A once hidden trail off the beaten track is now an official North Shore attraction.
If you walk the Mill Creek Trail in Del Norte County’s Grove of the Titans today, you’ll walk over raised metal walkways that allow water to flow and ferns to grow under your feet . You’ll cross a wooden bridge, climb perfectly placed stairs, and dive through tunnels of greenery created by nature, all while enjoying striking views of some of the tallest trees in the world.
But it has not always been so.
Ahead of its reopening with the dedication ceremony on May 21, the area around Mill Creek Trail – a 3-mile path that passes through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) – was largely intact.
The rise of social media over the past two decades has meant that more locals and tourists have raised awareness of the rented grove. A network of informal and secret trails formed and visitors trampled ferns and underbrush to marvel at the beauty of the giant trees. But it cost the giant trees dearly.
Redwood root systems were damaged and forest floor plants died. Foot traffic has eroded soil and pushed trash into waterways, straining coho and rainbow trout spawning grounds.
“It’s our duty to protect our resources – we had to protect this grove, but we also wanted to allow people access to it because it’s quite an important experience,” said Erin Gates, assistant superintendent of national parks and d of Redwood and California. North Coast Redwood District State Parks. “What we’ve been able to do is realign Mill Creek Trail, build an elevated walkway so visitors can experience this grove without leaving their footprints causing irreversible damage.”
The RNSP has been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being home to some of the last surviving ancient redwoods and for its connection to the history of tribal nations.
To save what was left of the ancient forests, California State Parks, Save the Redwoods League, Redwood Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service devised a plan in 2018 to create a formal trail in the Titans Grove that would limit human impact on the surrounding nature.
The Mill Creek Trail is now realigned and includes an elevated walkway with a 1,300 foot long boardwalk through the Grove of the Titans, as well as stairs and bridges that allow root systems to function and vegetation to grow unimpeded under the footsteps of hikers. ADA-accessible parking and restrooms have also been added along Howland Hill Road.
Parks crews scrapped informal tryouts, planted new ferns to replace those lost to foot traffic, and hand-hauled 128 tons of building materials to the site so as not to further damage the grove.
“Balance is key when planning and building a trail in such a rare and beautiful ecosystem,” said Jessica Carter, director of parks and public engagement for Save the Redwoods League in a statement. . “With the realigned trail, new boardwalk, and signage, we respect the natural grandeur of this special place while inviting all visitors to experience and enjoy Grove of Titans for generations to come.”
California State Parks North Coast Redwood Superintendent Victor Bjelejac said he encourages visitors to be kind to each other along the trails and to take their time.
“Don’t be in a hurry, stop, look around… Don’t rush to this or that place. Enjoy the environment you’re in,” Bjelejac said, adding that only 5% of the original redwood forest still exists today. “In this district, we have 50% of all these ancient redwoods. It’s a place where you actually have ancient groves and it’s spectacular. So come kindly. Don’t be in a hurry and enjoy what you see.
The trail now also features signs that provide information about the forest, tips for safe trail use, and translations into the native Tolowa Dee-ni’ language. The Tolowa Dee-ni Nation was frequently consulted on the renovation, as the Titans’ Grove is part of Tolowa’s ancestral land.
Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Tribal Council member Amanda O’Connell called the renovation a “wonderful project” that addresses the human impact on the grove.
“The tribe obviously still has a strong connection to this place, being our ancestral lands, but it’s now managed by the parks system and so it’s nice to be able to have those working relationships to be able to collaborate on ongoing stewardship” , O said Connell. “It feels really good to see a project come to an end to do this.”
The renovations cost about $4 million and were funded by Save the Redwoods League supporters, the California Natural Resources Agency through Proposition 68, the Parks, Environment, and Water Bond Act of 2018, more than $900,000 from in-kind contributions and $205,000 from Redwood Parks Conservancy donors.
Funding from Save the Redwoods League also included a significant challenge grant from donor Josie Merck of Connecticut. Merck traveled from Connecticut to attend the dedication, which opened with songs and prayers from members of the Tolowa Dee-ni Nation.
“I already knew I was humble before I came here, but nothing could speak to the true experience of being here and being sung here and prayed and danced the way it was done,” Merck said during ceremony. In a speech, she called those in attendance — track crews, local park officials and members of the Tolowa Dee-ni Nation — “first-rate humans.” Then she addressed the titans: “You, the trees, you are more than our elders, you are survivors.
And they will continue to survive if we little humans keep trying and staying on track.
Redwood National and State Parks recruits volunteers to patrol the trails, greet park visitors, and tend to the Titans’ Grove. To get involved, contact [email protected]