The Mill Creek Horse Trail was originally 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 rather mundane when compared to the spectacular scenery just over the hill in Jed Smith. Nonetheless, it’s still an enjoyable hike through lush North Coast woods.
As described below the loop requires fording Mill Creek, which to protect salmon is only allowed between June 1 and October 14th. Regardless of the salmon, the creek is much too high and fast to cross in the winter anyway. An alternate trail is available that does not ford Mill Creek; while it’s less interesting, this route can be used year-round.
The route is well marked with signs at every intersection. It’s generally well-maintained, except for a few parts that are sometimes overgrown. In winter the route is little-used and trees may be down across the trail.
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. The trail climbs through a spruce grove that appears to be unlogged, the Crescent City foghorn audible in the distance. Near the top of the trail are a few large redwoods. When the trail ends at a dirt road, turn right and continue climbing on the road, past a pullout, until you see the trail branch off to your left. From here, the trail descends through heavily logged woods, although there are a few old-growth redwoods scattered through the forest.
Just after mile marker 2, the trail enters an actual old-growth grove. Much like the nearby Howland Hill Road, this area has a lot of big redwoods, but the groundcover of salal, huckleberry, ferns, and rhododendron is denser and more characteristic of dryer upland areas. In summer 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; this is less noticable during the rainy season. 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, 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 deeper than the first, about 10–24 inches in summer. 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 (except for a big redwood near the footbridge and 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 Elkhorn Spur, a sometimes-overgrown singletrack trail. The trail, constructed on a barely-visible abandoned logging path, climbs a hill into a logged redwood forest. Reaching a T intersection with a deteriorating dirt road, turn right to reach Sheepshed Road.
This dirt road, which is gradually turning into a singletrack trail, is actually quite pleasant, climbing through relatively bright, regenerating mixed woodland. After almost a mile, take the singletrack trail that branches off to your right; the main road, although still passable, is not maintained and is becoming overgrown. The trail climbs, then descends past a picnic area with a bit of a view of the surrounding hills before ending at the same dirt road.
Turn right; after a few yards, another singletrack trail branches off to your left, passing through redwood and spruce forest before ending at the Rellim Ridge Trail. Turn right onto this trail, which is another dirt road that’s gradually turning into singletrack. The road winds through logged redwood and spruce groves, descending to a little creek. After the creek there’s a slight climb back to the ridgetop dirt access road that you started the hike on.
© 2009, 2016 David Baselt