. A three and a half mile trail once ran along the prominent east-west ridge from Duck's Head (the ledge behind the Red Fox Pub at the site of the old Iron Mountain House) to the summit. The Duck's Head Trail has long been abandoned, though sections may still exist.

Currently, the only maintained trail is on the north side of the mountain, reached by driving west on Green Hill Road from Jackson. In winter the road ends at start of the JSTF South Hall Ski Trail, where there is a small, plowed parking area. Forest Road #119 forks left and climbs steeply, passing four or five summer cabins on the right, before leveling out near the Hayes Farm clearing, where there are open views of the mountains to the north.

The Iron MountainTrail begins on the left at the corner of a field, crosses the field and enters the woods at a small wooden trail sign. Avoid the obvious haul road that heads left. Bear right through the stump growth, following a vague path marked by a few orange tapes. Once the trail enters the old woods, the climbing steepens.

When I snowshoed the Iron Mountain Trail last Thursday, the trail had not been broken out in quite awhile. Breaking through deep drifts near the summit slowed my pace. It took me two hours to reach the summit from the Hayes Farm, a distance of slightly less than a mile, with 800 feet of elevation. My plan had been to go over the summit and descend to the south ledges, but as I started across the open area on the summit, I plunged into a spruce hole up to my hips, trapping my snowshoe in buried branches. After extracting myself from the trap, I gingerly backtracked to the debris pile, where I enjoyed a snack and a cup of hot tea. The debris pile is all that remains of the 30-foot fire lookout tower that stood on the summit from 1939-48. A picture of the tower can be viewed at www.firelookout.org.

The view from the summit is not wide open, but there are tantalizing glimpses through the tree in all directions. Turning back down the trail, I enjoyed the expansive views to the north and west, reveling in the ease of descending the broken trail. The round trip took me five hours, much time spent savoring the views and taking photos along the way. This is a worthwhile, moderate snowshoe trek that I recommend sharing with a partner who can help with breaking out the trail.

If you trek up Iron Mountain to enjoy the views, take note of the number "27" on the trail sign and again on a birch tree near the summit. Such numbers are being observed on many trails around the White Mountains and are generating some discussion as to their origin and meaning (see wwwviewsfromthetop.com). Forest Service personnel denies permitting them, and no one I've asked knows anything about them. The FS refers to them as "bandit numbers." Next time you're out on a trail, watch for bandit numbers. What do you think they are?

I know winter is winding down the sun is getting higher, the days longer, and the snow on south slopes is going fast. But I'm not quite ready to let winter go. I'm looking ahead to corn snow. I may even make it back up Iron Mountain to the south ledges.

Minnich cycles in summer and snowshoes and skis in winter. He guides snowshoe treks for Jackson Ski Touring Foundation and produces mtn. bike trail maps of Valley. Minnich lives in Glen with his wife Sally.

Correction: Following my last article about skiing the Wildcat Valley Trail, in which I stated that the trail had been cut by Jackson volunteers in 1972, Jack Lufkin wrote to tell me that "in fact, the trail was cut the JSTF's trail crew in the summer/fall of 1972. The hard working crew included: Joe McNulty (1972 XC Olympic Team), Randy Kerr (U.S. National Team 1972), Jim Doucett (U.N.H. skier), local Elmo Zack, and me [Jack Lufkin]. Avery Caldwell (First Director of JSTF), locals Bob Cheney, and Gene Chandler blazed a suggested route for the trail from [the] top of [the] Prospect Farm area up to the top of Wildcat Ski Area. There are lots of stories to be told about that trail." Thanks, Jack. I'd love to hear those stories.

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