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Winter transforms trail along the Applegate River's middle fork

The Middle Fork Applegate River has become a popular destination all year round.

Barely south of the California-Oregon border and within minutes of Applegate Lake, the roaded stretches along the Middle Fork offer easy access to swimming holes and beaches for free day use. Last spring, I saw a group of 50 to 75 partygoers dancing nude to reggae music blasting on giant speakers here, and the trash I've packed out of dump sites told some very interesting stories defined by alcohol, angst, firearms and nights that go on way too long.

But hardcore partiers don't make it past the roads, and you don't have to get far off the beaten path to find some more pristine river stretches. Take this easy, two-mile hike (round trip) any time of year to find what more the Middle Fork has to offer.

From Seattle Bar, a Forest Service recreation site on the south end of Applegate Lake, drive south on Forest Service Road 1050. Shortly after entering California, there is a wide junction with FSR 1040. Make a hairpin turn to the right, cross a bridge, and resume a southerly direction along the banks of the Middle Fork Applegate River.

About 5.5 miles from Seattle Bar, you'll reach another obvious road junction. Head right, following signs for FSR 1035. Within about 1,000 feet after the 1035-1040 junction is the wide and well marked Middle Fork Trailhead, which sits at 3,000-feet elevation.

From there follow the trail west on a wide bed that quickly dims to a narrow foot path. The trail is popular during summer months for its emerald swimming pools and splashy cascades. The water runs clear and cold all year. Compared to the exposure at Applegate Lake and the mad house along the road, the Middle Fork Trail is a cool, shady, secluded stretch with outstanding water access.

Fall and winter is my favorite time to hike here. The loss of seasonal foliage in the winter opens up the forest and brings out the bright-green blanket of ferns and moss lining the river canyon. The rich soils and thick, vibrant forest remind me of something on the coast.

After about three-quarters of a mile, the trail makes a switchback through an impressive grove of giant Douglas fir. A few legacy stumps from an era since gone are visible here and there, as well as remnants of an old cabin across the river. At exactly one mile the trail reaches the river at another pristine swimming spot.

There used to be a bridge here, but it was removed in 2011 and never replaced. Brave hikers can make the ford, and the trail leads to FSR 1035 and the Frog Pond Trailhead. But beyond the old bridge Middle Fork Trail has become brushed in, faint in stretches, and can be hard to follow.

Should you ford the river, take consideration of the weather. The water level can rise a lot within just a few hours, especially when there are "rain on snow" weather events. Always unbuckle your backpack before crossing swift water in case you should fall in.

Fishing for brook trout is allowed on this stretch of the Middle Fork, but you'll have to get a fishing license from California Department of Fish & Wildlife. Fishing is open the last weekend of April through November 15 only. Check up on regulations.

While not the connection it used to be, the Middle Fork Trail is a sweet, easy stroll for just about anyone. The trail has elevated status as a National Recreation Trail and is open year-round to hikers and equestrians. Ruch is the last point of services, so fill up on gas and come prepared.

Freelance writer Gabriel Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

The Middle Fork Applegate River Trail is low enough in elevation to be accessible most times of the year.