Nick Schade walks along the freshly cut dirt trail beyond an old oak savannah and past a string of majestic Ponderosa pines before he stops in a large meadow near the top of Greensprings Mountain to catch his breath and absorb the world beneath him.
To his left, Pilot Rock stands shrouded in clouds, while tiny Ashland bustles quietly below. To his right march Oregon's southern Cascade Mountains.
"You kind of get the feeling that you're on the crest, above it all," says Schade, an outdoor recreation planner for the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Sure beats a dirt logging road next to a cattle fence, which is what Pacific Crest Trail hikers used to see along a decidedly uninspiring stretch of the PCT before a new and picturesque reroute of the trail was finished this week.
The BLM and an army of PCT-loving volunteers over the past three years have built the new 1.4-mile stretch — the first significant reroute of the PCT in Southern Oregon under a comprehensive plan to have the renowned trail ribbon over the most optimum ground possible.
Crews cut the final 50 feet of trail two weeks ago and Schade last week led a two-person chainsaw crew to clear downed trees from the route.
The agency is set to announce the trail's opening as soon as mud and snow on the trail have ebbed.
"The new trail is definitely more appealing, aesthetically pleasing and scenic than the old location," says Ian Nelson, the Medford-based field representative for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, a private nonprofit group that is a major partner in PCT management. "It will offer them better views of the valley."
The old stretch, which is about a mile long, is now called the Greensprings Connector Trail. Together they make a 2.4-mile loop called the Greensprings Mountain Loop Trail, which is destined for addition to the bucket lists of day-hikers from Medford, Ashland and Klamath Falls looking for a new and relatively manageable High Cascades experience.
"It's like a mini Grizzly Peak, without the burn," Schade says. "This is going to become one of those places for school groups and families with younger children who can't go do the longer hikes."
The reroute, which has been in the works for the past six years, is the first in Southern Oregon under a decade-old effort to ensure the best possible route for the PCT, which was created by Congress as a national scenic trail in 1968. The PCT stretches from Mexico to Canada along the Cascades' crest.
Western trail advocates took a page from hikers along the Appalachian Trail about a decade ago by conducting what is called an Optimal Location Review of distinct segments of the 2,600-mile trail to ensure the trail covers the route that's best for hikers and the environment.
A 2005 review of a 50-mile stretch north from the trail's crossing of the Siskiyou Summit at Interstate 5 turned up three places for a reroute: a 300-foot stretch near Soda Mountain Road where the trail bisects a meadow that often stays wet deep into spring; a gravel parking area near Howard Prairie Lake; and the top of the Greensprings Mountain.
Nelson and Schade flagged the reroute path in 2005, and the following year various private and federal entities signed off on the priorities.
After the BLM conducted an environmental assessment to ensure the trail didn't harm any ecological or cultural values, construction began in 2008, largely by volunteers logging about 3,000 hours of trail work before the final leg was cut two weeks ago.
"This is one of the most extreme trail projects I've worked on," Schade says.
Volunteers were from the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association, Southern Oregon University, Landmark Volunteers and Americorps' Northwest Service Academy, Nelson says.
The area where the trail bisects Highway 66 is one of the area's most popular portals onto the PCT, and the new trail will improve the experience for visitors, Nelson says.
Schade and BLM range technician Darin Bartholomew cleared the trail by cutting out downed trees and marking the trail with the occasional white "reassurance marker" that tells hikers they are indeed are on the right trail.
The trail includes several well-disguised water bars to help keep erosion from runoff to a minimum.
A kiosk with interpretive signs is still to be built near the trailhead, Schade says.
The light path traverses through several diverse habitats before it rejoins the old stretch of the PCT, where day-hikers can turn right onto the old trail for a 1-mile trek back to the trailhead.
"I think, over time, it will become an accessible, appealing and easy walk — something people can go do in an afternoon," Nelson says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.