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Trail goes legit

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ASHLAND — Helping scrape the final few hundred yards of trail Saturday to the top of Mount Ashland had volunteer Maria Katsantones thinking about the “peak baggers” and what it means for them finally to get a legit trail to the white ball.

Peak baggers are hikers who scramble up mountains like Mount Ashland to add them to their list of summits. And here that means reaching the white spherical building that houses the Doppler radar system tracking storms for the National Weather Service and air-traffic controllers.

“People like that feeling of peak bagging Mount Ashland and getting to the white ball,” says Katsantones, a volunteer with the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association.

For decades, peak baggers have carved a crude route from the Mt. Ashland Ski Area lodge to the summit, but it didn’t match Forest Service trail specifications and, as a rogue trail, was not historically supported or even acknowledged by the agency.

But the Mount Ashland Summit Trail is now legit, with the ski area, the trails association and the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest collectively put this trail on the map.

It’s now officially trail No. 51938 on the National Trail System network, but it’s No. 1 in the hearts of those looking to see these slopes year-round and not just with boards strapped to their feet.

“We want people up here in the summer, for people to enjoy Mount Ashland in all the different seasons,” says Hiram Towle, the ski area’s general manager. “People were hiking it but it wasn’t something we could promote or maintain, since it wasn’t a trail in the official sense.”

But just as it became official, it became almost unnoticeable under a blanket of snow from Tuesday’s first measurable storm in a month.

The 1-mile trail includes several switchbacks up the 1,033 feet of elevation gain. It now follows Forest Service specs on such things as slope as well as curbing erosion normally associated with rogue trails.

It starts up the ski slopes before slipping through alpine stands of white and Shasta red firs and massive boulders left on the mountain by a receding glacier that cut the ski area’s famous “bowl” near the top of the 7,533-foot peak.

“It offers a lot more beautiful experience,” Towle says. “It’s really a lot of fun to hike through.”

Panoramic views unveil Pilot Rock, Mount McLoughlin, the Crater Lake rim, and on a really clear day the Three Sisters in Central Oregon.

These trail views until just a few years ago were not talked about on the agency level.

Historically, agency recreation officials loathed illegal trails and tried to remove them whenever they were roughed in by user groups unhappy with what the agency was giving them.

In recent years, however, Brian Long, the district’s recreation staff officer, and others stepped away from that paradigm to address the infrastructure of official and rogue hiking and biking trails in the Ashland watershed.

In the past three years, some illegal trails were tweaked and rerouted out of sensitive habitats and made official, while others were abandoned and replaced by properly crafted trails.

Similar projects have occurred for mountain bikers outside of Bend and Wenatchee, Washington, Long says.

Towle approached the national forest several years ago with an idea to turn this into a legal and promotable trail. The Forest Service was amenable to it, and the project went live after a streamlined Forest Service comment and decision process called a “categorical exclusion.”

The Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association built the trail with several volunteer work parties sprinkled among similar work parties the association has undertaken this year to open more parts of the watershed to hikers, mountain bikers and others who studies show log more than 50,000 visitor-days here.

Association crews are also in the midst of adding about 3 miles to the Wonder Trail so hikers, runners and uphill bicyclists can have a continuous trail from the upper portion of Lithia Park to a network of trails now normally accessed by walking a Forest Service road blocked to vehicle traffic.

Like the Wonder Trail, building the Mount Ashland Summit Trail will encourage more people to experience the watershed’s west-side trails and represents community investment in community recreation.

“This is our community rallying to build trails that they feel ownership for and are more likely to take ownership for because they took part in building them,” association leader Torsten Heycke says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneHiram Towle, Mt. Ashland Ski Area general manager, walks Wednesday up the Mount Ashland Summit Trail, an official trail sanctioned by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest that allows hikers to bag the peak of the tallest summit in the Siskiyou Mountains.
112119 OO MT Trail Blazing in AshlandThumbnail