A view from the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail

Hike Through Southern Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains

Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Experience the best of the developing Jack-Ash Trail System on the scenic multi-use Sterling Mine Ditch Trail.

The hills, ridges and waterways of southern Oregon provide an astounding array of recreational opportunities. This rugged and rural region includes Applegate Valley, Rogue Valley, parts of the Siskiyou Mountains, as well as abundant creeks and rivers. While there are literally thousands of acres of public lands with plentiful trails to explore, the Jack-Ash Trail System is an ideal starting point for everything from short trail runs and day-hikes, to mountain biking and horseback riding. 

Before you enjoy this trail system, which was developed as a continuous, multi-use foot/horse/bike trail along the ridgelines between Jacksonville and Ashland (hence, the Jack-Ash moniker), it’s worth appreciating the overwhelming task that is creating trails in a such a lush and mountainous region. It’s an effort beyond a single group or agency. In 2009, local outdoor users and advocates formed the Siskiyou Upland Trails Association (SUTA). In partnership with the Medford District BLM, the all-volunteer nonprofit existed for trail maintenance and expansion, though began work on a larger, years-long project to connect the well-established Jacksonville Woodland Trails with the Ashland Watershed Trail Systems. 

SUTA completed Phase I of the Jack-Ash Trail in 2017. The first objective: reopening the historic Sterling Mine Ditch Trail (SMDT). By linking both ends of the SMDT, they created an approximately 40-mile loop, with 30 miles of singletrack and the remainder on existing BLM roads. There are now 11 trailheads for improved access; six are only for the SMDT, three for the Jack-Ash Trail (where Phase II is ongoing, see below for more info), and two are shared. 

Recommended Route

The Sterling Mine Ditch Trail follows 20 miles of the original 26-mile ditch built in 1877 to transport water from the Little Applegate River to the Sterling Mine—still in operation, though the ditch is no longer used. The trail follows the berm above the ditch, featuring minimal elevation loss or gain. The approach to it can be a different story, with a steeper half-mile to mile leading to the SMDT from all the trailheads except Deming Gulch, which is the only trailhead that starts on the “ditch.” All the other trailheads provide access to the ditch and involve either a climb or descent to reach ditch level. There are info kiosks at all of the seven of the trailheads, and will be at three Jack-Ash trailheads (by fall ’22). There is parking, but no other services at the trailheads. No permits are required and the trails are open at all times, year-round, weather permitting.  

In addition to abundant wildflowers in the spring and summer (the calypso orchids are gorgeous), shady stands of evergreen Pacific madrone, and ever-present birds and deer, you’ll also see what’s left of the original mining operation: a tunnel, old stonework, and flume remnants.

Beyond the SMDT, there are about 45 miles of trail in the area, including a newly constructed mile-long path (the first built under Jack-Ash Phase II planning), which starts about one-tenth of a mile from the Wolf Gap trailhead. The new path leads to a lookout with nearly 360-degree views of the Siskiyous, Red Buttes and the Little Applegate Valley. Eventually, the path will be part of a larger loop that will lead to Tunnel Ridge and a second loop that will intersect with the ditch near Wolf Gulch.

A sign on the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Getting There

From Jacksonville, Ore., head west on Cady Road. Turn left on Sterling Creek Road and drive 8.7 miles. Go left on Armstrong Deming Road, drive three-tenths of a mile and follow signs at the T-intersection for directions to the Wolf Gap, Armstrong, and Deming trailheads. For the Little Applegate River trailheads, drive on Sterling Creek Road, past Armstrong Deming Road and take a left on Little Applegate Road. Go 3.3 miles (that’s when the road turns into gravel). Another 2.8 miles delivers you to Bear Gulch Trailhead; 3.4 miles to Tunnel Ridge; and 5.2 miles to Little Applegate. All the trailheads offer unique views and hiking experiences, says SUTA President Joy Rogalla. Her personal favorites? Little Applegate for the SMDT and Anderson Ridge for the Jack-Ash trail. “I like these trailheads for their somewhat larger views of the greater landscape,” says Rogalla, “to the Siskiyou Crest, Red Buttes, Rogue and Applegate and Little Applegate valleys.”

Refresh & Refuel

For a cold local beer or cider after your hike, try the Jackass Freight Co. Public House in Jacksonville. And the historic Jacksonville Inn, built in 1861, serves up the best steak in town.

More Info

There’s a good Sterling Mine Ditch Trail map of it on the BLM website. Also, check the SUTA website for current information about trail status, driving directions, volunteer and donation opportunities, and upcoming events. 

The next proposed phase of the Jack-Ash Trail system will have it cover a lot more territory than the 16-mile distance between Jacksonville and Ashland (as the crow flies). Phase II is designed to create connections within the existing SMDT and Jack-Ash trails to provide many more long and short loop options, including 11 more miles of trails, mostly within the Anderson Butte Complex. Passing through public lands managed by the BLM and USFS, as well as private holdings, each mile of new trail costs an estimated $12,000 to $15,000 to build. While SUTA has led the effort to raise the funds needed to complete the Jack-Ash Trail, there’s still a lot of work to do. Now’s a great time to get involved, with sweat equity, donations, or both. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.