Oh, what an extravaganza of storms! Wave after wave after wave of moistness pouring over us, with only brief, usually sun-free, breaks to ease the sogginess. With one such break teed up for this morning, we searched (yet again) for a new (to us) low-altitude hike that we could fit into our allotted few hours of relative dryness. Our first thought was the well-known Sterling Mine Ditch Trail, which is a great trail, but one we’ve hiked many times before (post). We hit gold (pun intended) when Roether’s Williams Area Trail Guide (2006) pointed us toward a 6-mile (roundtrip) hike along the remains of the Layton Mine Ditch, a similar, but much less well known, one than the Sterling. The Williams Community Forest Project has been doing the hard work of restoring the ditch trail as a hiking option. A hike north (from Panther Gap) on the Layton culminates at one of the Williams area’s most famous architectural structures – the Chinese Wall. A new hike into another piece of Southern Oregon’s history sounded ideal and so off we went!
Since we did this hike, the ditch trail has been routed around the section of private property with the two unsightly marijuana grows. The trail has also been extended on public land a bit north from the Chinese Wall.
From Highway 238 south of Grants Pass, Oregon, we turned south on the Williams Highway to Williams, then south on the East Fork Road to a left (east) turn on to Panther Gulch Road (Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Road 39-5-2). Going east on Panther Gulch for 2.3 miles (paved, then good gravel) brought us to a T-junction where we parked. The ditch trail starts just west of this junction – there’s no trailhead per se (and no amenities), but the BLM did put up an information plaque in 2008, which can be seen from the road.
Hydraulic mining was the principal form of gold mining in Southern Oregon. This type of placer mining uses water discharged (through a nozzle called a “giant”) under high pressure to wash away gravels and alluvial deposits, making a slurry that can be run through a sluice box or other equipment to recover the gold. It required considerable quantities of water, which was usually conveyed, often over long distances, in a ditch. Water pressure (the “head”) was created by having the intake of the ditch at a higher elevation than the giant.
Beginning about 1860, placer mines in the Williams area were worked by pick and shovel or ground sluiced. By 1869, a short ditch, now known as the Lower Layton Ditch, was dug to supply water from Williams Creek to diggings close to the creek. In the mid-1860s, J. T. Layton extended this lower ditch for 18 miles to feed the giants at his mine in Ferris Gulch on the other side of the ridge from Williams. This mine is considered by the BLM to be the first hydraulic mine in Southern Oregon. It was productive enough to justify digging a second 21-mile long ditch, the Upper Layton Ditch, from Williams Creek to the mine in the mid-1870s. This upper ditch was estimated to have cost $10,000 at a time when that was serious money. Use of the ditches for mining by Layton and his successors (particularly the Pacific Placer Company) continued at least into the 1920s and perhaps as late as 1940. After that the ditches fell out of use for mining and were eventually abandoned. In the mid-1990s the BLM cleared part of the upper ditch for a trail that traveled in and out of federal lands, but that too fell into disrepair. More recently, the Williams Community Forest Project has been clearing swaths of the trail for use by hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. The trail starts at the Panther Gulch Road,
and is a wonderful, easy, seemingly level stroll as it goes along the ditch – which is in surprisingly good shape given that it hasn’t seen any maintenance for roughly 80 years.
As promised, it wasn’t exactly raining (yet), but the weather was working hard, very hard, at looking ominous and foreboding.
Somehow, it seemed less threatening to avert our eyes from this overhead gloom, and look down at some of the smaller things along the trail.
We continued along through the forest on what seemed like an almost level trail (we were actually losing elevation, albiet slowly) for just short of two miles,
until we crossed onto private land at the boundary of Section 36 and ran smack into the first of the two marijuana farms that Southern Amalgamated Development has placed across the ditch – obliterating it in the process.
Marijuana is now legal in Oregon (which is why Southern Amalgamated, a Georgia company, is here) but we do have an issue with such farms bulldozing the landscape, the forest, and part of the local history, and then leaving a huge mess of rotting plastic, mouldering containers, and other trash. Hydraulic mining has been justly criticized as an environmentally destructive practice but, frankly, the bad practices exhibited here are a close second. We think that marijuana can be grown, as can any crop, in an environmentally responsible manner, but this doesn’t look like an example of that.
A pile of bear poop in a nitrile glove discarded by one of the “farmers” sums up our feelings here. If you’re concerned about where your food comes from, then you might also want to be concerned about the source of your dope too.
The trail disappeared at the first farm, so we went around that farm, then along a road carved where the ditch used to be to the next farm, and picked up a short bit of the ditch just to the north of this farm. This short piece of degraded ditch/trail soon merged with another old road coming up Cherry Gulch, one which had been bulldozed over the ditch at some time in the past.
For about the next half-mile, we were walking on this old road, with the ditch, which had been clearly visible along the trail south of the farms, now completely filled-in and no longer evident.
The road peters out back into a trail in the next gulch north of Cherry Gulch and here the ditch becomes visible once again. About 3 miles from the trailhead, we could look across a gulch and see where the ditch had been blasted through a rock outcropping, with the rock fragments from that then used to build the “Chinese Wall.”
This ditch, like the better known Sterling Mine Ditch, was likely dug primarily by Chinese laborers. Up close, the blasted ditch is still readily apparent.
It is also assumed that these same laborers built the wall here to create a ditch across terrain in which is was nearly impossible to actually dig one in.
The weather was still holding-off with the rain but the clouds over Big Sugraloaf Mountain had started to rearrange themselves into even more ominous shapes.
It was likely already snowing up in the mountains and we weren’t trusting enough to believe that it wouldn’t soon be raining on us. So we said good-bye to the blasted ditch,
and quickly retraced our steps back to the trailhead.
At 6.4 miles round-trip, with only 500 feet of elevation gain, this was an easy hike along an historic route to a unique piece of Southern Oregon’s history. Roether says that the “…best time to hike here is in the dead of winter when the southern exposure can be a sunny relief…” and we agree. Sadly, however, the hike is marred by the two poorly constructed and seemingly unmaintained marijuana farms but perhaps the Williams Community Forest Project can work to ameliorate that. As an added bonus, we finished this hike in time for lunch at Climate City Brewing in Grants Pass! The rain started as we were finishing lunch and stuck with us for the drive home, so everything worked out just fine in that we never got to test our rain gear!