Ira Spring Trail Overview
Ira Spring, a lifelong nature photographer and conservationist, was one of Washington’s greatest trail advocates. The Ira Spring Trail’s sun-drenched ridge lines, blooming trillium, and sparkling alpine waters are an ode to Ira. This highly popular summer trail traverses steep pitches and open meadows en route to Mason Lake, a popular weekend camping destination. It is, however beautiful in all seasons although much less utilized. To find out more about this Pacific Northwest icon, read Spring’s delightfully named autobiography, An Ice Axe, a Camera, and a Jar of Peanut Butter. This trip is for hikers who are looking a moderately strenuous daytrip, or for a weekend camping excursion that includes a good workout before pitching the tent.
Ira Spring Trail to Mason Lake
Trailhead to Bandera Mountain Junction
From the parking lot, the trail meanders through dense forest and gently climbs a few long switchbacks until reaching Mason Creek at 0.8 mile. Normally docile from late spring to fall, be aware that high water can occur in the spring.
Luckily, thanks to the efforts of volunteer crews and the generosity of the Spring Trust for Trails, a sturdy footbridge has been installed across the creek, and hikers can safely cross it in all seasons. At 1.6 miles, veer left at an obvious but unmarked junction. The real climbing starts here. Ascending several steep pitches, the trail zigzags above tree line into an alpine meadow bursting with seasonal wildflowers and mountain vistas.
Bandera Mountain Trail Junction to Summit
Stay left at the junction with the Bandera Mountain Trail at 2.9 miles and continue climbing north toward the high point of the hike, a rocky crest at 4,320 feet. Here, expansive views to the south and west reveal prime photo opportunities and glimpses of Mount Rainier on clear days. At the ridge top a memorial plaque honors Ira Spring, the well-known advocate for trails. Look for it just before descending some 200 feet toward Mason Lake.
Drop over the north side of the ridge into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, quickly descending about 300 feet to the shores of Mason Lake — a small but deep alpine pool swimming with plump trout. The main trail continues along the west and north banks of the lake to several designated camping areas, complete with a backcountry privy. Find an unclaimed boulder on the shore and soak in sunlight while enjoying views of Bandera Mountain and its tree-lined slopes reflect off the cool waters.
Bandera Mountain Trail
This is an option to lengthen your trip. From the junction with the Bandera Mountain Trail (2.9 miles from the Ira Spring trailhead), head to the summit of Little Bandera Mountain. This is a short but aggressive 0.6-mile jaunt to elevated lake views and sweeping northwest vistas. Don’t underestimate the effort required. From the turnoff, this narrow path soars 700 feet up the ridge spine in just over half of a mile.
From the split off the Mason Lake trail, the Bandera Mountain Trail goes straight up through a meadow of beargrass and old tree stumps. There is a short time where the climb gains 1 foot for every 2 feet traveled (33% grade). It’s rock and boulders underfoot here. Once you reach the ridge, follow the trail east through some small rock fields to Little Bandera. The view here is as good as you get from the real summit which is only 200 feet higher and a real struggle to achieve.
From Mason Lake, follow the main trail along the north bank to the junction with Mount Defiance Trail. Turn left and follow this trail for 1.3 miles until reaching a spur trail to the summit at 5,200 feet. Views abound at the crest, but the 5,584-foot summit is a steep climb and scramble along the rough 0.2-mile spur trail.
The route climbs steeply up the forested, shady east slope of Mount Defiance, with a few switchbacks. The way can be quite rooty and moist, and patches of snow can linger here well into July. Footprints in the snow, left by earlier hikers, will likely be visible, and the trail itself may reappear from time to time. Later in the summer the snow will be completely gone, the footing drier and the trail clear.
The route winds around the south side of Mount Defiance where the snow disappears much earlier. After a few more switchbacks it emerges into a meadow. There, as the last of the snow is melting – perhaps in early June – a multitude of glacier lilies appears. But they are early bloomers, and to see them you may have to tolerate a few snow patches on Defiance’s shady east side. As the season progresses other flowers will appear in the meadow.
The trail traverses the meadow to its west end, where an unsigned but obvious route heads steeply upslope. It’s rough, but easily followed and not dangerous. Trekking poles might be helpful. After a gain of less than 400 feet you will be on the stony summit of Mount Defiance.
Take in the views in every direction. Clouds permitting, a wide swath of summits will be visible from Mounts Adams and Rainier in the south to Mount Baker in the far north, with a host of Cascade peaks in between. Nearby, look for Granite and Bandera Mountains, and to the west look for Dirty Harry’s Peak, Russian Butte, and Mount Teneriffe. The lake 1800 feet below is Lake Kulla Kulla. Often you will see sunlight glinting off ripples on its surface.
From North Bend, head east on I-90. Some 15 miles west, take Exit 45 (Forest Road 9030.) The pavement ends in a quarter mile, and beyond that there may be significant potholes. At a fork 0.8 miles from I-90 take the left branch onto Road 9031. The right branch, Road 9030, goes to the Talapus Lake trailhead. At 3.8 miles from I-90, reach the large parking area for the Ira Spring Trail (#1038.) A privy is available, but there is no regular water source. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.
Be aware that this is a very popular trailhead; parking can be quite crowded here on a weekend. Take heed of the No Parking areas — the Forest Service regularly checks this area and will issue tickets for violations.