ASHLAND — Alex Relph eyes a pile of basalt chunks that have sloughed off Pilot Rock over the centuries, creating a cache she'll use in the first planned route to this iconic feature of the Siskiyou Mountains.

ASHLAND — Alex Relph eyes a pile of basalt chunks that have sloughed off Pilot Rock over the centuries, creating a cache she'll use in the first planned route to this iconic feature of the Siskiyou Mountains.

Relph wields a pickax into the soft hillside to make room for a flat piece of basalt that she plops into the hole, providing a firm foothold that she hopes will ease hikers' treks to this landmark southeast of Ashland for decades to come.

"This is the first time I've ever made steps on a trail," says Relph, a member of the Siskiyou Mountain Club trail crew. "I gotta say, it's pretty exciting."

After more than a century of catering to visitors who scrambled up this steep hillside every which way in search of everything from panoramas of the Rogue Valley to an ornery grizzly bear, the Pilot Rock Trail is finally going legit.

Thanks to a federal Bureau of Land Management grant, the club is in the midst of carving the first planned and authorized trail here that will replace the steep and haphazard pathways used by hikers, rock climbers, hunters and others dating back into the early years of Southern Oregon settlements.

The new route will include a series of switchbacks — and Relph's steps — to make the ascent through more stable soils and in a more gradual fashion, thereby reducing erosion and easing the approach to one of the region's more popular hiking destinations.

"We try to pick out the most scenic route and one that can be the most sustainable, something we think will work for the long haul," says Zach Million, the BLM's recreation planner who helped design the new trail.

"It will be a little longer because of the switchbacks, but it will be a lot easier," Million says.

The new trail was conceived as part of a management plan for the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area, designated in 2009, where Eastern Oregon meets Western Oregon.

Discovered as part of a U.S. exploratory expedition in 1841, Pilot Rock has been a fixture in Rogue Valley history, a sentinel of sorts for wild animals and eventually humans seeking to cross the Siskiyous between Oregon and California.

Since it could be seen for miles, it was a good early landmark for travelers. The first intrastate road through the Siskiyous passed just to the side of the rock.

Animals including grizzly bears used the same route in their migration. They included the famous Reel Foot, which suffered a crippled foot in a botched trapping attempt in 1856 near the rock, according to accounts published in early Mail Tribune editions.

Reelfoot terrorized cattle herds and men who hunted it until it was shot 34 years later along the slopes to Pilot Rock.

Over the decades, everyone from mushroom hunters to off-road enthusiasts found their way to the base of Pilot Rock. But change came with the wilderness designation, and scratching out the first planned trail to it was outlined in an environmental assessment for the wilderness area's activities.

The initial part of the 1.2-mile route goes up a closed logging road, then veers down the Pacific Crest Trail to the so-called "user-made" Pilot Rock Trail.

The BLM secured a nearly $50,000 grant to hire the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Armed with pickaxes, shovels and crosscut saws — mechanized tools such as chainsaws are banned in wilderness areas — the crew set out last week to carve in the new trail shortly above its offshoot from the PCT.

The plans call for staying with 200 feet of the user-generated trail, with the switchbacks crossing the old trail in several sections.

Crafting stairs from available rocks slows progress. It took Relph and Million about 900 minutes to build and fortify five stairs on one steep slope.

"It's hard work with a lot of heavy lifting," says Gabe Howe, the Siskiyou Mountain Club's executive director.

A Job Council crew paid through the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps has been scattering rocks and downed limbs and logs over the old route to discourage its use. In some of the steeper and rocky portions of the new trail, natural stairs will guide hikers.

In all, 764 feet of new trail will be usable when completed, and 650 feet of the worst parts of the trail will be decommissioned, Million says.

The old logging road will be recontoured to make it more like a path, and water bars will be added to funnel rain runoff from the trail, thereby curbing erosion.

The trail gets 35 to 50 hikers on an average weekend day, Howe says, and they will be diverted away from trail crews until their work is completed sometime next month.

Relph, a San Diego transplant now living outside of Rogue River, plans to be one of the early visitors to benefit from her stairs.

"I can't wait to take friends on this trail," Relph says. "I'm definitely going to be coming back here."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at