David Calahan walks off trail from the Bunny Flat (unofficial) trailhead off Forest Creek Road between Jacksonville and Ruch. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Historic Connection

I'm standing on a ridge above the headwaters of Balls Branch, gazing at one of the most spectacular views of the Applegate Valley I've ever seen. The meadow dropping off precipitously at my feet is awash in blues and purples of lupine and larkspur that punctuate the green of gently swaying native grasses.

In the near distance is Wellington Butte, and at its base, Thompson Creek enters the Applegate River, a dark ribbon meandering among squares of verdant farmland. The horizon provides a 180-degree vista that includes Dutchman Peak, the Red Buttes Wilderness and Greyback Mountain.

The Applegate Trails Association organized a hike on this little-known ridge trail earlier this month, the second of seven hikes planned by the group in the Applegate Valley this year. This particular trail was constructed by miners and is perhaps more than a century old, according to my guide David Calahan.

"Historic trails, we're losing them all over the country; they're closing in," says Calahan, the ATA's chairman and a retired Medford firefighter.

This trail and its history represent a piece of the group's master plan to create a nonmotorized, 50-mile trail from Woodrat Mountain near Jacksonville to the Cathedral Hills trail system in Grants Pass. Another 25 miles of connector trails will complete the trail network.

"Any place we can take a historic trail, we'll use it," Calahan explains. "If there's an existing trail, we'll adopt it every time."

Although the proposed Applegate Ridge Trail exists only on paper, very little new trail construction will be necessary to convert the patchwork of existing trails and double-track primitive roads into a completed route. The ATA intends to adopt this trail — and its maintenance — permanently, a monumental task for a small group of volunteers. To address this need, the group is starting with smaller projects.

"Earlier this month, we did 1,000 feet of trail with volunteers alongside the Applegate River in Cantrall-Buckley Park," says Calahan. "It's also getting the word out, building our volunteer base. We need to be able to call on volunteers to do one of these projects."

The proposed ridgeline trail will pass through a checkerboard of Bureau of Land Management and private timber-company holdings. Calahan and his colleagues have been negotiating with land managers to move the plan along. One of the results is a pair of grants awarded to the ATA under the federal Title II program (part of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act).

This is another opportunity for the group to build its capacity.

"We're helping to improve six trailheads over the next two years, and with the other (grant) we'll be obliterating a severely rutted road," says Calahan.

One of these projects is at the Hinkle Lake trailhead near the Red Buttes Wilderness, the starting point for the group's July 19 hike. Other hikes include the Cantrall-Buckley Park Trail on June 22, Enchanted Forest Trail on Aug. 18, and both the Gin Lin and Mule Mountain trails on Sept. 22. On the day before the final hike, the group will host a dinner and campout at Cantrall-Buckley Park.

So far, the hikes have been hugely popular. On May 18, the group was split in half because 40 people showed up to hike the trail we're on today. To meet demand, the ATA has added a June 30 outing.

Calahan points to the patchwork of mature forest and open areas in the Balls Branch watershed below us. He lives over the ridge at the south end on 80 acres he purchased in the 1976.

"This is some of the last remaining low-elevation, old-growth in this region," says Calahan. "It's more than 5,000 acres, and we're trying to get the BLM to designate it as the 'Wellington LWC.' " The designation of "Land with Wilderness Characteristics" would afford this area special protection.

Calahan traces his finger into the middle of the area.

"There's an old mining cabin down there, and also an old road we used for a hike last year," he adds.

The route is on an old miner's road the ATA has designated the "Heart Trail" because it cuts through the heart of the Wellington area. That particular hike is one Calahan says he will remember for the rest of his life.

"We called it the Silent Hike. We hiked into the wild Wellington area, spaced apart so we were each alone, and no one spoke a word the whole time."

He grins in a mea culpa sort of way.

"It kept the worst offender quiet."

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at

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