The Sterling Mine Ditch Trail – despite its somewhat off-putting name – is one of the most popular and most publicized trails in Southern Oregon. It’s open year-round, is accessible to hikers, mtn bikers, and horses, and features flowers in the Spring and colors in the Fall. The original 26 mile “ditch” was constructed by hand in 1877 to convey the Little Applegate River to a huge hydraulic mine in the upper reaches of the Sterling Creek drainage; the ditch was in use until the 1930s. The mine and the town it spawned (Sterlingville) are now gone but the ditch remains. Thanks to the efforts of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Siskiyou Upland Trails Association (SUTA), it has now been reclaimed as a valuable recreational resource. A trail map and directions to the various trailheads are now available.
Our first foray on to the trail was in the Fall of 2013 when we did a short hike from the Tunnel Ridge Trailhead to the Bear Gulch Trailhead – the section which includes the trail’s iconic tunnel. Yesterday we did a loop around the western portion of the trail system, starting from and returning to the Deming Gulch Trailhead. We parked at the trailhead and gained 1,000 feet walking up the road,
to the trailhead at Wolf Gap.
The trail from Wolf Gap down to the main ditch trail was not part of the original ditch system but was added through the efforts of the BLM and SUTA volunteers to provide additional access options that only crossed public lands. This connector trail (which is NOT open to mountain bikes) is well-constructed and well-graded,
and descends through a madrone forest, past some amazingly large and bulbous specimens (the walking stick is 5 feet long),
out into some open meadows with a view of Squaw Peak to the south,
and Grayback Mountain to the north.
These meadows have all greened-up and are quivering with blooming potential but only a few flowers are out yet – the best is yet to come!
We then followed the trail back into a madrone forest,
shortly before its junction with the main ditch trail and the ditch itself, which is some 10 feet deep at this particular point.
From this junction, it’s 8.3 miles back to where we left the car at Deming Gulch. So we turned right (southwest) here and started along the ditch.
The ditch seems to have been created mainly by sidecasting (all by hand in 1877!) the hillside to make a downslope berm, which is now capped by the trail. Back in the day, the ditchwalker would use this trail to maintain the ditch.
Not long after leaving the Gap trail, we swung northwest on to sunnier, less forested slopes,
from where we could get a look back at Wolf Gap.
The 8 mile return to Deming Gulch was on an easy, essentially level trail,
that gave us plenty of time to take in the sights, including that of a mole who had a fateful encounter with a mountain bike tire. Or maybe it drowned first and was then squished? Either way, it was not a good day in moleworld…
After about 4 miles, the trail starts to swing north and the character of the terrain changes from sunny, open slopes to forested slopes harboring dense clumps of water-loving plants like miner’s lettace and ferns.
There aren’t a whole lot of different flowers out yet so the clumps of intricate, subtly colored elegant cat’s ears drew our attention.
We crossed the Armstrong Gulch road (another trailhead option) and 2 miles later were back at the car, having made a complete loop around Point 3714, exploring the western side of the ditch trail system while doing so. Easy, fun hiking (12 miles roundtrip; 1,000 feet of elevation gain) on a sunny, cool, clear (full bluebird!) day and on a highly scenic trail with an interesting backstory and lots to see. Brilliant!
WARNING: There is an ABSOLUTELY STAGGERING amount of poison oak in this area, so leaving the trail is NOT recommended.