Gold was discovered in southwest Oregon in the early 1850s and the inevitable hoard of fortune seekers arrived soon after. Early mining activity focused on easily accessible placer deposits, unconsolidated sand, gravel, and minerals that could be exploited by panning. Once the bulk of these were exhausted, most of the hoard moved on to the next “strike” (…and on and on). Those miners that remained needed the wherewithal to upgrade to hydraulic mining, which required capital, expensive equipment, and an organized workforce. It also required a lot of water and a lot of ditches to move said water from where it was naturally (in a creek) to where it was needed (at the mine). The Sterling Mine Ditch is probably the best known such ditch around here mainly because much of its 26.5 mile (42.6 km) length has been repurposed as a great and popular hiking/biking/riding trail.

At about the same time as the Sterling Mine Ditch was being dug (in the late 1870s, by hand) another was being dug (by Chinese laborers, again largely by hand) for the not far away Layton Mine. This upper ditch (a lower one had been dug in the 1860s) conveyed water some 21 miles (33.8 km) from Pipe Fork on the East Fork of Williams Creek to mines in Bamboo and Ferris Gulches. About half of its length has succumbed to the ravages of time but the Williams Community Forest Project has worked for the last few years to restore what remains for hiking, biking, and riding. We first hiked the section of this trail north from Panther Gulch on a gloomy, wet day in March, 2017. I returned in 2018 to explore the section south from Panther Gulch to Pipe Fork and also to look for the ditch’s headworks along Pipe Fork. Today (thanks to the Big V keeping us local for the moment 🙄 ) we reprised our hike on the northern section. Unlike our 2017 hike there, today’s was in bright sunshine on a cool, clear day. 🙂

Going north beside the ditch
Indian Warriors
Along the trail under some tall madrones
Under a canopy of manzanitas
Through towering pines
A mixed oak and madrone forest

About 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the trailhead, we came to the remains of a failed marijuana farm. It was a wreck when we were here in 2017 and it’s even more of a wreck today. Soon after Oregon legalized marijuana, some business people came from Georgia to make their fortune in green gold. They gave it a go, failed, and moved on – leaving us with a huge pile of trash. 😥 Not unlike the early miners who came here, dug up our creeks and rivers looking for gold, didn’t find any (or enough) and moved on to the next strike. These structures sit on private land, so the current (or any new) owners will have to take the lead if this is ever to be cleaned-up. Update: As of 2021, this site is apparently back in business and has put up a lot of “no trespassing” signs to prove it. Despite these signs, the re-routed trail keeps you on public land.

Skeletal greenhouses remain
Someday we’ll have to clean up this mess

Since our first visit, a new trail has been built down across Cherry Gulch that allows you to bypass these eyesores. We followed it going out.

On the bypass trail through Cherry Gulch
Colorful fungus growing on old tree roots
Long ago part of the ditch was overtaken by a road
The old road soon gives way to the trail

The trail eventually reaches a historical feature known as the Chinese Wall. Here a rocky outcrop prevented the relatively simple digging of a ditch in dirt. The Chinese laborers blasted a channel through the outcrop and used the resulting rocks to construct walls to support the ditch. The ditch is no longer working but these walls are still holding strong after 140+ years. 🙂

The two rock walls (white arrows) and the channel through the outcrop (red and white arrow) at the Chinese Wall
A close-up of the longest wall, now sporting a covering of poison oak
The channel is over 5 feet (1.5 m) deep
The Williams Creek Valley from the Chinese Wall
Grayback Mountain and Big Sugarloaf Peak

After poking around the Chinese Wall, we continued along the trail – now unrestored and harder going – for a few hundred feet until stopped by a fallen tree. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the trail continues up to the boundary between Sections 35 and 36, past which it has been ravaged by a clearcut. So we turned around and headed back.

Heading back

Our out-and-back hike came to 6.4 miles (10.2 km) with just 125 feet (38 m) of gain – and all of that is climbing out of Cherry Gulch. Four years on and this is still a pleasant walk through a mixed oak-madrone-pine woodland. The botanical high point of the day were the fiery red Indian Warriors (P. densiflora) that were bursting out of the ground along the start of the trail. We couldn’t recall seeing so many in one place at one time. 🙂

Our track (red) from the Panther Gulch Trailhead (“G” are the greenhouses, “C” is the Chinese Wall, blue is the unrestored continuation of the trail to its end)

The portions of the ditch that we’ve hiked – from Pipe Fork to the Chinese Wall – come to only about 10 miles (16 km) total. But what about the remainder of the ditch from the Chinese Wall to the former site of the Layton Mine? We haven’t been out on the ground to look but you can trace most of the ditch’s path thanks to LIDAR imagery, where it shows as a thin white line on a gray-black background. Although the Chinese Wall is only 3 miles (4.8 km) or so from the mine as the crow flies, the ditch had to wind in and out of gullies at a steady gradient for an additional 9+ miles (14.4+ km) to keep the water flowing at just the right rate. Had this section survived, it would have made a great trail.

The approximate alignment of the non-trail portion (blue line) of the Layton Ditch; the red line is the hiking trail (“C” is the Chinese Wall and “L” is the former site of the Layton Mine)
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