The 12-mile Mule Mountain Trail ranks high among my favorite local winter hikes.
The Mule Creek watershed has thus far escaped the logging and road construction that has degraded many of the once wild places in the Applegate Valley. This scenic portion of the 8,000-acre Little Grayback Inventoried Roadless Area showcases oak woodlands, native grasslands, wildflower meadows and intact conifer forests that used to be common in the Applegate.
What has never been common are the remarkable views afforded from the trail on the ridgeline between Mule Mountain and Baldy Peak.
By hiking the daylong loop clockwise (taking the left fork of the trail up toward Mule Mountain), one can get the steady uphill climb out of the way within the first 5 miles or so and return later in the day via 7 less arduous miles that are primarily downhill. While shorter hikes can be done as out-and-back treks, completing the loop is definitely the way to go if you want to see all of the wonders of the Mule Creek watershed.
While the profusion of native wildflowers are best experienced in mid-spring, winter hiking has its advantages, including views of the snow-capped Siskiyou Mountain peaks, gushing waterfalls on the main stem of Mule Creek and a notable lack of poison oak (which can be prodigious in the warmer months).
It is hard to overstate the immense biological diversity of the Mule Creek watershed that can be enjoyed while hiking the loop trail. I know of few other day hikes that offer such a variety of ecosystems and plant communities. Starting in native white oak woodlands, the trail soon winds uphill through shaded conifer forests before reaching old-growth manzanita stands followed by brushfields, meadows and “balds” that provide ever more impressive views of the surrounding mountains and forests.
On the return trip the trail drops steeply down the Mule Creek drainage and the creekside riparian zone which supports big leaf maples as old-growth Douglas-fir and cedars become more common.
Hikes to Mule Mountain can be combined with a slew of other fun activities in the Applegate. Applegate Lake is a justifiably popular fishing, boating, hiking and camping destination. The nearby Red Buttes Wilderness Area offers some of the best backpacking in the Siskiyou Mountains. The Squaw Lakes campground is known for forested lakeside family camping.
The Mule Mountain Trail provides one of the best introductions to the forests, meadows, mountains and streams of the wild Applegate Valley.
— George Sexton is the conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center based in Ashland.