The Sterling Mine Ditch gets a lot of use these days.
The 26-mile canal was excavated in 1877 by Chinese mine workers to convey water from the Little Applegate River to a hydraulic gold-mining operation on Sterling Creek. On Saturday, May 26, the ditch will be reincarnated as a race course for trail runners.
What: Run the Ditch Trail; five-mile trail run and botany hike on Sterling Mine Ditch Trail
When: Saturday, May 26. Race at 9 a.m.; free guided hike at 9:10 a.m.; packet pickup and day of race sign-up 7:30 a.m.
Where: Tunnel Ridge Trailhead, Little Applegate Road, mile 9.7. From Jacksonville, take Highway 238 West eight miles to Ruch. Turn left on Upper Applegate Road at the sign to Applegate Lake. After 2.8 miles, turn left onto Little Applegate Road.
Who: Co-sponsored by Southern Oregon Runners, Siskiyou Uplands Trail Association, Bureau of Land Management
Information: For an entry form, see the race calendar at www.sorunners.org. For details, call race directors Seth Weintraub at 541-899-7659 or Steve Goldman at 541-899-3232
"This trail connects runners to the gold-mining era," says Seth Weintraub, race co-director for the inaugural Run the Ditch Trail five-mile race.
The ditch, though breached in many places to prevent flood damage, is surprisingly intact.
It has been protected, says Weintraub, because "the ditch came under BLM jurisdiction in the 1930s when it was decommissioned."
In the intervening years, an eight-mile section centered around Tunnel Ridge has been maintained for hiking, with two trailheads on Little Applegate Road providing access.
"In 2009, a group of Applegate and Rogue Valley residents created a mission to connect the trail systems from Jacksonville to Ashland," says Weintraub. "This trail is part of that connection."
The new group, the Siskiyou Uplands Trail Association — SUTA — set about clearing and leveling the ditch's berm and extending the trail to the full length of the ditch. Though some of the terrain proved fairly easy to convert with sweat equity, the group realized they needed additional help.
"The BLM dedicated stimulus funds and crews to help with the worst parts," says Weintraub. "Today more than 18 miles of the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail is accessible of that total 26."
Trail runners hoping to test their mettle against the nearly flat ditch trail will discover that the course is not entirely flat. Not by two miles, to be exact. Though the first half-mile is a downhill sprint on Little Applegate Road, the next mile heads uphill from the Bear Gulch trailhead.
"It climbs about 500 feet in that mile," Weintraub cautions.
The next three miles or so follow the ditch, giving runners time to recover their breath and strength. A short uphill jog then takes runners over the celebrated Tunnel Ridge. This tunnel is about three feet high and more than 100 feet long. The Chinese miners bore through the hillside here as the only option available to them to continue the ditch. Fortunately for time-conscious trail racers, the race route goes over — not through — the tunnel.
The final mile of the course is a steep downhill grade that finishes at the starting line.
Whether you walk or run this course, look up from the trail as often as you can.
"This is a beautiful course, one of the prettiest runs I've done," says Weintraub.
The ditch snakes around many ridges and draws, and the vegetation changes correspondingly. Exposed outcrops covered in manzanita and buckbrush give way to madrone and Douglas fir. One of the largest madrone trees in the area rests next to the trail near the 3.5-mile mark.
Poison oak is present everywhere on this course, so be prepared.
Nearly all the ridges have views of the Little Applegate drainage, and at this time of year many of the meadows below and beside the trail are full of wildflowers.
For those more interested in flowers than finishing times, the race directors have you covered.
"We have a BLM botanist who will be leading a hike," says Weintraub. "They leave 10 minutes after the runners and follow the same trail."
After you've finished the day's exercise — running or hiking — don't forget to stop on your way home for another history-themed event.
Six and a half miles back down Little Applegate Road you'll pass Buncom, Jackson County's only ghost town.
Beginning at 10 a.m., though, the ghosts will be real.
The annual Buncom Days celebration regularly draws hundreds of visitors. Expect to see a noon parade with antique cars and tractors, traditional music, demonstrations of pioneer living skills and plenty of food.
Make Saturday, May 26, a celebration of Southern Oregon history.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org