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Trail restoration buoys runners, hikers

Local hikers and runners were intrigued by a dotted line on a 55-year-old topo map, which hinted at a long-desired — and long-lost — connection between the Ashland and Talent watersheds.

A little research by Steve Johnson of the U.S. Forest Service in Ashland revealed it was an old mule trail used to supply the Wagner Butte fire lookout from Ashland starting in 1923. The lookout was hit by lighting in 1971 and abandoned — and so was the trail.

The Ashland Woodland Trails Association got permission from the Forest Service to restore the trail and, guided by old blazes (hatchet marks in trees) and GPS reckoning, started chain-sawing through blown-down timber, cutting back brush and laying down erosion barriers.

The two-mile route, called the Wagner Glade Trail, should be open in mid-October to hikers and ultra-marathoners (trail runners who run farther than 26 miles), said AWTA president Rob Cain. Carved in soft forest soil, the trail is steep and not intended for mountain bikers.

The route begins at a point 10 miles up the west side of Ashland Loop Road and ends at Wagner Glade, where it intersects the popular trail to Wagner Butte above Talent. From that intersection it's two miles to the top of Wagner Butte.

For those unfamiliar with Wagner Butte, it's the big mountain to the right of Mount Ashland as seen from the freeway near Talent or Ashland. Wagner Butte's elevation is 7,253 feet, only 278 feet shorter than Mount Ashland.

"It's a great addition to the trail network. It has phenomenal views of Mount Ashland and Mount McLoughlin. You'll find springs and glades. It's steep. It gains 2,000 feet in two miles," said Cain, noting that "the ultra-running community is salivating to get at it."

For ultra-runners, the link to the Wagner Creek watershed is a "huge addition and the cool thing is that it opens up more remote trail," said Ian Torrence, of Rogue Valley Runners, an Ashland athletic shoe store and hub for ultra-runners.

"When you run something like that — steep, single-track and in the wilderness, you get a sense of the difficulty you just went through," said Torrence, who worked on the route. "Trail runners seek single-track trails like this. They're much more enjoyable than roads."

The present Ashland Loop Road, also known as Road 2060, loops around the top of the Ashland watershed south of town for 26 miles. The new link will allow ultra-marathoners to extend that loop out to 35 miles, join the Pacific Crest Trail as it skirts behind Mount Ashland, then come down Bull Gap and rejoin 2060, said Torrence.

Ultra-runners here have visions of a 50-kilometer, 50-mile or 100-mile circuit and see the new loop as part of that. For the century run, they are scouting possibilities of a loop going west from Mount Ashland to the Applegate and back, Torrence noted.

Interest in the trail got going eight years ago, when Torsten Heycke, a member of the AWTA board, found it on a map and tried to hike it with a friend, Dieter Rilling.

"We quickly lost the trail and bushwhacked to Wagner Glade gap. Subsequent efforts to hike down from Wagner Glade gap were similarly frustrating," said Heycke.

In searching out the old trail and trying to match the new one to it, Heycke said he and other trailblazers found many cut and painted blazes, sawn logs and old tin cans, along with remnants of a corral and a few glass insulators on trees, likely left over from a communication line. Heycke found the Internet useful, lining up a transparency of a 1953 U.S. Geological Survey topographical map placed over GPS points from Google Earth on his computer screen.

Medford Dentist John Price, an AWTA board member and ultra runner who has been helping refurbish the trail, calls it "a fun trail, a fabulous 24-mile run (from Lithia Park to Wagner Butte and back) through beautiful, old-growth forest in a secluded area with lots of wildlife and outstanding views."

For the hiker starting from Lithia Park, it would be a hard, 12-hour day, but hikers could shorten it to eight hours by driving to the Wagner Glade trailhead, atop Wagner Creek Road, hiking down to Ashland and shuttling back to get vehicles, said Price.

John Price heads trail work parties. Contact him at tomshasta@yahoo.com.

On the Web

www.ashlandtrails.org; http://roguevalleyrunners.blogspot.com; Map of new trail by Heycke at www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=2234683