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New trails added at Spence Mountain

"This is great!" yelped my buddy Mike, who isn't often known for shouting superlatives. "Wonderful! Awesome!"

We were riding mountain bikes on a newly opened section of the Spence Mountain Trail. Unlike other sections of the ever-expanding network of biking, hiking and running trails 15 miles west of Klamath Falls, the new Mazama Trail is rated green, or beginner. For the most of the mile-plus, it parallels Shoalwater Bay, a rolling single-track route that rumbles under a canopy of aspens and Ponderosa pines and, more remarkably, the delightful bay.

We were trailing behind Drew Honzel and other more skilled mountain bikers, who were taking a longer ride that would include another newly completed section, the black — or expert — North Ridge Trail. A one-way mountain-bike-only trail, it dives nearly two very steep, curvy miles from its junction with the existing Hooligan Trail.

The Mazama Trail's one-way distance is five miles. The first four miles have occasional uphill sections, including one where I dismounted and walked my bike. The final mile, which has some steeper grades, rates as intermediate.

From the new, still unfinished Shoalwater Bay Trailhead, Mazama goes south, eventually connecting with the one-way, mountain-bike-only Hooligan, which goes another nearly 2½ miles to the Spence Mountain Trailhead off Highway 140.

Mazama, Hooligan and North Ridge, along with South Ridge, are part of a network of 18 miles of completed trails. Before Honzel and other members of the Klamath Trails Alliance are through, they envision upward of 50 miles of trails bisecting 7,400 acres of lands mostly owned by JWTR, a timber company with extensive holdings in Klamath and neighboring counties.

It's a project still in its infancy. Planning began in 2013 with trail building. Trail construction, nearly all done through contracts with Dirt Mechanics of Bend, began in 2014. Honzel said costs for designing and building trails, developing trailheads and providing signs have exceeded $200,000, with most of the funding coming through grants. Major grants include $50,000 from Travel Oregon, $25,500 from the Sky Lakes Medical Center, plus others from Klamath County Tourism and Eco-Solar. When completed, Honzel said, the total cost could range from $750,000 to $1 million.

No more trail building is planned this year, Honzel said design work for another 10 miles of trails will be done this summer and fall, with construction planned in spring 2018. To meet user demands, the next phase will include two more beginner trails.

"Some people would love more easier and flatter trails," he explained, noting those types of trails are less costly to design and construct. From the Shoalwater trailhead, the Mazama Trail, still listed as Old Eagle on current maps, will head north another 1½ miles along the bay and connect with the Shoalwater Trail, which is also planned to be built next spring, to create a nearly 4-mile green loop. Also planned is the Captain Jack Trail, a blue or intermediate route that will allow bikers to return to the Shoalwater trailhead and avoid the black North Ridge Trail.

Completion of the Shoalwater Bay trailhead, located along Eagle Ridge Road, is planned this summer. Along with signage, plans call for creating parking pods and areas where picnic tables could be located.

Honzel said it's hoped the Spence Mountain trail network will entice overnight stays by Klamath Basin visitors. Although there are no accurate estimates of trail use — it's not unusual to see 10 or more vehicles parked at the Spence Mountain Trailhead — he believes 25 percent of the trail users are from outside the basin, including "lots of people from Medford and Ashland."

An early goal was to lure 250 overnight visits annually, a goal he sees as attainable.

"I think we'll reach that figure for sure. There are definitely people coming in. We want to keep momentum up."

And keep people like Mike whooping and a'hollering.

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Drew Honzel is all smiles as he rides the Mazama Trail, one of the trails in the Spence Mountain trail system. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]