Three Hikes in Oregon’s Upper Applegate Valley 03-Apr-2016

Mule Mountain Trail Applegate Valley

The Applegate Valley lies south of Grants Pass and just west of Jacksonville (Oregon).  It’s lower (northern) portion is bisected by Highway 238 and its upper (southern) portion by Upper Applegate Road, which begins in the small town of Ruch on Highway 238.  The valley is largely agricultural, with appropriate barnyard fauna (sheep, goats, chickens, llamas, etc.), as well as wineries and (now legal) recreational marijuana grows.  After passing Applegate Reservoir, Upper Applegate Road ends at the California border.  Along this stretch of road are some of the best low-altitude, all-year hikes in Southern Oregon – including the Mule Mountain-Mule Canyon Loop [closed as of January 2017 due to the loss of public access], with Baldy Peak as an extra (USFS #919), the Little Grayback Trail, (USFS #921), with Squaw Peak as an extra, and the Stein Butte Trail (USFS #929).  However, with the exception of Mule Mountain, it’s hard to build loop hikes out of these trails without having to resort to friends and/or family car shuttles or extra long walks on roads.  This would consign the solo hiker to just out-and-backs if it were not for – wait for it – the mountain bike!  With a bike, it’s possible to make moderate loop hikes out of all three of these – allowing you to mix the contemplative pace of a good hike with the soul-searing excitment of a downhill ride on gravel forest roads or on some actual mountain biking trails.  Hence the miracle of the hike and bike (H&B)!

H&B #1: Mule Mountain Trail to Baldy Peak to Charlie Buck Trail

I started this loop by dropping my bike off (which means chaining it to a tree and hiding it under camo netting) at the Charlie Buck trailhead (USFS #918).  To get there from Ruch, I went 9.2 miles south on Upper Applegate Road, turned left on paved Forest Road (FR) 20 (Beaver Creek Road) for approximately 1.5 miles, then turned right on to gravel FR 940 for approximately 3 miles to the trailhead.  FR 940 is a narrow, somewhat steep, gravel road passable to sedans if you’re careful.  I then drove back down to Upper Applegate Road and went further south on it to the Mule Mountain trailhead [closed as of January 2017 due to the loss of public access] at mile point 12.  There’s a trail sign on the left side of the road (as you’re going south) but parking is about 150 yards further along on the right side of the road.  The trail starts by passing through the pastoral calmness of some private land,

Mule Mountain Trail Applegate Valley

Open pasture at the start of the Mule Mountain Trail

before reaching national forest land and starting its climb toward the saddle below Baldy Peak. Expansive views of the Siskiyou Crest and the Red Buttes Wilderness start about halfway up to the saddle,

Mule Mountain Trail Applegate Valley

Mule Mountain Trail (right foreground) just before reaching the saddle

which is marked by a single tree on the horizon.

Mule Mountain Trail Applegate Valley

The lone tree on Baldy Peak Saddle

From the saddle, you can see the Mule Mountain trail (MM) climbing up to it and the Charlie Buck trail (CB) contouring off to the north. There’s no signage up here so it’s important to note which trail is which to avoid a mis-directed descent.

Mule Mountain Trail Applegate Valley

Looking north from the Baldy Peak Saddle

After climbing the short distance up to the summit of Baldy Peak for the view and a snack, I dropped back down and took the Charlie Buck trail north.

Charlie Buck Trail Applegate Valley

Looking north on the Charlie Buck Trail

Just past this tree, the trail starts a pretty relentless descent toward the trailhead – a descent only occassionally relieved by flat spots and small groves of young Ponderosas.

Charlie Buck Trail Applegate Valley

Charlie Buck through the Ponderosas

Shortly, I came to the trailhead, which is not signed except for a small orange arrow on a tree. The very robust steel sign board speaks to the possibility of signage at some future time (and target practice at present).

Charlie Buck Trail Applegate Valley

Charlie Buck trailhead

After that, it was a quick run down FR 940 to FR 20 and then down to the Upper Applegate Road. This road can get quite busy on summer weekends and, as there is almost no shoulder here, you have to pay attention to traffic. The hike portion (red track) is 6 miles with 2,800 feet of elevation gain and the bike portion (black track) about 6.5 miles on gravel and pavement.

