The railings on this bridge were hand-rounded by trail crews, who hand-carried in almost 128 tons of building materials.
A once hidden trail blazed off the beaten path is now a formal North Coast attraction.
Today, if you walk along the Mill Creek Trail in Del Norte County’s Grove of the Titans, you’ll tread on raised metal walkways that allow water to flow and ferns to grow beneath your feet. You’ll cross a wooden bridge, climb perfectly placed stairs and duck through nature-made tunnels of green, all the while taking in a striking view of some of the world's tallest trees.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Before it reopened with ribbon-cutting ceremony May 21, the area around the Mill Creek Trail — a 3-mile path that weaves through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) — was largely untouched.
The rise of social media over the past two decades meant more and more locals and tourists spread the word about the lauded grove. A network of informal, secret trails formed and visitors trampled over the ferns and undergrowth to marvel at the beauty of the giant trees. But this came at a significant cost to the giant trees.
Redwood root systems were damaged and plants on the forest floor died. Foot traffic eroded soil and pushed litter into the streams, putting a strain on coho and steelhead spawning areas.
“It is our duty to protect our resources — we needed to protect this grove, but we also wanted to allow people to access it because it is a pretty significant experience,” said Erin Gates, deputy superintendent for Redwood National and State Parks and California State Parks North Coast Redwood District. “What we were able to do is realign Mill Creek Trail, build an elevated walkway so visitors are able to experience this grove without letting their footprints do damage that is irreversible.”
A host of parks officials gathered for the unveiling of the Mill Creek Trail to the Grove of the Titans.
RNSP was dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for housing some of the last surviving old-growth redwoods and for its connection to tribal nations’ history.
To save what was left of the old-growth 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 Grove of the Titans that would limit the 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 Titans, along with stairs and bridges that allow root systems to work and vegetation to grow unfettered underneath hikers’ footsteps. ADA-accessible parking and restrooms have also been added along Howland Hill Road.
Parks crews removed informal trials, planted new ferns to replace those lost to foot traffic and hand-carried 128 tons of construction materials into the site in an effort 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’re respecting the natural grandeur of this special place while also welcoming all visitors to experience and enjoy Grove of Titans for generations to come.”
California State Parks North Coast Redwoods Superintendent Victor Bjelejac said he encourages visitors to be kind to one another along the trails and to take their time.
“Don't be in a hurry, stop, look around ... Don't rush to this spot or that spot. Enjoy the environment that you're in,” Bjelejac said, adding that only 5 percent of original redwood forest still exists today. “In this district, we have 50 percent of all those old growth redwoods. This is a place where you actually have old growth groves and it's spectacular. So come with kindness. Don't be in a rush and enjoy what you see.”
The trail now also has signs that provide forest facts, guidance for safe trail use and translations into the Tolowa Dee-ni' native language. The Tolowa Dee-ni nation was frequently consulted on the renovation, as the Grove of the Titans is part of Tolowa ancestral land.
Amanda O'Connell, tribal councilmember for Tolowa Dee-ni' nation, called the renovation a “wonderful project” that addressed 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 park system and so it's nice to be able to have these working relationships to be able to collaborate on the continued stewardship,” O'Connell said. “It feels really good to see a project come to completion to do that.”
Renovations cost approximately $4 million and were funded by Save the Redwoods League supporters, California Natural Resources Agency through Proposition 68, the Parks, Environment, and Water Bond Act of 2018, more than $900,000 of in-kind contributions and $205,000 from Redwood Parks Conservancy donors.
Save the Redwoods League funding also included a significant challenge grant from donor Josie Merck of Connecticut. Merck came from Connecticut to attend the ribbon-cutting, which opened with song and prayer from members of the Tolowa Dee-ni nation.
Erin Gates hands donor Josie Merck scissors to cut the ceremonial ribbon to celebrate the opening of the Grove of the Titans.
“I knew already I was humbled before I got here, but nothing could speak to the true experience of being here and being sung here and prayed for and danced to as it was done,” Merck said at the ceremony. In a speech, she called those in attendance — trail crews, local parks leaders and members of the Tolowa Dee-ni nation — “humans of the highest order.” Then she spoke to the titans: “You trees are more than our elders, you are survivors.”
And they will continue to survive if we tiny humans keep up our efforts and stay on the trail.
Redwood National and State Parks is recruiting volunteers to monitor the trails and greet park visitors and care for the Grove of Titans. To get involved, contact JedSmithTitans@gmail.com.