By – Karlin Andersen
Shadows cast down from towering Douglas-firs give quick bursts of relief from the warm sun or protection from a landmine of mud puddles depending on the season. Cool air radiates from the wet soil under the canopy of firs as young families with scampering children or seasoned hikers with high tech walking poles shrink to one side of the path as runners shod in Nikes travel the Spencer Butte with long graceful strides. The 1.08-mile path twists around trunks while gaggles of teenagers ignore the trail signs posted. Instead they scale large jagged boulders in order to more efficiently reach the summit. Weeds and patches of grass poke out of rocks in between clumps of poison oak covering the summit.
Hikers exit an arch of Douglas-firs to climb the final feet over newly installed stone steps. At the summit boulders worn down by decades of hikers perching on their rough edges come into focus. Roughly 2,000 feet above Eugene, Oregon, the summit of Spencer Butte marks the highest point on the Ridgeline Trail system.
Twelve miles of seamlessly connected hiking, biking and pedestrian trails wind throughout Eugene’s south hills. Dedicated hikers reach the crescendo of the Ridgeline Trail system at the top of Spencer Butte. Panoramic views of Eugene and the surrounding Willamette Valley’s perpetually green floors expand below the Butte.
Purchased in 1940 largely through a grassroots campaign allowing residents to “buy a piece” of the Butte with donations no larger than $5, the Butte became a fundamental part of Eugene’s identity, according to the Explore Eugene webpage.
“Eugene boys and girls will be climbing Spencer Butte fifty and one hundred years from today, to be inspired by looking over a city built out to the very foot of the Butte,” former mayor and Chairman of the Eugene Park Commission, Francis M. Wilkins, said in 1937.
Covering 2,000 acres, the trail system contains seven main trail heads spread among six different parks, woodlands or ridges.
The west side of the trail system begins with a 1.8-mile bark trail cleared through pine trees which cover Blanton Ridge. A gradual climb to 1,280 feet makes this section of the trail popular for mountain bikers. Lush vegetation and ferns surround bikers and pedestrians traveling the trail.
Within the 29.5-acre Mariposa Woodlands the next mile of the trail leads into Spencer Butte. A combination of woodland, savanna and prairie environs, trails run through ancient Willamette Valley ponderosa pines, according to the Mariposa Woodland management plan.
Past Spencer Butte, a series of trails intersect in the Amazon Creek headwaters area. A natural feature of South Eugene, Amazon Creek provides “a vital corridor for wildlife like the great blue heron and river otter, it’s a major recreational artery for walking, biking, rollerblading, and bird watching,” according to the Long Tom Watershed Council.
Opened in 2014, the Dillard trails serve as connections between Spencer Butte and the Spring Boulevard Trailhead within the Amazon Creek area. Crossing over Mt. Baldy, the 1-mile loop trail is easily accessible for all skill level hikers. Fields of wildflowers offer alternate areas to stop and rest. Surrounding hills provide views of both Eugene and nearby communities.
“The Dillard Connector trail was new for this race, but also, new for me, too,” Jessica Mumme, a competitor in the Ridgeline Ramble said. “The connector was very well groomed and provided a delightful running surface. I was pleased the connector was here — I can’t imagine what it must have been like prior to the Dillard Connector being complete.”
Looking to link Spencer Butte and Hendrick Park, residents started hiking a path in 1962. After annually hiking the trail each December, the trail was eventually cleared and officially built by 1972. The city finished purchasing land for the trail in 2000 and constructed a designated trail similar to the original path, according to the Friends of Hendricks Park.
Named for the various connections it provides to Hendricks Park, the Ribbon Trail weaves through areas for walking, areas of roads for car access as well as water access. Due to safety concerns over pedestrians and bikers using the same trail space, bikes are not allowed on this trail.
Established in 1906, Hendricks Park maintains its identity as Eugene’s oldest city park, according to Friends of Hendricks Park, a volunteer organization dedicated to maintaining the park. In the spring the rhododendron garden becomes a 15-acre variety of purple, pink and white flowers. Along the ridge line 58 acres of forest provide multiple trails for hikers to explore. Within the park the native plant garden preserves Douglas-firs, ferns and flowers originally found throughout Oregon.
“I think the uniqueness of the park allows for visitors to visit a formal garden or hike in the wooded area of the park and continue on to the Ridgeline Trail,” Sandra Austin, Friends of Hendricks Park board member, said. “Lots of diversity of activity to fit diversity of person’s interests and physical capabilities.”
Built in 1938 to honor Wilkins, a founding members of the park, a shelter stands within the native plant garden. Available to rent early spring to late fall, the shelter includes a large fireplace and a Moon Terrace deck constructed out of stone and later added by community volunteers.
Held over Memorial Day Weekend, the Ridgeline Ramble offers runners a complete tour of the trail system through a 20k, 10k or relay team race. Begun in 2007 the race starts at the Blanton trail head with the course traveling past Spencer Butte and looping through the rest of the trails to finish at the Lane Community College campus just outside the city. Running through a constantly changing medley of bark chips, rocks, roots, stream crossings, packed dirt and pavement gives participants a full experience of the Ridgeline’s offerings.
A map of the Ridgeline Trail can be found here.