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.

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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.  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. 

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A very well-loved direction sign

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.

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Looking east toward Cuyamaca and the San Diego River Gorge

 

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

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.

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Panorama looking south

Once you have had your fill of the views, make your way back down the trail the way you came. 

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Looking back toward the trailhead from near the summit

 

 

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.





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4 Comments

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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Looking for Quarantine Hikes?Please listen to your local health officials

On May 8th, most Los Angeles city and county trails will re-open with restrictions and safety guidelines. 

This follows nearby trail re-openings in San Diego and Ventura Counties a few weeks ago, as well as in the San Francisco Bay area.

Because the situation on the ground is changing rapidly and so many different jurisdictions and land agencies are involved, we STRONGLY recommend checking with the park you'd like to visit before you go to make sure they're open. Bring a mask, stay socially distanced, and have backup plans in case the trailhead you want to use is too crowded.

Remember, these trails can be closed again and if we don't follow safety guidelines, they will be.