JACKSONVILLE — David Calahan steps onto the East Applegate Ridge Trail and instantly realizes he's not alone.
The footprints of at least one human and perhaps a small dog break through the wet snow, indicating they've likely beaten Calahan to that beautiful view of Ruch and snowcapped Woodrat Mountain.
"This is very warming to me, to see this trail used," says Calahan, of the nonprofit Applegate Trails Association.
The new trail, known as East ART, is in its first winter of providing access for hikers, bikers, runners and horseback riders to a ridge overlooking the Applegate Valley, and already it's getting discovered daily despite not yet having had a coming-out party after nearly seven years in the making.
Only 15 minutes from downtown Jacksonville, the nearly 6-mile trail between Sterling Creek Road and Highway 238 gets high marks for its gentle slope. The access off Sterling Creek Road has a parking lot, trailhead kiosk and picnic table, while a $20,000 Travel Oregon grant is primed to create similar amenities at the Highway 238 trailhead near Forest Creek.
But it's the incredible winter views of snow-dusted Douglas-fir, mountain meadows and Northern California's Marble Mountains that create stunning vistas at every turn of trail.
That's the true art of the East ART.
"Of all the low-elevation trails in the area, it's definitely one of the top for me because of the views," says Janeen Sathre, an Applegate Valley hiker and historian who has hiked the trail four times since late July.
"I really enjoy the fact that the trail covers so much open ground that allows these views," Sathre says. "You're not stuck in the forest and your views aren't obscured by trees."
It's also creating traction for the ATA to build the next two phases of the ART, part of an ambitious plan that eventually will lead to a network of new trails linking Jacksonville to the Cathedral Hills trails outside of Grants Pass.
It might also someday link into another new hiking jewel of Southern Oregon — the Jack-Ash Trail from Jacksonville to Ashland — which could create a backwoods footpath from Grants Pass to Ashland.
ATA's next step is a stretch from Highway 238 to Jacksonville's Forest Park.
ATA intends to plan a route and start wading through environmental assessments and other requirements of the Bureau of Land Management, Calahan says. A few easements with private landowners for trail placement also must be hashed out, he says.
Envisioned in 2011 and first broached a year later, the first 5.93-miles of ART required a learning curve steeper than the trail itself, so the time it takes to make the next phases of ART won't have to be measured in dog years.
"I think this next trail isn't going to be so steep, so to speak," Calahan says. "It shouldn't take nearly as much time as the first one did."
A mix of contract crews, the Northwest Youth Corps, local volunteers and BLM employees broke ground and took about two months to carve out the 5.5-mile trail that cost the ATA about $2 a foot to dig.
"We wanted local crews, just real people with a vested interest in it," Calahan says.
At just over 3,000 feet above sea level at the trailhead off Sterling Creek Road, it's high enough to offer a snowy hike but low enough to remain in play most or all of winter.
The first 2.5 miles out of the Sterling Creek Road trailhead average a 3-percent grade, making it relatively inviting to a wide scope of visitors.
That caught the immediate attention of Brian and Dana Winkler, who live three miles from the trailhead and ventured out Sunday at the behest of trail-running friends.
The relatively flat stretch starts high and stays level, "so you get an amazing view around every corner," Brian Winkler says. "We can't wait until it dries out so that we can get the mountain bikes up there."
Trails can age quickly, especially in their first winter, but the ATA holds regular trail-maintenance parties to keep things in shape. The next work party is scheduled for Sunday, March 11.
"It really makes for a trail that's held up well," Calahan says. "It's looking pretty stellar."
For information about the ATA, the trail or upcoming work parties, see www.applegatetrails.org.
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.