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Fragments of a long-gone fire lookout are part of the view from atop Wagner Butte. Photo by James Wayman

Beauty on the butte

What a great excuse for a snowball fight.

Temperatures have been topping 100 degrees in the Rogue Valley, so having enough snow for firing snowballs back and forth was an unexpectedly cool thing to do during a hike up Wagner Butte last weekend. Our fling with fun came near the top of the butte, where the view is, well, a beaut.

Wagner Butte overlooks the city of Ashland and, even better, offers 360 degree views of Mount McLoughlin, Mount Shasta, Mount Ashland, Grayback Mountain, the Red Buttes and the Rogue and Little Applegate valleys. The challenging 10.4-mile roundtrip hike from a trailhead outside Talent gains 2,200 feet and ends with a scramble up car-sized boulders to an elevation of 7,140 feet and the remnants of a decades ago Forest Service lookout.

Unusually, but logically because of the view it provides, the lookout wasn't built on Wagner's peak. That's about three-quarters of a mile south at an elevation of 7,255-feet.

The climbing begins immediately from the trailhead located 10 miles from Talent and doesn't relent for nearly a mile. Sights along that first mile, and frequently along the trail, provide good excuses to recharge and savor the view. Early on, the trail ascends through a forest of hearty Ponderosa pines before carving its way through impressive stands of Douglas, noble and white firs. Wildflowers abound, including bear grass, paintbrush, sneezeweed and lupine.

Portions of the trail follow an old forest road before traversing a meadow created in May 1983 when a massive thunderstorm caused the Sheep Creek Slide. Huge amounts of trees, soil and granite slid down a broad swath of the hillside, which was later replanted by Forest Service crews.

While it is demanding, the Wagner Peak Trail is a delightful walk. In some sections hikers rock-hopped across seasonal streams. The Sheep Creek Slide and other abundant meadows overlooking meadows offer expansive views of nearby valleys and low lands. Adding to the mood were the sounds of thumping grouse intermingled with sweet trills from robins and other birds along with the subtle aromatic scent of fresh mint.

The final two miles amble gradually uphill, providing more stop-and-take-a-look viewpoints. Some passages shimmy through twisted and gnarly mountain mahogany. Near the summit some hikers using filter devices refilled water bottles at a piped spring. Reaching the summit requires free-climbing a short wall of granite boulders.

The reward is the spacious top-of-the-rocks summit with its panoramic views. The butte's summit was a fire observation site until a cupola-style building was erected in 1923. After becoming badly dilapidated, it was replaced in 1961. Because airplanes proved more effective in patrolling forest fires, the tower was abandoned and burned by smokejumpers in 1972. Only a framework of foundation piers commemorate the lookout.

What remains are unobstructed views, including bird's-eye sightings of Ashland. That's appropriate because the Ashland Plaza is where Jacob Wagner, the mountain's namesake, operated a flour mill. Wagner settled along what became known as Wagner Creek in 1852, where he farmed and raised stock. In 1853, he built a log stockade that became known as Fort Wagner and served as a refuge for settlers during the Indian wars. Wagner Creek later came to refer to the creek and its drainage area, while the community eventually became known as Talent, named for A.P. Talent, who opened a general store near the old fort site in the early 1880s. According to a history of Talent by George Wagner, "Despite Mr. Talent's wishes, the village around his store appears to have been generally known and referred to as 'Talent' long before his application for a post office was filed."

Wagner, who left the region in 1865, no longer has his name affixed to the town, but it lives on at Wagner Creek, Wagner Mountain and Wagner Butte. By any name, the Wagner Butte Trail is demanding but also scenically rewarding. And, until the last vestiges of trailside snow melts, it's a great place for a snowball fight.

Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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