Redwood trees are unflappable creatures. Pitted against wind, drought, rain, hail, lightning and fire, these “weeds of the forest” are by all measure incredibly resilient against those and other elements nature and man throw their way. At the same time, the redwood forest can be a scene of mass destruction and chaos. To walk in the forest is to step over windfall consisting of branches, tree limbs, thick trunks and ankle-twisting debris fields of shattered bark and heartwood. Whole trees litter the forest floor, some toppled in their entirety, others cracked in two or three giant chunks.
There is no better trail to see these natural and common forces at work then the extremely under-used dirt road approach to the Outdoor Mountain School and then the first few miles of the Mill Creek Riding Trail.
This part of the National Park, acquired in the 60s, much of it from previously private and much of it logged land, is not your usual redwood forest, looking untouched, pristine, with grove after grove of old-growth trees. This land, though mostly healed now — overgrown and again mossy, blanketed in fern — was obviously logged and often clear cut. Old stumps abound. I’ve read that decrepit logging roads and unmarked single-track trails criss-cross this once-private area.
Hiking enthusiast and cartographer David Baselt refers to the some parts of the forest here as “dismal” though to the untrained and merely excited eyeballs that I employ on my walks, the trails hold enough thrills and beauty to entertain for an afternoon — or many afternoons. Baselt’s point, though, is well-taken as this forest, apart from a few spectacularly tall and thick-trunked trees, doesn’t provide the hiker with vast stretches of virgin forest the way many other nearby trails and groves do.
Yet I quite like the vantage points one sees while hiking this trail. And reflecting on the earlier mention of the chaos and destruction in the forest, there’s an awful lot of downed trees, snags, and precariously perched trunks on this trail. The whole effect is mysterious and uncivilized.
Ultimately, I feel confident recommending the trail for it’s unmatched ambiance — a soft, curving bed of needles to walk on, strewn trucks to ponder and climb upon, some majestic titans, and a solitude that is hard to beat.
Length: up to 10 miles (including the Rellim Ridge leg), depending on how far you want to hike
Trail Type: in and out or loop
Difficulty: After an initial walk on a dirt road (very little elevation gain), the horse trail veres off to your right — look for the sign. It then dips down to a near-constant elevation. You may huff and puff a bit on the return.
Trailhead location: Approach on Howland Hill Road from the west and after about a mile look on the right for a locked gate and sign for the Howland Hill Mountain School. Park and walk around the gate and up the road.
Snapshot description: Medium difficulty trail that twists and turns through a dense redwood, spruce and fir forest. Maple vine abounds too. Many giant redwood stumps indicate this was logged in decades past, some stumps have fairy rings of newer-growth trees around them. Lots of windfall and while the trail is maintained, expect the occasional limb to protrude into the trail. Seldom crowded, but be aware horses are allowed so watch your step — for horses and for horse droppings.