I first became aware of this trail from a 2013 Ashland Hiking Group post and then later found it posted as that on the Hiking Project. In both posts, the trail was described as indistinct, brushy, and hard to follow in places. Yet I could see it as part of a hike and bike loop – perhaps the last one of the 2017 summer season – involving it, Forest Roads 20 and 22, and the Wagner Butte Trail. So I girded myself for some bushwhacking and route-finding and set-off on a perfect bluebird day to explore this variation on the classic hike to Wagner Butte. As this loop progressed, I would be pleasantly surprised to find that the Ashland trails plan that has been in the works for years had finally come to fruition for this tread.
To start this loop, I drove up to and past the Mount Ashland Ski Area and west on gravel Forest Road (FR) 20 to where it rounds the ridge coming south from McDonald Peak. I hid the bike in trees here and then continued west on FR 20 to its junction with FR 22 and took that down to park the truck at the giant pothole farm known otherwise as the Wagner Butte Trailhead. From there is was up the well-used Wagner Butte Trail (USFS #1011) (some maps still list this as the #972) – recently brushed-out in spots by the Siskiyou Mountain Club – to Wagner Glade Gap.
I had last been at the Gap in July and was surprised to find that trail signs had sprouted since then at what is now a four-way junction. From here, the Wagner Glade Trail (#1014 on the USFS map) goes straight ahead (east) down into the Ashland Watershed, while the #1011 turns north (left) to Wagner Butte. What came as a surprise was the obvious tread going south (right), with a laminated sign saying it was the Split Rock Trail. Its tread looked obvious but the descriptions I had found suggested that such clarity existed only at its ends, so I turned south still expecting some route-finding. Going south, the trail started out almost level, with a view – on this clear day – as far west as Preston Peak in the Siskiyou Wilderness.
At 0.8 miles from the Gap, the trail made its first climb (~200 feet) over Point 6753. Then dipped a bit through sagebrush, with a view toward McDonald Peak.
Along in here, I passed some old fence posts that marked the fence line meant to keep cows from wandering into the Ashland watershed. Old maps indicate that the southern half of the Split Rock Trail appears to have been in existence in 1896 as a pack trail and later as a firefighting trail. Obtaining access for the building and maintenance of this fence also likely contributed to its existence.
Then it was another ~300-foot climb up to Split Rock (Point 6919), with a view north toward Wagner Butte along the way.
This trail will gain about 1,100 feet from the Gap to FR 20 in steps, some of which are quite steep and abrupt owing to the lack of switchbacks. Split Rock is a named point along the trail but, despite wandering around the area, I was unable to discern an obvious “split rock” – just piles of rocks and boulders with splits of various sizes.
Continuing on and up, I followed the easily discernible tread through sagebrush-covered flats,
with an occasional view of Mount McLoughlin to the east.
After a flat stretch, the trail made a 200-foot climb up to the summit of McDonald Peak, along a well-graded trail prism. Maybe not a “real” trail but more than a use or social trail and certainly far from being “indistinct and unimproved.” This point was brought home when I reached the top of McDonald to find a brand new metal trail sign pointing the way downhill. The view from the summit was pretty good on this cloudless day, despite their being haze all around and a lot of smoke(?) in the Shasta Valley to the south.
From McDonald Peak, I had to lose elevation and then gain most of it back to cross the crest to reach FR 20. Once there, I un-hid the bike, and set off on an (almost) unhindered glide back to the trailhead,
with a last glimpse of hazy Mount Shasta long the way.
A short (6.2 miles; 2,700 feet of elevation gain; with 9.7 miles on the bike) but fun loop hike on a surprisingly good trail. Despite it’s designation as a Class 1 Trail (…the Split Rock trail will remain in its current state being indistinct, unimproved, with fallen logs and other obstacles, and generally difficult to follow… [It] will resemble more of a “route” or a “way” than an actual trail, providing a semi-cross-country rugged experience for those seeking a more natural environment than is likely to be found on other system trails.) at no time was the tread hard to find or follow, nor was brush ever an issue. Cairns are prominent in the few rocky spots where you might miss a turn in the trail. Judging from the two hunters, two runners, and half dozen hikers I passed on the way up, this trail is getting used. It seems to be popular as part of an out-and-back from FR 20 to the Gap or Wagner Butte but I’d be unenthusiastic about having to climb 1,100 feet after reaching the Butte. A car shuttle between FR 20 and the Wagner Butte Trailhead would facilitate an easy downhill hike to the Butte and then on down to the trailhead.