The Mill Creek Horse Trail
Length 10.4 mi · Climbing 1970 ft
The Mill Creek Horse Trail began as a "lollipop" loop through a small, partially-logged property that was acquired as part of Redwood National Park in the 1960s. With the acquisition of the surrounding Mill Creek watershed in 2000, the Horse Trail has been expanded so that several different loops are now possible.
The magnificent old-growth redwoods of the Mill Creek watershed, adjacent to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, were at one time proposed to be the central feature of Redwood National Park. In 1966, as Congress was crafting legislation to create the park, the Miller Redwood Company clearcut a strip of land just outside Jed Smith boundary, breaking up the continuous stretch of old-growth and making the location much less desirable for a park. Partly as a result, the focus of Redwood National Park was moved to the Redwood Creek watershed, and only a small section of the Mill Creek redwoods was acquired. It's this section that the original Mill Creek Horse Trail passes through.
Although there are substantial old-growth groves remaining in this area, environmental regulations and the national parks' increasing emphasis on preservation over recreation have prevented construction of trails through the old growth. Therefore, the Mill Creek Horse Trail passes almost entirely through logged areas (including the strip that was so notoriously clearcut in 1966) or along the boundary of old-growth areas. The result is a trail that is, except for a few short sections, heavily impacted by logging and, especially compared with the nearby trails in Jed Smith, are all that scenic. Nonetheless, the trail appears to be fairly popular among local equestrians.
As described below the loop requires fording Mill Creek, which (to protect salmon) is only allowed between June 1 and October 14th. An alternate trail is available that does not ford Mill Creek; while it's less interesting, this route can be used year-round.
The hike starts from a parking lot off Bertsch Road, just off Howland Hill Road near the southern entrance to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. As the trail climbs through a rather unattractive spruce grove, the Crescent City foghorn is audible in the distance. When the trail ends at a dirt road, turn left and continue along the road, past a pullout, until you see the trail branch off to your left. From here, the trail descends through logged woods, passing a few old-growth redwoods scattered through the forest.
Just after mile marker 2, the trail enters an actual old-growth grove. There are lots of big redwoods here that are certainly old growth. However, probably because the trail runs along the edge of the 1966 clearcut, the ground has the disheveled look typical of logged forests, with lots of debris that has not yet rotted away or been covered with ferns. Also, among the big trees are quite a few really small trees - not something normally seen in an old-growth grove. The area may have been bulldozed in preparation for logging.
Leaving the old-growth grove, the trail descends through a rather gloomy logged area with many huge stumps, eventually leveling out at a trail intersection. In the winter you have to go right, but if it's summer go left, where you'll find the first creek crossing. During the months when crossing the creek is allowed, it's usually about 3-12 inches deep. Go left after crossing the creek to find the trail.
The trail segments that run alongside Mill Creek (on both the east and west sides) are noticably more attractive than the rest of the Mill Creek Horse Trail. On the east side of the creek, the trail appears to follow an old skid road, a swath about 50 yards wide that was apparently bulldozed through the redwoods. The trail is cut through a dense thicket of tiny redwoods that now grows in this swath. On either side of the trail, but especially on your right, you can catch very brief glimpses of what looks like a magnificent old-growth grove, but the views are screened by the little redwoods. The trail is narrow and can get overgrown, but is actually quite pleasant.
Just before it crosses Mill Creek again, the trail finally enters the old-growth grove that's been just out of reach. Because there are transitional zones of smaller redwoods along the edges of the grove, only about 50 yards of the trail are fully within the grove. Nonetheless, it's still clear that this is a particularly scenic old-growth grove with its own unique character. The grove is surprisingly open and bright, more so even than most of Jedediah Smith. The trees are large, tall and amazingly straight, and there's a nice assortment of colors, with light- and dark-trunked trees. Although the grove resembles Jedediah Smith's redwoods in a lot of ways, it's located on a wide alluvial flat, which gives it an expansiveness not found in that park.
The trail emerges from the grove, dropping down a small embankment to cross the creek again. This crossing is a deeper than the first, about 10-24 inches. The trail climbs a short distance to join a dirt road.
At this point you can turn right to return by the original lollipop route; the mile-long walk up the west side of Mill Creek is mostly lacking in redwoods (save for some views of the grove across the creek) but is actually quite pleasant. You'll then rejoin the access trail that you hiked down on.
Alternatively, turn left to take the 1.6-mile-longer, but less repetitive, route through the Mill Creek watershed as shown on the map. This route consists of dirt logging roads connected with sections of singletrack trail, and it looks much different than the preceding miles of trails that you've just hiked; it still looks like the commercial timber operation that it was until recently.
The long route takes you south on the West Side logging road before turning right onto an overgrown singletrack trail. The trail, constructed on a barely-visible abandoned logging path, climbs a hill into a dismal logged redwood forest. Reaching a T intersection with a deteriorating dirt road, turn right to reach Sheepshed Road. This relatively well-maintained dirt road is actually quite pleasant, climbing through relatively bright, regenerating mixed woodland. After almost a mile a singletrack trail branches off to your right; the trail doesn't really add anything to the hike and at least if you're on foot you can just continue straight along Sheepshed Road. In either case you'll reach a dirt road intersection; just a few yards beyond this intersection, another singletrack trail branches off to your left, passing through more dismal logged redwood forest before ending at the Rellim Ridge Trail. Turning right, you'll descend through some not-particularly-attractive logged redwood forest, eventually reaching the ridgetop dirt access road that you started the hike on.
© 2009 David Baselt