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.
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.
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.
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. At 0.9, continue straight at a junction with an alternate trail that loops back to the oaks as the trail crosses a ravine and continues along the ravine on a rocky, eastward track to a saddle.
After reaching the saddle at 1.4 miles, turn right to head south along the mountain’s east flank. Continue past the spur to the helipad, and soon after begin a set of gentle switchbacks that climb the eastern and then northern slopes of the peak. The east slopes of the mountain are adorned with Cleveland sage, which emits one of the most beguiling fragrances in the natural world. You’re unlikely to notice this unassuming shrub unless you know what to look for, but you will be hard-pressed to miss the wonderful aromas.
The switchbacks come to an end at 2.7 miles at the peak, which is complete with a set of benches 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 and many of the inland mountain highlights. You can play “name that landmark” for a long time while enjoying a picnic on the benches. The 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.
Once you have had your fill of the views, make your way back down the trail the way you came.