Saturday, April 6, 2019

Sterling Mine Ditch Trail

Back in 1854, a pair of miners (James Sterling and Aaron Davis) discovered gold in Sterling Creek. Word leaked out, the gold rush was on, and the boomtowns of Sterlingville and Buncom sprung up to service the miners. A couple of brothels also sprung up (pun intended) for a different sort of servicing of the miners, but that's a topic best not further explored in this blog. Pity the bypassed Aaron Davis, who had nothing named after him in spite of his co-discovery; all the glory instead went to Mr. Sterling. In 1877, the Sterling Mine Company constructed the 28 mile long Sterling Ditch to transport water from the Little Applegate River to the hydraulic mining operations. The mining activity eventually dwindled beginning in 1883, as the gold and chromite ran out and although the mine reopened from 1933 to 1957, the towns of Buncom and Sterlingville were abandoned and only a few buildings remain in Buncom from that era. Sterlingville was destroyed and nothing remains from that town which had reached a peak population of over 1,500 in its heyday. 

Trail, at the high point of the hike
Unfortunately, the post-Depression resurgence of hydraulic mining devastated and ruined the surrounding landscape and terrain. To this day, we still feel the effects from the damage caused by the mining. I'm not sure where the site of the actual Sterling Mine is or was, but Sterling Ditch and the Little Applegate are full of rocks and gravel, thanks to the mine. Accordingly, the water quality of the Little Applegate is poor but a stressed run of salmon do manage to make the spawning journey each year. And speaking of epic spawning journeys, Sterling Ditch has proved to be a great boon to hikers and mountain bikers alike in  our present time.

The rain never did materialize
In April of 2019, the weather forecast prognosticated floods for southern Oregon, thanks to a very wet weather system blowing in. That may be why only two hikers showed up to my hike, or else maybe nobody likes to hike with me; both possibilities are equally probable. However, the rain was due to arrive the following day, giving us a day to sneak one in before the deluge arrived. Medford hiking buddies Glenn and Carol thought likewise and met us at the trailhead under an overcast sky. Despite the gray sky above, the rain held in abeyance throughout the day.

Sterling Ditch Tunnel, in all its tunnely glory

The main attraction on the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail is the Sterling Ditch Tunnel which is basically a hole bored completely through Tunnel Ridge. A historical point of interest, to be sure, but for me the main attraction is the oak-dotted hilly countryside surrounding the ditch rather than the actual ditch or tunnel. At any rate, this hike was set up as an end-to-end shuttle hike from Little Applegate Trailhead to Tunnel Ridge Trailhead.

Shooting stars brightened up the trail
The climb up from the Little Applegate River to Sterling Ditch was fairly brisk but thankfully short as it gained about three hundred feet in about half a mile. On the way up, it was readily apparent that it was the onset of spring with white-colored oaks toothwort and magenta shooting stars doing their flowery best to distract hikers with cameras. 

The trail wanders through the oak trees
Once we joined up with Sterling Ditch, the left bank of the former canal became the actual trail and the path was either level or just slightly downhill, both grades being equally pleasant to walk on. Hey, this hike was going to be easy and whatever could go wrong? Well, private property boundaries, as it turned out. After a mile or so, the ditch and trail parted ways due to the aforementioned private property parcel, with the ditch continuing its pleasantly level journey while us hikers performed an agonizing uphill slog through a stand of leafless oak trees. Well, of course I'm exaggerating about the agonizing part, but it was uphill and did provide some leg-based discomfort as we climbed. 

Panoramic of the Little Applegate River valley
The slow uphill pace did allow us to enjoy views of the surrounding countryside, though. Above us was bare and grassy Goat Cabin Ridge with Point Mountain rising further above and beyond. Point Mountain was still covered with some snow, but it was patently obvious that the spring thaw was on. To the northwest was the large and deep valley of the Little Applegate River, which abruptly ended in the distance when it ran into the much larger and deeper Applegate River valley. In front of us, laying like the insurmountable object it turned out to be in the late 1800s, was the forested wall of Tunnel Ridge, so named in honor of the tunnel drilled through it by the Sterling Ditch construction crew. 

The ever so elegant grass widow
Underneath the oak trees were patches of grass widow, one of the more elegant wildflowers to ever bloom in southern Oregon. Flanking the trail, manzanita bushes were not only graced with interesting smooth burgundy colored trunks and limbs, but also graced with dangling umbels of pink flowers as is customary this time of year. Needless to say much photography ensued, doing double duty as rest stops too.

The trail and Sterling Ditch were one and the same
What goes up must come down, and once the trail crested a grassy ridge, it plunged at a rate inversely equal to the uphill portion we had just hiked. Clearly, we were on our way down to rejoin Sterling Ditch, our wayward friend. And that's exactly what happened when the trail entered a relatively lush forest in Muddy Gulch, which was not particularly muddy at all.

Tunnel Ridge looks straight ahead of Glenn and Carol
The trail was pleasantly level again, and there was much rejoicing. We were now on the slopes of Tunnel Ridge, and a small and underwhelming hole in the ground was the former entry point of Sterling Ditch's water flow where it had poured into the renown and famed Sterling Ditch Tunnel. It was more impressive to round Tunnel Ridge on the trail and observe the much larger tunnel exit where the ditch emerged from its brief underground journey through Tunnel Ridge. It's really amazing to think that the tunnel was hand-hewn through solid rock by Chinese laborers in the late 1800s, although Katie (Glenn and Carol's dog) seemed more amazed by the banana I offered her as we gazed at the tunnel.

The trail sidehills across Tunnel Ridge
After a lunch, view-soak, and regrouping of our small hiking party, we left the Sterling Ditch Mine Trail for the descent down to the Tunnel Ridge Trailhead. This portion of the route was all new trail for me as I had never been, and I must say it was probably my favorite part of the whole hike.

Manzanita trunks, smooth as the
burgundy they are colored after
The path contoured across steep grassy slopes dotted with sparse oaks as it switchbacked down to the Little Applegate. The mazanitas were huge here, being less like shrubs and more like trees and I stopped periodically to admire the distinctive smooth dark red trunks. When there were not manzanita bushes or trees there was oak, and where there was oak, there was Henderson's fawn lilies growing underneath in lavender profusion.

A veritable herd of Henderson's fawn lily
Henderson's fawn lily rivals grass widow for elegantness, in my opinion. The flowers are fairly large and imbued with a classy and stately pinkish lavender color and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of these floral beauties blooming right next to the trail.

The trail descended off Tunnel Ridge through some oaks

As the trail dropped down at a fast rate, I gave silent thanks to the trail gods that I wasn't hiking up this, that would have been a pretty good workout. But downhill it was, and eventually the trail spit us out onto the trailhead parking lot. From there, we piled into our respective cars, each giving silent thanks to the Sterling Mining Company for having had the wisdom and foresight to create such a great trail at the same time it was destroying the environment.

A clump of manzanita blossoms
For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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