To stroll along the softly contoured Mill Creek Redwood Preserve trail, which begins near Bottchers Gap at the end of the rugged, ragged Palo Colorado Canyon near Big Sur, is to gift oneself with a restorative wilderness experience. Natural treasures, small and very large, reveal themselves along its meander out of the drainage-hugging canopy of giant trees to its finale: a classic on-high, wide-open Big Sur coast vista.
It is such a calm and gentle trail, in fact, with an elevation gain of only 186 feet over 2.76 miles, that it’s easy to forget that its very existence came only after a dogged grassroots preservation struggle – plus some luck and chance, and the dedicated engineering of its designer and builder, Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District Trail Boss Chris Reed.
The history of the preserve is rich with Esselen Indian heritage, was once owned by Charles Bixby as a part of his massive ranch and logging operation, and then successively owned by a series of limestone mining companies and lumber operations. That the preserve’s namesake redwoods, tanbarks and other flora were not torn asunder by the woodsman’s saw is due to its remoteness and difficult, steep topography, which kept it standing until easier pitches were cleared. Twice doomed in the years prior to WWII, it was saved by financial busts befalling the owners, one of which came after a tragic fire that killed two loggers and halted operations.
After a modern plan to log a million board-feet of timber from within the preserve and then build upscale residences in the area was hatched by a Humbolt-based company, overwhelming support by Palo Colorado residents and Peninsula conservation groups to save the forest resulted in the 1,159 acre parcel being purchased in 1989 through the combined efforts of the Big Sur Land Trust and the Regional Park District, and preserved in perpetuity. Eventually, the plan for a hiking trail through the unique preserve was born, and its creation granted to Reed, who diligently built the trail over the course of eight years, with help from hard-working AmeriCorp student volunteers and a few prison crews.
“We knew where we wanted to go with the trail, out to the knoll, the overlook. That was the destination. But where to start, and then what route to take, was the question,” says Reed, a tall, whiskered outdoorsman with 15 years in the Parks Department building trails. Prioritizing safety, accessibility, resource protection and convenience, Reed plotted out the existing path, as well as an additional 9-mile loop that has not yet been built.
Strolling through the Redwood Preserve can be mystical. On a clear day, slanting sun beams filter through the tall trees and create pools of light that illuminate silent, fire-scarred subjects in ever-changing arrays. Often fingers of foggy mist creep in, heightening the senses instinctually, while moving along the outrageously thick tree trunks which stud the precipitously steep, vividly green fern hillsides.
Reed meticulously designed the wildland trail to focus hikers’ attention on the beauteous scenery towering all about, rather than on the ground, but you would never know that it had been so deftly engineered unless he showed you the photos of the process.
“The best trails are ones that you don’t have to think about,” Reed says. Viewing the old photos, it’s clear that what seems a simple trail took Reed and his crews massive amounts of earth moving, retainer wall building, hillside grading, and log milling to create. “We did it all with hand tools. We used native materials to bolster the trail bed, cut bridge slabs with [a small, portable] Alaskan Mill, used rocks that we unearthed to build up walls below the trail to protect against erosion. We built hoist systems with block and tackle rigging to move the big logs. Those kids learned a lot.”
On June 30, 2006, the trail was opened with restricted daily access as a part of the purchase agreement with Palo residents, who are concerned about high levels of traffic in their narrow, back country corridor, and also to preserve the precious quietude that exists in the wilderness setting. As a result, to hike the trail, you have to get a permit from MPRPD before you set out. Visit www.mprpd.org (at least 48 hours in advance to be safe), click on the permit link in the top left, complete the brief form and park staff e-mails a pass your way.
“It is your park, and we encourage its use,” Red says. “We will do everything that we can do to help you out.” This effort can also include faxing permits, and even having rangers drive out to meet a hiking party if time allows.
For MPRPD staff, giving locals a chance to commune with Palo’s peaceful redwoods is well worth it.