By Hope Robertson
When the Sterling Mine Ditch was actively in use during the heyday of gold mining at the Sterling Mine, “Ditch Riders” would ride along the ditch – on what is now called the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail (SMDT) – to monitor and maintain the ditch. Thanks to the efforts of the Medford BLM and Siskiyou Upland Trails Association (SUTA) volunteers, you can once again ride a horse almost the full length of the SMDT. Let your mind wander as you ride, imagining what the life of a Ditch Rider might have been like. With 20 miles of trail, you can plan rides for the day or a few hours. For those equestrians who have not yet ridden the SMDT, you are in for a treat. It is level for most of its length, offers great views, cool shade or full sun depending upon where you ride, and has easy horse trailer parking at four of its six trailheads.
There are wonderful loop rides using various combinations of the trailheads along Little Applegate Road. One of my favorite rides is to park at the Tunnel Ridge Trailhead and then ride about 1.7 miles on the scenic Little Applegate Road to the Applegate Trailhead (clearly marked on your left). This is a lovely gravel road along the Little Applegate River with very little traffic and is a great warm-up. Join the SMDT trail system at the Little Applegate Trailhead and take a spectacular ride through lovely meadows, oak woodlands and cool shaded areas thru forests of large ponderosa pines, Doug Fir, and madrones. This ride offers a nice variation in terrain with some gradual elevation changes. At the Tunnel Ridge access trail, turn left and head down to your trailer completing a roughly 8 mile loop. Another, shorter loop is from the Tunnel Ridge to Bear Gulch trailhead and back down the road to Tunnel Ridge (a 5-mile ride) – or combine the two loops for longer ride.
Other riding opportunities are from the Deming and Armstrong Gulch trailheads reached off of Sterling Creek Road. There are some lovely out-and-back rides where you can ride as far as you’d like before turning back. If you opt to begin at the Deming trailhead, drive 0.3 miles past the trailhead to a road on the left that leads to a large parking area. At the far end of the parking lot, pass between some large boulders blocking the road and follow it about ¼ mile and turn sharply left to join the SMDT (trail signs on the trees). This is a lovely, deeply forested section of the SMDT with huge fir trees and maples along the way to the Deming Trailhead. The Armstrong Gulch Trailhead is about 1.7 miles past the Deming trailhead. You can ride all the way to any of the trailheads along Little Applegate Road. By next year, the Wolf Gap access trail should be open to horses during the dry season, offering a terrific 12 mile loop starting from the Deming parking area and riding along the ditch to the Wolf Gap access trail, up the 1.5 mile access trail and back down the BLM road to the parking area.
Last year SUTA obtained Title II grant funds to improve the parking at all of the trailheads and added two new areas large enough for horse trailers - below the Armstrong Gulch Trailhead and the one described near the Deming Trailhead. The Tunnel Ridge and Little Applegate trailheads along Little Applegate Road are also large enough to accommodate horse trailers. There is little water along the trail, so plan accordingly. There is access to the Little Applegate River for water at the Tunnel Ridge parking area, and one or two locations where there are streams that flow for at least part of the summer. For a map and directions to all of the SMDT trailheads go to: www.sutaoregon.org
If you’re looking for even more variety and adventure, you can take advantage of miles of little used BLM roads throughout the Anderson Butte complex starting from either the Deming parking area or the Little Applegate Trailhead. You can plan your own route using a BLM map. Some of these roads will become part of the future Jack-Ash trail route. SUTA’s plans to link the SMDT to the Jack-Ash trail will create even more wonderful riding opportunities in the near future – stay tuned.