The Mill Creek Trail
Length 7.4 mi · Climbing 250 ft
This trail follows Mill Creek for four miles through sunny moss-encrusted woodlands. The trail offers a nice variety of streamside scenery, but despite some nice old-growth redwood groves along the way, there aren't a lot of really dramatic redwoods to be seen. This is in part because the big redwoods don't grow right along the creek. The trail hints at the greatness of Jed Smith's redwoods but doesn't dive into them.
The trail offers some glimpses of huge but distant redwoods, reminders that the Grove of Titans lies somewhere in the woods off to your right. This storied grove, whose exact location has not been disclosed, contains the largest, third-largest, and sixth-largest redwoods by volume. Its recent discovery was described in Richard Preston's book The Wild Trees.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
To begin this hike, park in the Stout Grove parking lot, walk through Stout Grove toward the campground, and cross Mill Creek. In the winter and spring, seasonal bridges across Mill Creek and the Stout River are removed and it's necessary to ford Mill Creek. The creek is normally only a few inches deep, but if the water is too high avoid the creek crossing and instead do this hike as an out-and-back from Howland Hill Road.
The Mill Creek Trail starts in an exceptionally nice alluvial-flat redwood grove. Since it's right across the creek from Stout Grove, it's not surprising that it looks a little like a smaller version of Stout Grove, with large trees set among rich green ferns and redwood sorrel. However, this grove has its own unique character. Unlike Stout Grove, it's not pure redwood; an understory of small maple trees gives the grove a softer, less open look. Also, a large hole in the canopy makes this grove brighter than Stout Grove. There are a lot fewer visitors here, making it feel like a hidden getaway.
After meandering through the grove for a few yards, the trail enters a relatively ordinary-looking forest with small redwoods screened by a dense understory. There are a few pockets of more impressive redwoods, but they're brief. As the trail progresses it gets closer to Mill Creek, passing through streamside vegetation; the redwoods don't grow up to the creek. The trail can get a bit faint and overgrown in this area. The trail might be a lot more impressive if it were 100 yards further away from the stream, since large redwoods are often visible up on the hillside to your right. As the trail crosses a small flat and then a little open valley, there are especially tantalizing glimpses of mammoth redwoods off in the distance.
Across Mill Creek, you may occasionally hear cars grinding along Howland Hill Road.
The trail edges past a huge fallen redwood and then switchbacks up a hillside, leaving the bushy streamside maples below and entering another stretch of old-growth redwoods. However, the redwoods in this area aren't particularly impressive; the steep, east-facing hillside doesn't seem to encourage the growth of big redwoods, perhaps because it gets less rainfall. The trail climbs and contours around a hillside, then descends to cross Howland Hill Road.
Next come a few short sections of trail that aren't especially impressive. Crossing Howland Hill Road, the trail passes a massive spiral-trunked tree to your right, then briefly becomes narrow and eroded. It climbs a short steep slope to reach Howland Hill Road again. Turn left and walk up the road for a few yards to find the unmarked continuation of the trail, which looks like a parking spot. The trail passes through a small flat populated with mid-sized redwoods before crossing Howland Hill Road again. The trail parallels the road and then crosses it a last time.
The scenery begins to improve as the trail dips down toward the creek. To the right are some large redwoods in an impressively lush setting. The trail cuts through some streamside scrub, then dives under the redwood canopy and skirts a good-sized alluvial flat. The redwoods are initially small but gradually get bigger as the trail climbs gently. At the end of the Mill Creek Trail, turn right onto the Nickerson Ranch Trail, which cuts through the middle of the alluvial flat and is one of Jedediah Smith's most magnificent trails. The huge, varied trees set in a lush, jungle-like forest are a remarkable sight.
It's fastest to return along Howland Hill Road, although this route isn't all that interesting to walk. In summer, passing cars frequently stir up dust clouds.
© 2007-12 David Baselt