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Hiking Mill Creek Trail, Big Sur, California

What can fire and rain do to a creek? The answer is shocking to see when hiking Mill Creek Trail in Big Sur. With the road to the trailhead closed, there is not much traffic on this creekside trail that was once so dense with redwoods that the sun could not awaken the cool, peaceful darkness below the canopy. In 2017 it all changed when a fire burned through the trees during the summer, and the wet winter storms swept the dead trees downstream. In doing so, the trees that lined the creek were either torn from their roots or had their bark stripped from their trunks. The trees have traveled downstream before.

Open creek channel while hiking Mill Creek Trail.
Open channel. Mill Creek was once dense with redwood trees.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the big trees at Mill Creek were sent downstream in a plume to a mill, giving the creek its name. Today pink ribbons and cairns are marking the remnants of a trail that still has its charm, just without as many trees. The first half mile is an uphill single track weaving in and out of a patch of redwoods on a well-marked trail. It runs down and along the creek while continuing up the watershed. 

Old mining equipment along trail.
Timber! Rusty remnants of the old plume used to get logs to the downstream mill.

Along the way, you hear the frightful burst of a large branch that sounds like deer hunters but immediately falls silent. A few minutes later, there is a giant thud. Ruling out the hunters, the snap must have been a branch that broke but was suspended in small branches before gravity brought it home with a thud. At two miles, keep a sharp looking out as the flags turn inland away from the creek. And be sure to know what poison oak looks like because it hides everywhere!

Orange ribbon marking trail.
Find the trail. Ribbons and cairns mark the remnants of the trail.

Turning around and walking back downstream is when the power of the flash flooding becomes more evident. The force of the water must have been tremendous to shred the bark off the trees and replace it with mud. Its power left uprooted tree trunks piled on the eroded creek banks. This is the same force that washed out Highway 1 during the Mud Creek landslide, which took almost two years to repair.

Tree with bark removed and mud in its place.
Downstream view. The power of the water ripped the bark off the trees and left mud in its place.

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Hi. We are Paul and Cindy, two biologists, fit and over 50, who enjoy exploring, photographing, and blogging about our outdoor travel. Our journey is to find outdoor activities that are away from crowds, kind to nature, and authentic. We carry backpacks, stay in clean accommodations, and feel that good food is as important as good friends.

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