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Mill Creek Canyon - Let Your Feet Get Wet
by Marcy Hafner

In a dry thirsty land a year round stream is a precious resource – a constant heartbeat of water that should never be taken for granted. We are blessed, even in the drought years, to be supplied by Mill Creek’s endless flow of water, which irrigates our fields and gardens, and recharges our aquifers. We depend on its cool waters to refill Ken’s Lake – a popular recreational area that provides swimming, fishing and non-motorized boating, as well as irrigation for upper Spanish Valley. The tree-shaded lifeline of water in Mill Creek – an important refuge for wildlife and birds - also provides a delightful escape from the baking summer heat.

From its birthplace at Burro Pass high in the La Sal Mountains above Warner Lake, the headwaters of the right fork of Mill Creek tumble down a twisting alpine passage, until those rushing waters abruptly take the plunge - a crash course race through the depths of Mill Creek Canyon. Then after exiting the canyon, it cruises into town on a route that parallels the Mill Creek Parkway, a three mile non-motorized pathway through the heart of Moab, before proceeding along on its final leg within the Matheson Preserve, where it merges with the Colorado River.

On this very warm day in early September, I am about to begin a riparian walk down to the cool refreshing waters of Mill Creek at an entrance that is directly above the Moab Golf Course. From this vantage point, I can look across the expanse of Spanish Valley to the distinctive jagged-edged rim of Behind the Rocks on the western horizon. To the southeast Johnson’s Up On Top towers above, and directly below I am peering down on some golfers, who are pursuing their game over a lush carpet of green.

To get to this access point, drive approximately six miles south of town on Highway 191 and turn left at the Shell Station on to the 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 overlooking the golf course. To get to the trailhead, walk a short distance up the paved road to the gate and turn right on to the beginning of the Steelbender, a well-known, very rough 10.5 mile jeep trail, which ends further up Mill Creek at Flat Pass.

I’m barely into my walk through the pinyons, junipers, scrub oak, yucca and blackbrush when I spy something I seldom see around here - a black-tailed jackrabbit, who is intent on making a fast get away. In an instant this hare is racing away with the potential of reaching a speed of 35 mph.

Descending to the valley floor, I leave the Steelbender at the hairpin at the bottom of the hill to walk past a signed entrance through private property - open to pedestrians and leashed dogs on a marked route skirting around a big formerly irrigated field. Eventually - there’s no getting around it – I have to get my feet wet, and when I leave the field to splash through the gentle water flowing over a spillway I find on this overly warm day that the chilly water feels surprisingly good.

After that crossing I follow the left fork to a dirt path leading through a fence to public land, rather than going straight to pursue the road to Spring Canyon. A sign now proclaims “Hitch Them Here – Leave horses at hitching rail while viewing rock art”. My curiosity is stirred, and the short sandy detour delivers the petroglyphs - a panel of bighorn sheep and some bizarrely shaped human figures.

After that investigation I’m back on the main track, which weaves up and down as well as back and forth between the massive impenetrable walls of Navajo Sandstone, a towering band of reddish brown that contrasts strongly against the darkening sky of an approaching storm. In the wetter areas Gambel oak, Russian olive, water birch, willows and cottonwoods thrive, and sometimes the trail gets a little sketchy, but well placed rock cairns guide the way. In the dryer soil I walk through perennial grasses, sagebrush, blackbrush - and find some prickly pear cactus sporting a full growth of their reddish fruit pods called tunas.

Recent rains have produced a wealth of late season wildflowers – primrose, scarlet gilia, asters and goldenrod - which are so poignant and special; soon they will be gone as the frosty fall chill isn’t that far away. Already the rabbitbrush and snakeweed are displaying their yellow blooms.

It takes awhile to get to the next stream crossing, which is at a trail that leads to Navajo Ridge. By then I can’t resist taking a break on the banks of the creek, where a pool has collected behind a beaver dam. Stretching out I listen to the orchestration of the wind-rustled leaves and the bubbling rhythm of water. The squawbush is heavy with dark reddish berries, and perhaps the blue grosbeak I am watching will enjoy some of the harvest. The gathering clouds have diminished the heat – a welcome respite as I savor my little patch of riparian paradise.

Not long after my break, I turn right towards the creek on a well-used trail, as left would take me out of the canyon on to Highland Drive. Then at a cairn, I forge left - the last cairn I’ll see – from now on the path, which continues to have many more stream crossings, isn’t always obvious, and I am on my own! But the route finding challenge isn’t difficult, especially knowing that as long as I follow the water I can’t possibly get lost.

As I travel along I treasure those special moments - the refreshment of the cliff-shaded side of the creek - the discovery of some small fry fish and tubby tadpoles swimming in a pool - a fascinating natural waterslide with water jetting through slots that have been eroded in the sandstone.

At the lower end I avoid large patches of poison ivy as I continue on this trail, known as “The Right Hand” fork of Mill Creek. Eventually it merges with “ The Left Hand” – the other major fork of Mill Creek - and shortly after that confluence I am on a well-beaten path that leads me around a dam with dubious footing to the parking area at Powerhouse Lane, and there my riparian walk ends.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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