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Getting white knuckles on Little Grayback

On the first day of 2014, dozens of local mountain bikers converged on Applegate Lake to ride the trail that zigzags around its shore.

There's a reason dirt-lovers come back here every year. It's a rolling trail that is both accessible and exciting.

But the hills around here have far more to offer. Singletrack trails — just wide enough for one bike — are the mountain biker's dream, and as far as the miles of singletrack packed into a convenient destination, the Applegate Lake area may be the best in our region.

I wanted to get to the mountains above, so on a cloudy day this week I decided to check out the Little Grayback Trail, which follows the hillside high above the Squaw Creek drainage.

The trail begins at the crest of French Gulch Road. Cross over the dam, pass the French Gulch trailhead and turn left a half-mile later, then head up a steep gravel road a couple miles to reach the trailhead.

Parking space there is minimal, so I parked at the French Gulch trailhead parking lot and rode up.

Little Grayback Trail is a steady, narrow ascent. Unlike the wider Applegate Lake trail, this is true singletrack. There also are a few short rock screes to start that are moderately technical.

On my way up the trail, I passed through mixed forests of Ponderosa pines, hardwoods and manzanita. The south-facing slope has several exposed areas that provided great views of the valley and Squaw Lakes.

A few miles in, the trail gets rockier. The clouds overhead — which had all day been quietly threatening to do more than drizzle — were darkening. I turned around and lowered my seat.

On a trail this narrow, a small mistake could mean serious injury, especially with the drop-offs on my left. The fast ride down left my fingers sore from my death grip on the handlebars as I tried to maintain a straight line through the rocky, exposed parts of the trail. Within 10 minutes, I had covered as much ground as I had in an hour on the way up, and I had an adrenaline high to boot.

Back at the trailhead, I let my brakes cool. I was going to need them. For my trip down, I went left, taking a rocketing gravel-road descent straight down a drainage to Squaw Creek Road, where I took a right to make my way back. Turning left onto Forest Service Road 100 allowed me to return on the Payette Trail along Applegate Lake.

I got back to my car just as the light was fading and the rain was beginning to pick up. Not once on my 3-hour ride did I see another person on the trails or roads. That's one of the benefits of being an all-weather biker.

Little Grayback Trail is short, ending not far from where I turned around. There are more trails to connect to at the end, including the Mule Mountain Trail along Mule Creek, which I hope to tackle another day. Another day, another drainage.

Forrest Roth is a Mail Tribune copy editor and page designer. He can be reached at froth@mailtribune.com.