In the La Sal Mountains, just below 11,000 feet, an alpine stream is born - the headwaters of the south fork of Mill Creek. Squirting out just below Burro Pass it starts a tumbling, twisting route that closely follows the Whole Enchilada trail. Whizzing by Warner Lake it continues its rough-necked descent until this cascade of water dramatically takes the plunge - a crash course race through the depths of Mill Creek Canyon. After that wild escapade, it takes a deep breath and slows down. As it cruises through town, it parallels the Mill Creek Parkway - a three-mile, non-motorized pathway within the heart of Moab. Then traveling through the Matheson Preserve its journey ends at its confluence with the Colorado River.
In a dry, thirsty land we are blessed with Mill Creek’s faithful flow - a precious year-round heartbeat of water that should never be taken for granted. Even in the drought years it recharges our aquifers and refills Ken’s Lake. This popular recreation area offers swimming, fishing, hiking and a BLM (Bureau Of Land Management) campground, as well as providing irrigation for upper Spanish Valley. This tree-shaded lifeline of water also provides an important year round riparian refuge for wildlife and birds. In late spring, early summer when there’s still too much snow in the high country for hiking, the refreshing coolness of Mill Creek is an excellent alternative.
An easy access point directly above the Moab Golf Course comes with the added attraction of an expansive vantage point of Spanish Valley and the distinctive jagged-edged rim of Behind the Rocks on the western horizon. To get there drive approximately five miles south of town on Highway 191 and turn left at the Shell Station on to Spanish Trail Road. Then at the traffic circle (the only one in our area) continue east on Westwater Drive another mile to the graveled parking area.
On this morning in early May I shoulder my pack for a 3.6-mile round trip hike and start walking a short distance up the paved road to the gate. Then I turn right at the beginning of the Steelbender, a well-known, very rough 10.5-mile jeep trail. Originally a wagon route this trail ends farther up Mill Creek at Flat Pass.
Soon I see a reminder of long ago - an old corral with a loading dock and watering trough. After that, the road makes a sweeping descent to a formerly irrigated field next to Mill Creek. Almost to the valley floor, I leave the Steelbender at the hairpin turn at the bottom of the hill. Now taking a different dirt road I walk through a signed entrance in to private property. This route is open to pedestrians and leashed dogs on an old dirt road that skirts around the fallow field.
In this majestic canyon the massive impenetrable walls of Navajo Sandstone contrast strongly against a brilliant indigo sky. In the wet areas Gambel’s oak, Russian olive, water birch, willow and cottonwood thrive. In the dryer soil I walk through perennial grasses, sagebrush, blackbrush, Mormon tea, junipers, prickly pear and squawbush.
I welcome an embracing breeze as I celebrate this joyfulness-of-spring walk with its glorious rush of wildflowers: pearly-white primroses, pepperplant, yellow beeplant, the orangey splash of globemallow, the pale yellow stalks of Prince’s plume, and the eye-catching red of the trumpet-shaped pentstemon. I am also savoring the oh-so-sweet fragrance of the creamy-white cliffrose.
At the end of the field I spy a solitary turkey, who slinks away in to the thick brush. Then I make a mad dash across the flat cement spillway. Fortunately the creek is low and my gore tex (water resistant) boots keep my feet dry. Once on the other side, I pause to soak in the coolness of this lush green paradise as that caressing breeze stirs the cottonwood leaves.
At this time of year birds are frantic to find a mate and establish their nesting territory. Consequently they can’t resist the urge to advertise in song. The airwaves hum with the whimsical tune of the Say’s phoebe – the three note twilling invitation by the spotted towhee to “drink your tea” – the distinctive jumbled song of the ruby-crowned kinglet – the buzzy “zeedle, zeedle, zeedle, zeet-che” of the black-throated gray warbler – and the soft murmurings of the blue-gray gnatcatcher.
The road heads away from the creek. Before long I’m taking a detour through a gate to check out a panel of petroglyphs. Now a sign proclaims “Hitch Them Here – Leave horses at hitching rail while viewing rock art.” After a short, sandy walk, there they are- a panel of bighorn sheep and some bizarrely shaped human figures. Unfortunately some of them have been vandalized.
Retracing my steps I turn left at the sign for Spring Canyon as a cottontail scampers off to a safer place. A little farther two peregrine falcons burst on the scene. With cutting-edge speed they whiz by and in an instant are long gone. What a privilege to capture a rare glimpse of these symbolic birds, which have made a dramatic recovery.
The unused irrigation pond is a must-stop for me. A beaver built his lodge here and his accompanying dam creates a perfect haven for marsh-loving birds. Finding a concealed location I plop down to watch and tune in to an entertaining show. The feisty red-winged blackbirds “to-ka-ree” their song as turf is claimed and fought over. Two hidden mallards stay out of the brawl, while a great blue heron with a loud squawk takes wing and is out of here. I’m also hearing the “KaBrik” voice of the ash-throated flycatcher and discover him in plain sight on the branch of a dead tree.
Eventually I decide it is time to move on. Before long I discover the road ends above a deep gully. A trail, which I can see on the other side, goes on from here, but it’s not obvious as to where it starts. I am curious about the box canyon that lies ahead, but on this extra warm day I am running out of energy and water. Even still, I would consider pressing on anyway. Ominous dark clouds, however, are gathering at an alarming rate. This convinces me that it would be prudent to head back knowing a downpour could make for a tricky crossing over the spillway. I, however, can easily come back for a longer walk, so I’ll save that exploration for another day.