The Mystery and History of Princess Ditch

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Quick Reference

Suitable for: hiking, biking, horseback riding, no motorized vehicles; mostly single track
Amenities: at Oak Knoll Trailhead ample parking (including horse trailers), pit toilet, no water
Dogs: under owner’s control
Distance: (approximate) 8.5 miles one-way to intersection with Salt Creek Loop Trail
Elevation: (approximate) low point – 1060 ft. highest point – 1350 ft.
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
Best attributes: views of Clear Creek Canyon, Shasta Bally Mountain and adjacent mountain peaks; seasonal waterfalls and streams; wildflowers in the spring season
Hiking time: 2 ½ – 3 ½ hours one-way
Biking time: 1 ½ – 2 hours one-way

Directions

Travel west on Placer Road 7.4 miles from the intersection of Buena Ventura Boulevard and Placer Road. Turn right onto Mule Mountain Road and proceed 0.4 of a mile to the parking area at Oak Knoll Trailhead.

Elevation Profile for Princess Ditch Trail

Elevation Profile for Princess Ditch Trail

Mystery And History

Arguably one of the crown jewels in the Redding area’s vast system of trails, a major portion of the Princess Ditch Trail follows the course of the historic Princess Water Ditch. How did the ditch come by its regal name? When and why was it constructed? Where did the ditch obtain its water? And why does the water ditch abruptly stop high above the very deep and wide Clear Creek Canyon? Answers to these mysteries are found in a written history of the Princess Water Ditch which was researched and compiled by the late archaeologist Barbara Woodrum for the Bureau Of Land Management.

The Princess Water Ditch (constructed between the summer of 1896 and January, 1897) takes its name from the Princess Hydraulic Mining Company which was established in Leadville, Colorado, in 1896. The ditch supplied water to giant monitors (water cannons) which were used to wash away large areas of gravel-laden sediments where gold deposits were often found. Water for the ditch most likely was drawn from Paige Boulder Creek near today’s N.E.E.D. Camp-Whiskeytown Environmental School. The ditch’s water flowed in a southerly direction high on the western flanks of Clear Creek Canyon for approximately one mile. At this point, the water entered a pipe which had a length of 2,000 feet and a beginning diameter of twenty-four inches. The pipe plunged down the western side of the canyon, crossed above Clear Creek, and ascended the eastern side of the canyon while also passing over the earlier-built Clear Creek Water Ditch. Now high above Clear Creek, the pipe (which narrowed to twenty-two inches in diameter toward its end) deposited its water into the Princess Water Ditch which now flowed on the eastern flanks of Clear Creek Canyon! Twenty-five men were paid ninety cents each ($25.33 in 2017 dollars) a day to construct the ditch which had a length of fourteen miles. Costs associated with this project included $14,000 ($394,000 in 2017 dollars) for the construction of the water ditch and $5,000 ($141,000 in 2017 dollars) to complete work on the pipe. The total cost of the project, including equipment, dams, sluice boxes, shops and other buildings, was $30,000 ($844,000 in 2017 dollars).

Trail Description

Virtually all of the first 3 ½ miles of the Princess Ditch Trail runs above the actual Princess Water Ditch grade. Starting from the parking area at the Oak Knoll Trailhead, the trail is generally oriented in a south to north direction and somewhat parallels Mule Town Road (which is always below the trail). The trail follows the contours of several canyons along its length and enters the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area at approximately the 6 ½ mile mark. Numerous bridges and culverts help to keep trail users dry, but long sections of the trail may be inundated with several inches of water during the rainy season. Beware of ticks and poison oak. Watch for other trail users, and carry plenty of water!

From the Oak Knoll Trailhead, cross Mule Town Road and ascend about a quarter mile to the trail sign which shows Princess Ditch Trail to the left and Mule Ridge Trail to the right. Turn left and travel about two tenths of a mile in the actual Princess Water Ditch Grade before leaving the ditch to travel mostly upward for approximately one mile where you will reach the highest elevation of the trail. On this initial climb there are great views to the west. Below, you can see the bridge which spans Clear Creek, and farther west the Bald Hills are backdropped by mountains of the Coastal Range.

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Now the trail mostly descends for the next three-quarters of a mile crossing two private driveways and two streams. Then over the next mile the trail moves up and down crossing two more streams before arriving at the junction with Cosmos Way – a very steep trail which connects to Mule Ridge Trail. Save Cosmos Way for another day!

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Ahead, the trail forks. For this trail description, I chose to travel the lower fork. Don’t be fooled by the closed trail which heads directly downhill and is clearly signed. Descend steeply for approximately a quarter mile before re-entering the old Princess Water Ditch Grade. This is where the trail can be very wet for long stretches ahead during the wet season.

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A little more than a half mile ahead, the upper fork (the one I didn’t take back at Cosmos Way) intersects the trail. Proceed straight ahead. Over the next 3 ¾ miles the trail mostly stays in the ditch grade, crossing several creeks by way of bridges.

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Should you run out of time or energy, there are two points on the trail where you can exit and descend to Mule Town Road to follow its more direct route back to Oak Knoll Trailhead: One is at approximately five miles into the ride where the trail from the Stoney Gulch Trailhead intersects, the other is about 6 ½ miles into the ride where another trail comes up from Mule Town Road.

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At approximately the eight mile mark, you come to the spot where a 2,000 foot-long pipe carried water from the other side of the canyon to this side. A very nice view of Shasta Bally Mountain can be had here. I was very fortunate to be guided to a section of the canyon far below by longtime resident and history buff Al Carter. A large rock and concrete pier that supported the pipe as it crossed Clear Creek still exists, along with remnants of thick steel cable that were used to keep the pipe in place.

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Al Carter and cable used for pipe.

Al Carter and cable used for pipe.

The trail now curves right and moves upward as it leaves the old ditch grade. Six tenths of a mile ahead the Princess Ditch Trail ends where it intersects the Salt Loop Trail.

This “best of” article was originally published July 11, 2017.

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The Trails and Bikeways Council of Greater Redding is a non-profit organization that advocates, plans, builds and maintains trails, bikeways and open spaces in the region.

Chris Harvey, a member of the Trails and Bikeways Council of Greater Redding, is a retired elementary school teacher and full-time outdoor enthusiast. He greatly appreciates Trails and Bikeways’ members Bob Madison and Marion Schmitz, BLM’s Eric Ritter, and Mr. Al Carter for their collaboration in writing this trail description!

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2 Responses

  1. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    I’ve done at least a portion of this hike a few times. The southern portion has some steepness. One nice thing about the ditch portion—most ditch trails, in fact—is that they follow the contours and are thus relatively easy hiking. Good for young kids and adults with older joints. I don’t love the downhill sections like I once did.

    On that note: On the other side of the ridge (right half of the map above), the trail called “The Escalator” gains quite a bit of elevation with a meandering, gradual trail that doesn’t punish your hips or knees coming down. The trailhead is at Swasey Recreation Area off of Swasey Drive.

  2. Chris, thank you for this information and interesting post. It inspired me to give this hike a try.

    Steve, “The Escalator” says it all. Made me laugh.