SPENCE MOUNTAIN — Just getting equipment on site, up cliffs and back-country paths, is a massive task in of itself.
But for the intrepid crew of Dirt Mechanics, it is all worth it in their ongoing effort to construct more than 50 miles of trails encircling Spence Mountain, west of Klamath Falls; a project well underway in partnership with Klamath Trails Alliance (KTA).
Currently in phase three of a multi-year undertaking, the hope is to complete an additional eight miles of mountain biking trails before winter weather sets in. There are already 10 miles of trail in place since the project began in 2014.
It is by far the largest undertaking by KTA, a nonprofit consisting of roughly 100 members dedicated to development, maintenance and advocacy for non-motorized trails in Klamath County.
The group’s first major project was trail upgrades at Moore Park, and under guidance of an Oregon Department of Forestry forester, developed a master plan for providing a network of trails overlooking Upper Klamath Lake along Highway 140 at Spence Mountain.
Covering a 7,400-acre land parcel owned by JWTR that has been extensively logged with mostly young growth trees on site, the territory is a mesh of old logging roads and skid trails now being repurposed as a recreational hotbed for mountain biking, hiking, trail running, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
A large kiosk built by KTA along Highway 140 marks the trailhead, providing maps and requesting visitors to list their hometown and intended trail use to aid KTA in pursuing tourism-related grants to help fund the project.
Once finished the Spence Mountain trail system will include beginner, intermediate and black diamond expert mountain biking trails offering spectacular views of Mt. Shasta, Mt. McLoughlin and Upper Klamath Lake.
“The remnants of logging roads and trails has been advantageous for trail building,” said Drew Honzel, Klamath Trails Alliance secretary, who has led the fundraising efforts. “Most of the current work is by machine using mini-excavators and then hand tools to clear paths that are then smoothed out.”
First proposed as a 20-mile network of trails, JWTR’s enthusiastic cooperation for the project expanded initial estimates.
Initially intended to be built by volunteer work, which quickly proved unfeasible, Honzel was forced to establish a fundraising and grant-writing campaign to raise an estimated $750,000 needed to complete the project. Multiple tourism grants through Klamath County and Travel Oregon have helped supplement fundraising, as well as numerous donations from individuals and community members.
Honzel partnered with Dirt Mechanics of Bend, professional trail-builders and mountain bikers, to spearhead the grunt-work. A team comprised of four members has been camping out at Spence Mountain trying to complete the current planned network of trails before the ground freezes.
“It’s pretty challenging,” said Paul Lissette of Dirt Mechanics. “We spend quite a bit of time clearing paths just so that we can get our equipment into areas. I’ve spent a lot of time creating pathways to get my equipment in to the trail.
“I can’t go over a rock drop with an excavator, and some portions have to be hand-built because we just can’t get the machines in there.”
While the current completed trail structure comprises intermediate blue trails, current focus is on completing a beginner green trail loop for use next spring. While construction is also being developed on an experts-only black diamond trail, Lissette doesn’t believe that portion will be open to the public until summer 2017.
The trails are meticulously designed with drainage for sustainability, making it easier for KTA volunteers to maintain the trail structure.
“It’s harder to create a green trail because we have to make it easy and accessible,” added Lissette. “Black trails give us more leeway to be rough and rugged. It begins with early mapping to look at terrain to establish a general master plan, then getting acceptance from groups like KTA, then it’s walking through the scrub and bashing our way through finding the best route while maintaining grades.”
While the work is difficult, Lissette and the Dirt Mechanics team relish the work, noting in particular that the view out of their office window each day simply can’t be beat. All avid mountain bikers, Lissette’s favorite part is the finished product, getting first dibs to try out the completed trails.
The current available trails have already drawn an audience. Travelers across the region have used the intermediate trail network for mountain biking and trail running, their visit directly contributing to the local economy in hotel and restaurant use.
“Our goal is to add another stop on the awesome places to mountain bike in Oregon,” added Honzel. “We have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of people using the trails. It’s unique because our mechanics are trail-builders and professional mountain bikers, they are able to see something and design paths in a fun way for our target market.”
Honzel hopes that with ongoing fundraising efforts the Spence Mountain project will be completed within five years, placing Klamath Falls on the map as a must-stop for hiking and biking enthusiasts for many years to come.