The Mill Creek Trail in Lassen National Forest offers backpackers a challenging spring hiking trip just north of Ishi Wilderness. While hiking trails at higher elevations still lie under winter snow, this trail in the northern Sierra Nevada just south of Lassen Volcanic National Park lets you enjoy views of a 1,000-foot-high canyon rim, a bounty of wildflowers, and fresh green leaves on deciduous trees, all in the home of the Yana/Yahi Indians, Ishi’s tribe.
BUT… the trail has become overgrown in spots and increasingly difficult to follow, so only attempt this if you are an experienced backpacker and are willing to do some bush-wacking at times, and also climb over or go around downed trees. (See comments below the post.) Hopefully Lassen National Forest will do some serious maintenance on the Mill Creek trail when funding and personnel availability allow.
Mill Creek Hiking Trail Key Information
Distance: 29.6 miles round-trip
Hiking time: 3 to 4 days
High point: 4,550 feet
Total elevation gain: 3,000 feet
Season: mid-April through November; very hot in summer!
Water: available from Mill Creek and other streams (purify first)
Maps: USGS 7.5’ Mineral, USGS 7.5’ Onion Butte, USGS 7.5’ Barkley Mountain
Information: Almanor Ranger District, Lassen National Forest
Notes: dogs allowed; a stream crossing encountered just past the trailhead can be difficult to cross during periods of high water flow. In addition, downed trees occasionally block the trail.
Driving Directions to the Mill Creek Trailhead
Drive to the intersection of CA Highways 36 and 172, which is located 9 miles east of Mineral and 9 miles northwest of the junction of CA Highways 32 and 36. Go 3 miles down Highway 172 to the town of Mill Creek. Turn left 0.3 mile past Mill Creek Resort onto Forest Road 28N06. Go right at an intersection 2.8 miles farther (where Forest Road 28N06C goes left to Hole in the Ground Campground). Currently a culvert is washed out on FR 28N06 about 0.2 mile south of this junction. If that’s still the case, park near the road block and walk south another 1.3 miles on FR 28N06 to the actual trailhead.
Note: It is possible to do this hike one-way with a car shuttle. To reach Black Rock Campground, the terminus of the hike, take CA Highway 36 to the town of Paynes Creek. Then take Paynes Creek Road and turn right 0.3 mile farther onto Plum Creek Road. After 8 miles, turn right onto Ponderosa Way (Forest Road 28N29). Travel this dirt road for 20 miles to the trail, following signs for Black Rock and Mill Creek at all intersections. Note: The road is occasionally rough (though still passable for two-wheel-drive vehicles), and crossing Antelope Creek may be difficult during periods of high water flow.
Hiking/Backpacking the Mill Creek Trail
The journey begins at the far end of the parking area. Douglas fir dominate the forest here and along most of the length of the Mill Creek Trail. These stately trees, along with a few incense cedar and large-coned sugar pine, provide ample shade as you gently descend 4 miles to a bluff that allows the first views of the rapids and waterfalls of Mill Creek.
The trail undulates uphill as you pass by numerous dogwood trees (with large, white, six-petaled “flowers” in spring) and cross several streams. After slowly descending back to Mill Creek, you’ll find the first good campsite at 6.3 miles. Spacious, well-shaded, and situated by the water, this makes a good first-day stopping point.
The path again climbs, and at 7.3 miles you’ll encounter the rare California nutmeg tree. It sports dark green, stiff, sharp needles; a gentle squeeze of a branch is all that is necessary to identify it. You’ll notice dozens of others farther along the trail.
At 8.3 miles the trail begins traveling along a dry, exposed, south-facing slope punctured by volcanic rocks. Chaparral shrubs such as buckbrush and whiteleaf and greenleaf manzanita dot the hillside, and white popcorn flowers, purple brodiaea, and numerous other wildflowers grow amid the grasses. This is also where you’ll see the first open views of the steep, rock-studded mountain slope on the other side of Mill Creek.
An increasing number of ponderosa pine and numerous canyon live oak and black oak line the trail as you again descend to another rendezvous with Mill Creek at 9.9 miles. An obvious campsite lies just to the left, and as the trail travels near the creek for the next 1.7 miles, you’ll find several other flat areas suitable for camping.
At 10 miles the trail passes through a flat area populated with ponderosa pine, climbs to a lush spring, and descends to a large, wet meadow at 13.2 miles, where you can find a camping spot near the creek. After crossing through the meadow, hike 1 more mile to Black Rock Campground.
Hiking Into Ishi Wilderness
If you want more hiking, continue on the Mill Creek Trail in the downstream direction into Ishi Wilderness. Note: this portion of the trail is not on the Mill Creek Trail hiking map posted here, and it’s length and elevation are not included in the numbers at the beginning of the post.
Find the continuation of the trail at the west end of Black Rock Campground. It climbs briefly to join a dirt road; follow the road 0.3 mile to a gate for a private ranch, then go right and pass through another gate. For the next 0.4 mile, you traverse a series of wet, spring-fed meadows.
Beyond the ranch, the true wilderness begins as the trail undulates along the hillside. Blue, black, and interior live oaks predominate on the open, grassy slopes, with canyon live oaks and California laurel inhabiting the cooler and moister ravines. Gray pine is the most common large tree, but occasionally a stand of ponderosa pines stakes a claim to a flat area near Mill Creek. Most of the rock is basaltic and thus of volcanic origin, but a sharp eye will spy a few areas of sedimentary rock. You’ll also notice evidence of fires that have swept through the area in recent times.
Enter another meadow at 3.0 miles from Black Rock Campground. Continue to a crossing of Avery Creek, then reach an intersection with the Rancheria Trail 1.7 miles farther, the official end of the hike.
Note: this lower portion of the Mill Creek Trail, along with part of the trail going upstream from Black Rock, are described in Hikes 119 and 120 in my book Day Hiking: Mount Shasta, Lassen & Trinity Alps.
Black Rock Campground
Black Rock Campground, on the Almanor Ranger District of Lassen National Forest, has six dispersed campsites near Mill Creek, along with a vault toilet. The Black Rock Campground campsites are first come, first served, and there is no fee and no drinking water.
Ishi the Last Yahi, Namesake of the Ishi Wilderness
The Ishi Wilderness is named after the last surviving Yahi Native American, a man known as Ishi. The Yahi lived in the rugged canyons of the Ishi Wilderness and surrounding area for thousands of years. They survived in the mild climate by hunting deer and other animals, fishing for salmon, and eating a variety of edible plants.
The Yahi, White Men, and Ishi — the Last of His Tribe
Along with many other tribes in California, the Yahi Indians were systematically exterminated by the white settlers who streamed west during the middle of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1870, Ishi and the last few remaining members of the Yahi managed to hide out in the upper reaches of the Mill Creek and Deer Creek canyons. In 1911, Ishi, the last living member of the Yahi, was discovered by whites and taken to San Francisco, where he spent much of his remaining years relating the Yahi’s way of life to anthropologists.
Protect Yahi Archaeological Sites
As you hike through this wilderness area, you will often be on trails made by the Yahi. No doubt some of the flat meadows near the creek were used as campsites. Please remember that all archaeological sites and historical remains should not be disturbed.
Have you done the hike? What did you think? Questions or comments?