Waterside path doesn't scrimp on redwoods, but it's short one bridge
Are you going to let a little thing like a ravine stop you?
Until state parks workers replace a bridge that was removed a couple
of years ago on South Mill Creek Trail, that's the pivotal question
facing hikers of this route.
A bright red trailhead sign gives the state parks' take on the matter: "Not a through trail," "no crossing available."
Prudent information, as it turned out. Laura and I did work our way
across the currently unbridged tributary, but it was a bit of a
scramble with the potential to get wet, so it's not for everyone.
This stretch of creek-side trail is so scenic and easy to walk - other than that pesky abyss - that you should take it even if you aren't game for a moderately difficult detour. For now, that would mean alternative route strategies mentioned in the Trail Notes box. But the good news is, in a few weeks you won't have to worry about it. Boards for a new bridge were already piled up when we took the trek on a recent gray Saturday, and construction should be complete by mid-April.
I shoot a lot of pictures when we hike, and each image is encrypted with information, including the moment it was captured. Even bad photos are useful as timepieces, and since this is a short, simple journey with lots of treats along the way, I'll present it clockwise.
The trailhead: We were admittedly a bit cowed by the aforementioned warning sign. But since the plan called for looping from South Mill Creek Trail to Nickerson Ranch Trail to Howland Hill Road, we figured we could ultimately turn around if necessary and still cover the desired ground. Besides, the creek beckoned.
6 minutes in: It turned out that one bridge over a creek-bound tributary was already being replaced. We easily crossed the nearly finished construction and continued along the mixed-forest path.
10 minutes in: A grotesquely gnarled redwood we immediately dubbed the "elephantitis tree" squatted just to our right. When we chose this quaint waterside path, we apparently hadn't sacrificed the chance to check out new manifestations of old-growth redwoods. This one featured a gaping yawn.
12 minutes in: An enormous red mushroom sprouted from a long-fallen tree. We later identified it as a varnished conk.
19 minutes in: It was decision time as we arrived at the unbridged ravine. Perhaps emboldened by the two young women we had just passed going the other way - they had obviously conquered the obstacle - we worked our way down to the tributary's edge and crossed on logs while grasping snags. It was slow going in a damp snarl of twigs and underbrush, but we regained the trail after a few minutes of off-roading.
27 minutes in: Our efforts were rewarded with increasingly idyllic views of Mill Creek through maples draped in greenery. Seen in a new light, the water took on the lush green hue so prevalent on the Smith River it was coursing toward.
33 minutes in: Redwoods temporarily pulled our attention away from the creek. A symmetrical giant that seemed to rival the biggest bad boy in Stout Grove rose up, followed by a thinner specimen twisting skyward in a spiral.
48 minutes in: We reached the end of South Mill Creek Trail and turned left onto Nickerson Ranch Trail. This was once a section of the Kelsey Trail that connected Crescent City with the gold mines of the Middle Klamath River. Many parts of that trail still exist farther east.
55 minutes in: After a tenth of a mile, the trail stopped at Mill Creek, which sprawled brilliantly against the bright green grass of the far bank. This long waterway meanders through much of Del Norte's redwood country, but it's hard to imagine a more scenic view of it than what we beheld at the end of Nickerson Ranch Trail. We tarried before turning around to traverse the heavily wooded path's full six-tenths of a mile route back to Howland Hill Road.
75 minutes in: We emerged at the Nickerson Ranch trailhead and turned right onto Howland Hill. Lined with redwoods, the road itself is a rewarding hiking path, especially in the off-season when there's not much traffic and no dust.
85 minutes in: We completed the final half-mile stretch back to our starting point at the South Mill Creek trailhead.
The whole adventure took less than an hour and a half, and it will go even quicker once that bridge is up
THE HIKE: A 1.7-mile loop on South Mill Creek Trail, Nickerson Ranch Trail and Howland Hill Road. Or make it an out-and-back on the two trails for a round trip of 2.4 miles that avoids walking on the road. Either way, be sure to add on the tenth-of-a-mile stretch of Nickerson Ranch Trail that leads to a scenic terminus at Mill Creek.
HIGHLIGHTS: Great views of the maple-lined creek intermingled with memorable old-growth redwoods.
SWEAT LEVEL: Smooth, level terrain throughout makes this a low-impact journey - assuming you wait until after workers finish replacing a bridge a half-mile in from the South Mill Creek trailhead. If you can't wait, and you don't want to make the moderately difficult crossing of a tributary where a bridge should be, you'll have to reverse course at that point and cover some additional ground to complete the full loop. That's no punishment on a hike as good as this one.
GETTING THERE: Driving from Crescent City, the trailhead is on the right side of Howland Hill Road three-tenths of a mile past the Boy Scout trailhead. Or you could do the loop in reverse starting at the Nickerson Ranch trailhead, which is also on the right side of Howland Hill Road, two-tenths of a mile before the Boy Scout trailhead.