With all this warm weather, it’s a perfect time to explore the beautiful outdoor playground that is Southern Oregon. What’s even more perfect is the timing of the Siskiyou Hiking Center grand opening from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 2, in the Underground Marketplace at 33 Third St. No. 7.

The hiking center will be staffed with volunteers from the Siskiyou Mountain Club, a local nonprofit group that maintains hiking trails in the surrounding area. The center will serve as a resource and starting point for hikers looking for anything from a short, day hike to a multi-day backpacking trek.

Gabriel Howe, executive director, said the nonprofit began restoring trails in 2010.

“Our mission is to restore, maintain and promote primitive trials in the Siskiyou backcountry,” Howe said. “We look for places in federal wilderness areas, so typically they’re very remote, hard to get to and hard to work in, and then we bring those trail systems back to life.”

Howe said the organization maintains about 250 miles of trails in the Wild Rogue, Kalmiopsis, Red Buttes, Siskiyou, Sky Lakes and Soda Mountain wilderness areas.

Community members are encouraged to check out the volunteer calendar on the SMC website at www.siskiyoumountainclub.org. Trips range from one day to a week of backcountry trail restoration.

However, the SMC also offers guided hiking trips to showcase the work that they’ve done. They also publish articles and trail guides about the trails they maintain. A new line of hiking maps will be available at the hiking center, color coded based on current conditions.

“We try to create community events as an entry into our work,” Howe said.

The grand opening falls on a first Friday art walk, and photographs by Trevor Meyer’s, SMC intern, will be available for viewing and purchase. There will also be beer, wine, snacks, and discounted membership deals.

The internship program allows recruits to go into the most remote and damaged areas for 10 days at a time during summer months to restore trails with hand tools, as mechanized tools aren’t allowed on the lands. An academic component requires interns to write essays and read related materials. However, they receive a tuition reimbursement of $2,000 after the internship is complete.

Interns are hand selected to become staff members, Howe said.

According to Mac Jefferson, volunteer board director, there’s high demand for rural trails in the area and the maintenance of these trails benefits Southern Oregon’s economic infrastructure.

“Tourism is one of the big economic engines for Southern Oregon and a big subset of that is hiking, so maintaining that is a huge boon to the economy in Southern Oregon and is well-recognized by the governor’s office and the (U.S.) Forest Service,” Jefferson said.

According to Howe, an Oregon State University study found that trails alone add $574 million to the Oregon economy annually.

“Trails are kind of like the arteries of our forests and people engage with public lands from trails,” Howe said. “And when you start to lose those, and those arteries become clogged,the lifeblood of that forest slows down and communities start to lose their connection with those places and, over time, if you have a trail that becomes derelict … people stop coming … and that place loses its voice.”

There are other groups in Oregon that keep up trails, but budgets for this line of work have decreased over the past 20 years due to issues including the cost of fighting fires, Howe said.

That means that funded agencies have to prioritize the easiest-to-access and most-used areas, which is why a lot of the backcountry becomes unmaintained.

“The PCT is cool, but I’m going to try to find places that are remote, and special and very wild, and those places are the ones that get forgotten first,” Howe said.

Funding for the organization comes from the 600-plus members’ donations, federal grants and foundations. The community and a large donation from the property owners financed the hiking center, Howe said.

The hiking center will also host small informational gatherings and meetings for community events and trip planning. The hiking center in Ashland is essentially a pilot program with hopes of opening others, Jefferson said.

“We’re surrounded by public lands and I think this is a community defined by people who appreciate wilderness,” Howe said. “And you have a vibrant downtown area here, where it’s a natural environment to get the masses engaged in what we’re doing.”

—Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.