The Sterling Mine Ditch Trail was the first trail we hiked in Southern Oregon before deciding to move south (post). Granted calling a trail “mine ditch” doesn’t make it sound all that attractive but it is, in fact, a very pleasant, low elevation, year-round trail, with wildflowers in the Spring and a rich history. We’ve now hiked the entire length of the trail between its Deming Gulch, Wolf Gap, and Little Applegate trailheads (post). Having done all this, the eternal quest for a new hike or a twist on an old hike kicked in. A posting by the Ashland Hiking Group attracted our attention to Anderson Butte (5,197 feet), a lumpy peak which rises above the eastern end of the ditch trail and which used to be graced by a fire lookout. After deep cartographic introspection, it looked like a loop could be formed using the ditch trail, some forest roads, and a bit of cross-country travel. The LovedOne has grown just a little leery of my “experimental” hikes and thus obtained a Winter Solstice Deferment (not enough daylight!) to avoid accompanying me on this one. So, feeling warmth only from my Dutch Brothers White Chocolate Mocha, I headed into the wilderness…
I started this hike by first hiding the bike on a now decommissioned old road that connects with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Road 39-2-8 where it crosses the head of Deming Gulch. The drive to the trailhead had begun under an overcast sky but on the way up to drop the bike, I punched through the ceiling for one of those wonderful looking-down-on-the-clouds views.
With the bike in place, I drove back to the Wolf Gap Trailhead and started down it toward the ditch trail. I’d now dropped back into the gloom of the overcast,
and the usually expansive views from this trail of the beautiful Little Applegate River Valley were totally obscured.
Further down, the trail passes through a grove of tall madrones that give the scene a warm, reddish hue,
and, then 1.5 miles from the trailhead, the Wolf Gap Trail connects with the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail, at a point where the ditch is very obvious.
The 26.5 mile long Sterling Mine Ditch was dug with hand tools in six months in 1877 to redirect water from the upper reaches of the Little Applegate River to the Sterling Creek Mine, the largest hydraulic mine in Oregon. The ditch carried water to the mine and the still extant trail alongside it provided access for ditch maintenance. The mine discontinued operations in the 1930s and the ditch and trail became overgrown with brush and trees. Now, thanks to the efforts of the BLM and the Siskiyou Upland Trails Association, the trail is back in service as an immensely popular destination for hikers, mountain bikers, runners, and equestrians. The trail only loses 200 feet along its entire 26.5 mile length, so it feels level when you walk on it.
In addition to digging the ditch, its builders also supported it with dry-laid retaining walls,
bridged steep draws with now extinct wooden flumes,
and, in one place, tunneled 130 feet through the ridge (today’s Tunnel Ridge) to save having to go around it.
At 6.7 miles from the trailhead, the Ditch trail leaves the ditch (to begin circling around private property) and starts climbing the lower slopes of Goat Cabin Ridge.
At the top of the ridge east of Point 3327 (7.8 miles from the trailhead), I left the Ditch trail and started climbing cross-country (and steeply) up one of Goat Cabin Ridge’s lateral ridges. The trick was to keep going up while staying away from the essentially impenetrable thickets of buckbrush along the crest of this lateral ridge.
I’d used Google Earth to scope my cross-country route and its aerial photos showed a number of animal trails up these slopes. By following those (channeling “The Wisdom of the Bambi”), I easily found my way around or through the buckbrush and onto the upper grassy slopes of the ridge.
At the crest of the ridge, I connected with another kind of trail that was very prominent on the Google Earth photos – illegal ones created by irresponsible Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) activity. This sort of vandalism by droolers not only enhances erosion of these fragile slopes but also adversely impacts some of the rare plant species (the largest population of western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) in the Siskiyou Mountains clings to the ridgetops here) in what is supposed to be the Dakubetede Roadless Area. Sadly, this damage pales in comparsion to what you’ll find in the upper reaches of the South Fork of Anderson Creek, just on the north side of the ridge from here.
I felt guilty following the OHV “trail” and then the OHV “road” up to BLM Road 38-2-24 but there were few reasonable alternatives at this point. Sigh. Road 38-2-24 is a robust strip of well-packed gravel that runs up and then past the now decommissioned old road up to Anderson Butte.
The road to Anderson Butte leaves BLM Road 38-2-24 at an old gravel pit and, while it’s been decommissioned relative to cars and trucks, this old road is still navigable by motorcycles, deeply committed 4×4 folks, and (oh, yeah) hikers. This piece of old road is scheduled to become part of the Jack-Ash Trail. Phase 1 of that trail will connect both ends of the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail using new trails and existing dirt roads, while Phase 2 will someday connect the Jacksonville, Ashland, and Applegate Ridge Trail systems.
Anderson Butte and Creek were named for the Anderson family which took up a donation land claim in the early 1850s. A 30-foot high L-4 fire lookout tower was built on the Butte in 1935 and then removed in 1965.
All that’s left now are the concrete foundation footings,
the big view of Mount McLoughlin to the east,
and the equally big one of Grayback Mounatin to the west. Today the valley was filled with smoke from agricultural slash burns. There’s also supposed to be a geocache (GC11WRE) on the summit, but I didn’t spend time looking for it.
It was still sunny, but the air seemed to be getting much colder, so after a quick snack on the summit, I went back down the old road to where yet another illegal OHV trail struck off southeast straight down the ridge between Points 5021 and 4678.
I had planned to work my way cross-country down this ridge to connect with an old road that comes up to the saddle below Point 4678. While this OHV track saved me having to go cross-country (which wouldn’t have been that hard), using it only added to my guilt as a drooler enabler. Arrrrragh!!! On the way down this trail of tears, I could look southeast across Goat Cabin Ridge to see snow-covered Wagner Butte beyond.
This illegal OHV trail soon connects with the heavily decommissioned old road and then continues from here all the way down the ridge to the Wolf Gap Trailhead – two more miles of drooler-fueled environmental carnage. I followed the old road down to BLM Road 39-2-8 where I’d hidden the bike under its camo netting.
Then it was some painful uphill peddling (somehow hiking muscles and biking muscles must be stored in different body parts), followed by some freezing (but fun!) open cockpit coasting, back to my truck at Wolf Gap. All told, 13.6 miles of hiking on trail and road and cross-country, with 2,400 feet of elevation gain, followed by 3.5 miles of on-road biking. A tough hike, but one with historical features and big views to keep you going. It will be sad beyond description if the BLM decides to “grandfather” these illegal OHV defacements into any of its future land management decisions.