Published Cycle California, October 2016, Vol. 22 #10
Sometime during the summer, Jack Kyman, Ashland neighbor and friend, and I decided to mountain bike the old stagecoach road that runs from just across the border in California to the lower slopes of Oregon’s Mt. Ashland. Jack drove on I-5 nine miles and 2,000 feet up from our homes in the south part of Ashland, exiting just before Siskiyou Summit onto Old Highway 99. At 4,310 feet, Siskiyou Pass is the highest point on I-5, Mexico to Canada.
Highway 99, once the Siskiyou Mountain Wagon Toll Road, rises over a 100 feet higher than the busy freeway that we observed below. The old highway was almost devoid of traffic, a good thing, but also wanting much needed road repair. Thankfully, our mountain bikes were more stable than our road bikes dodging cracks and potholes as we began descending. In a few miles came the flyover on-ramp to I-5 south, leading to our stagecoach road exit. In Oregon, biking is allowed on I-5 and the shoulder was wide, the only way to make our ride a loop. We sped steeply down past the Welcome to California sign to our turnoff, a mile-and-a-half away. We weren’t alongside adjoining traffic for very long.
The exit at Hilt was named for John Hilt, who ran a sawmill beginning in 1877 on nearby Cottonwood Creek. What keeps Hilt going these days is the huge All Star Liquors store where a life-size Captain Morgan figure, with his foot on a keg of rum, stands at the entrance, greeting those seeking to avoid Oregon’s higher alcohol tax. Though maybe not the most aesthetic place to stop, the store did have cold soft drinks for sale.
We descended from the liquor store to a flat valley, first passing the Hilt Church, est. 1925, with new siding and a metal roof, no indication of services if any. A little ways ahead was Cole Station, a large split-level residence with a sign stating the last stage south left December 17, 1887. On November 20, 1880, Black Bart hit the stage near Hilt, taking a Wells Fargo box and mail, repeating the same crime he had performed miles up the same road into Oregon. (His career moved farther south and lasted until an 1883 holdup when he left behind a handkerchief with a San Francisco laundry mark.)
The best find, however, was a one-story, wood-sided, one-room, abandoned and dilapidated schoolhouse with a little bell tower on top. The little building was in the throes of decay and only about thirty-feet or so from the railroad tracks, where a train doesn’t run anymore. A town, once fairly substantial with several homes and warehouses, was originally built around 1902 by the Hilt Sugar Pine Company, which bought Hilt’s sawmill. A few ranch houses remained but anything else having to do with Hilt was reportedly torn down in 1974.
We left those remaining structures and continued onto a surface change to a hardpan dirt road, once again reaching the stateline where a small Welcome to Oregon sign was mounted on a single wood post. Biking over gravel fines to avoid stretches of washboarding, we figured we had nothing ahead of interest except Oregon scenery, which measured up to the usual awesome standards. After a little pitch up and around a curve with the railroad tracks below, the road continued climbing alongside the creek as the tracks swung away and then crossed in front of us ahead with an old time Railroad Crossing sign in the form on an X.
As we neared the sign, we spotted a series of flags, obviously Buddhist, flapping in the breeze. Ahead was an intersection of three roads, one being Colestin Road that we were now on. The other roads were Nepal Road straight ahead and Temple Road to our right, consistent with the flags.
Never ones to shrink from an adventure, we turned onto the Temple Road, which followed the railroad tracks for a half mile around the hillside before dropping into an open field. To our amazement, we saw ahead a copper-colored, bright red and yellow painted shrine with gold ornaments on top. Respectively laying our bikes down in the grass, we approached the building walking up a worn dirt path and, amazingly at least for us, found an unlocked red-colored wrought iron gate. Once inside the enclosure, we observed two huge statues, one green and one white, encased in glass-paneled housings and facing each other. I since learned these are known as Tara and that this particular temple was Tibetan, contrary to the Nepal Road sign.
Even more impressive, on a hilltop against a backdrop of higher, forested hilltops, was a multi-story, multi-roofed temple, also shining of brilliant copper and gold toppings, even far too foreboding for us to consider approaching it. That plus a sign stated the temple was off limits to non-members of the Tashi Choling Center. This totally unpredictable discovery on a remote stagecoach robbery road only confirmed my bicycling mantra, which is to expect the unexpected.
From the three-way crossroads, Colestin Road entered the pine forest. We slogged up four miles and another thousand feet before meeting the pavement once again with Mt. Ashland Ski Road, little traveled in the summer. Our only other brush with the spectacular on the way was intermittent views of Mt. Shasta, still snowy on the north side, rising over the southern horizon as we ascended our dirt road. The paved highway back to the car climbed up another hundred feet to 4,645 feet (Cole Station had been around 2,800) before we biked the last mile down to where Jack had parked. Soon, we were back in Jack’s car on I-5 to Ashland. Our mountain bike loop to Hilt and back had been 20 miles, including Nepal.