Charlie Buck Trail Applegate Valley

Mule Mountain – Charlie Buck Track Map

H&B #2: Mule Mountain Trail to Squaw Peak to Little Grayback Trail

For this loop, I dropped my bike at the Little Grayback trailhead (USFS #921) in French Gulch.  To reach this trailhead, I went south on Upper Applegate Road to Applegate Dam and crossed the dam on Forest Road (FR) 1075, heading toward Squaw Lakes, for approximately 1.5 miles to the junction with FR 1075-490 (signed but not too clearly).  I turned left on to this narrow gravel road and followed it for approximately 2 miles past a number of private residences to the trailhead at the French Gulch divide.  Sedans can make it up this road if they’re careful.  I then drove back down and around to the Mule Mountain trailhead.  From there, it was another pastoral start up the trail,

Mule Mountain Trail Applegate Valley

Morning at the Mule Mountain trailhead

to an unsigned junction on the saddle below Baldy Peak. From here, the Charlie Buck/Baldy Peak trail (USFS #918) continues to the south past a small cairn and soon crosses open ground with big views down Mule Canyon and out to the Siskiyou Crest.

Charlie Buck Trail Applegate Valley

Above Mule Creek Canyon on the Baldy Peak Trail south of the saddle

The trail passes through some nice stands of Ponderosa pines,

Charlie Buck Trail Applegate Valley

Passing through Ponderosas at the head of Mule Creek Canyon

before reaching a junction with FR 2010-300 on another saddle. Here the Mule Creek trail (USFS #920) heads downhill to the east but I continued south and then east on FR 300 toward Squaw Peak.

Squaw Peak Applegate Valley

Heading east on FR 2010-300

In under 2 miles, FR 300 comes to a junction with FR 2010, which I followed for a short distance to a four-way junction with FR 2010, FR 340, and FR 350 – which is the road leading to the lookout.  The old lookout atop Squaw Peak is no longer in service as a lookout but is used occasionally by Forest Service personnel during fire season. There are plans, however, to add it the Forest Service’s old lookout rental program (presumably after they fix the roof).

Squaw Peak Applegate Valley

Squaw Peak Lookout buttoned-up for the winter

From the lookout, there are great views in all directions and especially of iconic Mount McLoughlin to the east.

Squaw Peak Applegate Valley

Mount McLoughlin in center; Wagner Butte to the right; Crater Lake peaks on the horizon to the left

Squaw Peak Applegate Valley

Mount McLoughlin

After a snack at the lookout, I retraced my steps down FR 350 and then went west on FR 340 to where the Little Grayback trail begins its descent toward French Gulch. This trail descends gently but steadily,

Squaw Peak Applegate Valley

Heading down the Little Grayback Trail

and at one point I could look back and just make out the lookout on Squaw Peak.

Squaw Peak Applegate Valley

Squaw Peak Lookout (arrow) from the Little Greyback Trail

From the trailhead, it was a steep run down the gravel road in French Gulch and then on paved roads back to the Mule Mountain trailhead. The hike portion (red track) is 13.9 miles with 3,600 feet of elevation gain and the bike portion (black track) about 6.1 miles on gravel and pavement.

Squaw Peak Applegate Valley

Mule Mountain – French Glen Track Map

H&B #3: Stein Butte Trail to Summit Lake Trail

For this loop,  I dropped my bike at the Summit Lake trailhead.  To get there, I proceeded as though I was going to French Gulch but continued past it on Forest Road (FR) 1075 (Squaw Creek Road) for about 8 miles – paved for about 4 miles and gravel for the rest – to a junction with FR 1075-700.  The Summit Lake trailhead and parking lot is on the right, approximately 300 feet past this junction (there’s a small sign on the right indicating parking).  I then drove down and back across the dam to Upper Applegate Road, turned left, and drove to the T-junction of FR 1050 and Carberry Creek Road (FR 1040) near the southern end of the reservoir. I turned left here and continued approximately 0.9 mile to Manzanita Creek Road, where I turned left to the trailhead parking almost immediately on the left.  This turn is directly across from the entrance to the Seattle Bar Day Use Area.  I should note that this loop can be done entirely as a mountain bike trip.

