David Calahan is hiking on a forested ridge above the Applegate Valley when he suddenly charges off the trail through dense buckbrush to a secret vista.
Below us, the Applegate River and Highway 238 bisect a patchwork of farmland, and in the distance, ridge after forested ridge offer varying shades of green. On the horizon, Dutchman Peak rises the highest.
The Applegate Trails Association leads several hikes during the year, but the hikes fill quickly.
On a hike on the Heart Trail last year, so many people showed up that the ATA needed extra hike leaders and a sweeper to keep track of everyone.
"It's not unusual for 35 to 45 people to show up for hikes," says Calahan. "I'm surprised how many people don't have a clue what's in their backyard."
The ATA's next hike, on March 22, will go to Mount Isabelle and Isabelle Springs. The out-and-back hikes are two miles long.
A hike to the Wellington Wildlands is scheduled for April 12. See www.applegatetrails.org.
"Four-fifths of this wild area we're in is brush and manzanita, but it has some of the last remaining low-elevation, old-growth forest in Southern Oregon," Calahan says.
Calahan, a retired Medford firefighter and president of the Applegate Trails Association, has been advocating for more than 20 years for special protection for this area, known as the Wellington Wildlands. The BLM has recently taken a step in that direction.
"It's now a 'Land with Wilderness Characteristics,' or LWC," Calahan explains. "Only Congress can designate an official wilderness area, but at least this gives it a few extra protections."
In late 2010, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed the BLM to inventory all lands of more than 5,000 acres that exhibited certain wilderness characteristics. These new LWCs would then be managed to ensure that they would retain their wilderness character.
The Medford BLM has recently designated seven LWCs, including the Wellington Wildlands.
The LWC designation makes it less likely that roads will be built in the 5,711-acre Wellington Wildlands. The Heart Trail we're hiking on was originally a road, but the forest has narrowed it, and a barrier at the trailhead signals its status as a trail.
"This old road was built in about the middle of the last century, put in by a rogue miner who had a mining claim on Humbug Creek, and the owners wouldn't give him access," Calahan explains. "It's grown in a lot since then and makes a big enough trail where two or three people can walk side by side."
The road-turned-trail extends 2.5 miles from the trailhead on BLM Road 38-3-8 and cuts through the heart of the LWC, hence the name Heart Trail. The trail follows a ridge for most of its length, except for where it hugs the slopes of Wellington Butte. With only a 300-foot elevation change from start to finish, the trail is accessible to hikers of all abilities.
To reach the Heart Trail from Jacksonville, drive 4.9 miles west on Highway 238. Turn right/north on Forest Creek Road. After 4.3 miles, bear left at the sign for Oregon Belle Creek Access Road, aka BLM Road 38-3-5. Stay on this road for 2.4 miles to the Isabelle Springs Trailhead/Isabelle Saddle. Turn left on BLM Road 38-3-8. The trailhead for the Heart Trail will be two miles ahead on your right.
As a 5-mile, out-and-back hike, the Heart Trail has plenty to offer the ecology-minded. It passes through several pockets of old-growth Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine. Many of these giants still show fire scars from the last big fire to sweep through the area, which occurred in 1931, according to Calahan's research.
Along the trail, pieces of white quartz poke through the duff. If you look carefully to the side of the trail, you may see one of several remnant glory holes, where a miner followed a quartz vein, hoping to discover gold.
The trail ends at an open, grassy saddle. The tall pines at the edge of the clearing are knobcone pines, which germinate after a fire. Their size suggests they sprang up after the 1931 fire that blackened the bases of the larger trees seen earlier.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at email@example.com