It isn’t often that you find a year-round riding area with miles of truly delightful trail, But that’s exactly what you get at the Sterling Mine Ditch, a 20+ mile trail on BLM land just south of Medford.
In the 1850s gold was discovered in Sterling Creek. For years miners panned the precious mineral, but eventually, the gold in the creek played out. There was still plenty of gold in the nearby hills, but getting at it under layers of rock and dirt was a challenge. Miners found they could extract the gold by using hydraulic jets of water to sluice away the hillsides so the gold flakes could be separated from the surrounding dirt. But hydraulic mining requires plenty of water, and there wasn’t an adequate water source nearby.
The solution was to construct a ditch to bring water to the mines from the Little Applegate River. In 1877, the Sterling Mining Company began construction. The nearly 400 mostly-Chinese laborers they hired dug a ditch 3 feet deep and 26.5 miles long, completing it in less than a year. The ditch remained in use until the 1930s, with mounted ditch riders patrolling it by riding along the berm. Their historic route is today the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail, which runs along the ditch (with a few detours around private property) for some 20 miles.
You can ride the entire 20-mile trail from end to end, or explore the trail in segments by riding out from one of five trailer-friendly trailheads. You can also create loops by parking at one trailhead, following its access trail to the Ditch Trail, riding along the Ditch, taking an access trail to a different trailhead, and returning to your trailer by riding on the lightly traveled gravel road you drove in on.
The Ditch Trail has little elevation change as it runs through shady stands of Douglas-firs and ponderosa pines, past groves of madrones and oaks, and across arid south-facing slopes covered with chaparral. In a number of places, the trail offers expansive views of the Siskiyous and the Little Applegate Valley. You’ll also see remnants of the ditch’s past, from old log flumes to a hand-dug tunnel that carried the water under a hillside instead of around a ridge. What a delightful way to experience this area’s colorful history!
The Sterling Mine Ditch Trail is open year-round, though it’s advisable to stay off the trail when it’s muddy to avoid damaging the trail tread. The trail is open to horses, hikers, and mountain bike riders.