Distance (round-trip)

5.3 mi

Time

3 hrs

Elevation Gain

1000 ft

Season

Spring
Fall
Winter

Weather

Iron Mountain is the southernmost peak in a small mountain complex that divides the city of Poway from the sprawling semi-rural community of Ramona. The peak itself is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego, and the ease of access and moderate gain present a hike that is both reasonably accessible and reasonably challenging at the same time. Throw in great panoramic views, and you have a great hiking experience within reasonable driving distances of most of San Diego.

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Iron Mountain from the trailhead

There are a couple of different ways to climb Iron Mountain, but this hike will focus on the most popular route from the main staging area at the intersection of Highway 67 and Poway Road. For several reasons, including heat, crowds, and parking availability, I recommend an early start, although it may not matter if you take this hike on the weekends. The popularity and accessibility of the hike almost always guarantee a crowd, especially if you’re hiking from the main staging area. The Ellie Lane staging area is less crowded, and I’ll cover that hike and the additional portions of the trail network not included here in a future post.

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The trail past the oak corridor

From the staging area, cross a bridge over a dry creek and make a sharp bend through a dense thicket of planted oak trees. These trees form a corridor for the first .2 miles of the trail. This is also the only shade you’re likely to find on the trail, so enjoy it while you can. The trail emerges from the oaks and takes a beeline across the gently undulating base of the mountain until it begins to snake its way up to a low saddle between Iron and a neighboring peak.  Ignore the spur trail to the right, which will wander off and then loop back to the main trail.

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Mountain mahogany

You’ll pass through spicy chaparral, which will put on a fair to spectacular wildflower show depending on the amount of rain during the winter. The vegetation here, like much of the rest of inland San Diego, was wiped out by the Cedar Fire, but the vibrant regrowth of manzanita, ceanothus, mountain mahagony, yerba santa, and chamise is a lesson in chaparral’s evolutionary success of capitalizing off of frequent fires.  Interspersed through this dense scrub community is a wilderness of granite boulders. These boulders are common throughout central San Diego county, and Iron Mountain boasts an impressive collection of large, rounded rocks.

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A very well-loved direction sign

After reaching the saddle, the trail bends to the right and begins to switchback up Iron’s east flank. The switchbacks and slope here are pretty gentle, so the exertion is bearable even for the most casual of hikers. Of course, I must take this opportunity to remind anybody seeking to hike Iron Mountain that you should bring a lot of water with you. For safety’s sake, take the amount of water that you deem reasonable and double it, especially during the summer. If you object to the extra weight (water weighs about 2 lbs a quart), take solace in the fact that this will help you burn more calories and make your leg muscles stronger.

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Looking east toward Cuyamaca and the San Diego River Gorge

Although many people do it, hiking Iron Mountain in the summer is a risky proposition, as the temps can hit triple digits. In those instances, bring a gallon of water, along with salty snacks.  You may find yourself wondering why there’s a helipad carved into a low rise on the way up the mountain, and it’s precisely for those hikers who come here thinking they’ll bag the peak without adequate hydration. People get airlifted out on a regular basis. You may think that between two and four liters of water is a pain in the neck, but it’s nothing compared to finishing your hike on a medevac copter.

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One of the many granite boulders contrasted against the antenna complex atop nearby Mt. Woodson

Once you have passed the helicopter platform and the trail leading off toward Ellie Lane, you’ll keep switchbacking until you come to a peak that is complete with a bench and a thoughtfully-provided viewfinder. So long as it’s a clear day, the views here are excellent, as they take in the entirety of San Diego. You can play “name that landmark” for a long time while enjoying a picnic on the bench. The free viewfinder is particularly helpful, as you can enjoy magnified views of various urban landmarks such as Mission Bay, Sea World, Downtown, Coronado, Point Loma, etc.

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Panorama looking south

Once you have had your fill of the views and guzzled lots of water or sports drinks (says Mother Hen), you will make your way back down the trail the way you came. Iron Mountain’s popularity is due in part by the ease of navigation, which means that the chances of getting lost are minimal. There is only one major junction, and that junction is clearly marked. Plus, with the steady stream of foot traffic leading up to the summit, there will almost always be somebody available to point the way.

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Looking back toward the trailhead from near the summit

As local popularity goes, Iron Mountain is right up there with Cowles Mountain, which is notorious for being over-used and over-crowded. There have been some issues with crowding at the main staging area on the weekends. For that reason, I again recommend an early start to beat the crowds. It’s possible to hike Iron Mountain from Ellie Lane, but this write-up does not include the track nor the directions. Additionally, the Ellie Lane route is 9 miles long with much more gain, so it’s less attractive for casual hikers.

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A hawk

The positive side of all the folks around means that many people feel safe and comfortable hiking Iron Mountain, as opposed to some of the formidable and remote spots in the backcountry. This is definitely a trail for everybody, and it’s build in such a way that almost anybody can enjoy it. The views are great, and the trail is a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a way to “get into” hiking, Iron Mountain is a perfect place to start.

Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.

Dog-Friendly

Multi-Use Trail

Views / Vista

4 Comments

Scott Turner

Scott Turner Feb 22, 2016 16:02In reply to: John T

I know I'm a bit late for this, but Volcan Mountain. It's further out, but more enjoyable.

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John T Feb 10, 2016 16:02

Hi Scott -
I'm coming out to visit San Diego and am planning on hiking either Iron Mountain or Volcan Mountain on 2/22. Which one would you suggest?
Thanks!
JT

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Scott Turner Aug 2, 2014 18:08In reply to: Natalie Hone

I would recommend any time between 6 and 9 am, with earlier being better. The parking lot tends to fill up as well, and an early start should bypass any parking issues. I've also done the trail in the evening during the summer. If you start after 5pm, it should be ok temperature wise, although you risk hiking back in the dark.

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Natalie Hone Aug 2, 2014 16:08

When you say start the hike early, what time are you recommending? During the summer I would imagine starting before dawn is a must?

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