The Stein Butte trail climbs for about 2 miles through the forest before emerging atop Elliott Ridge, with views of Baldy Peak (B) and Little Grayback Peak (LG) to the north – locations of the two previous hikes & bikes.

Stein Butte Trail Applegate Valley

Baldy Peak (B) and Little Greyback (LG) from atop Elliott Ridge

After a little over 4 miles, I reached the top of Stein Butte and encountered 3 of the 6 people I would see all day.

Stein Butte Trail Applegate Valley

The “crowd” on Stein Butte

I descended eastward from the butte to a junction with the New London (USFS #928) and Elliott Ridge (USFS #969) trails, with the latter just a renamed and renumbered continuation of the Stein Butte trail.

Elliott Ridge Trail Applegate Valley

About 1.6 miles further east, after a roller coaster of ups and downs along the ridge through some pleasantly forested areas,

Elliott Ridge Trail Applegate Valley

Elliott Ridge trail along the ridge

and with some great views of the Red Buttes,

Elliott Ridge Trail Applegate Valley

Red Buttes from the Elliott Ridge Trail

the Elliott Ridge trail ended at FR 550,

Elliott Ridge Trail Applegate Valley

FR 550

where there are some impressively large Ponderosa pines (this one is over 50 inches DBH).

Elliott Ridge Trail Applegate Valley

The big Ponderosa at FR 550

About 0.5 miles further east, FR 550 reaches its end at a junction with FR 540 (now the Carlton Meadows (or Pasture) trail) and FR 500.

Carlton Meadows Trail Applegate Valley

Junction with the Carlton Pasture Trail

I continued east on FR 500,

Elliott Ridge Trail Applegate Valley

Continuing along FR 550

climbing steadily (and seemingly endlessly) through forest and open areas,

Elliott Ridge Trail Applegate Valley

Part of the long climb on FR 550

before finally starting a descent to Summit Lake – which is more of a glorified pond than a lake.

Summit Lake Applegate Valley

Summit Lake

Summit Lake Applegate Valley

Summit Lake

Just past the lake, I came to a junction with FR 580 which I followed north for a short distance to a signed junction with the Summit Lake trail (USFS #926). After a quick 2 mile descent of this somewhat steep trail, I recovered my bike and started gliding down Squaw Creek Road – occassionally having to pull over to escape drivers seemingly confused by a gravel surface. After about 4 miles, I turned left on to FR 100 and some came to one of the trailheads of the Payette Trail (USFS #970), which parallels the eastern shoreline of Applegate Lake, contouring just above the reservoir’s high water level.

Payette Trail Applegate Valley

Trailhead off of FR 1570-100 near Stringtown Campground

The reservoir/lake is at its best at this time of the year, when the Corps has been filling it in anticipation of the summer dry season.

Payette Trail Applegate Lake

A not yet full Applegate Reservoir

After dodging cars on this and the previous hikes and bikes, I was looking forward to pursuing a “non-motorized recreation experience” – which I assume is bureaucratic speak for “fun” on an actual trail.

Payette Trail Applegate Valley

I’m not a “real” mountain biker so this trail, which is rated “easy” by true biker standards, was a plenty fun ride for me – even the parts where the narrow trail traversed some interesting drop-offs into the now almost full reservoir.  Gripping!

Payette Trail Applegate Valley

The trail (arrow) is about as narrow as it looks

The hike portion (red track) is 12.2 miles with 3,900 feet of elevation gain (lots of ups and downs) and the bike portion (black track) about 11.2 miles on gravel and actual trail.

Payette Trail Applegate Valley

Stein Butte – Summit Lake Track Map

This was my first foray into hiking & biking and I have to say it was well worth it. Being able to make loops here added a whole new dimension to hikes I’ve done many times before as out-and-backs. Once the snow clears, I have my eye on some hike & bike loops in the Siskiyous and Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness!

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