Moab Happenings Archive
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Mill Creek Canyon– Heading Upstream
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 perennial flow, which irrigates our fields and gardens, and recharges our aquifers. This tree-shaded lifeline of water - 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 twisted alpine passage until it abruptly takes the plunge - a crash course race through the depths of Mill Creek Canyon. After exiting the canyon, it cruises into town on a route that parallels the Mill Creek Parkway, a three-mile nonmotorized pathway through the heart of Moab. Then, on its final leg within the Matheson Preserve, it merges with the Colorado River.

On this rain-threatening day in early September, I am about to begin a riparian walk on the Steelbender Trail that drops into the canyon above the Moab Golf Course. From this vantage point, I can see across the expanse of Spanish Valley to the distinctive jagged-edged rim of Behind the Rocks on the western horizon, while the rounded sandstone sentinels of Johnson’s Up On Top shoot up directly above the golf course.

To get to this access point, drive approximately four miles south of town on Highway 191 and turn left at the Shell Station on to Spanish Trail Road. Then at the 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 that ends further up Mill Creek at Flat Pass.
The trail begins with some level but rocky terrain before making a short sweeping descent to a formerly irrigated field next to Mill Creek. Once on the valley floor, I continue to follow Steelbender’s course upstream. Before long I realize there’s no getting around it – that if I want to keep going, I have to get my feet wet; but on this overly warm day splashing through the cool waters of this mountain stream feels surprisingly good.

In this majestic canyon the massive impenetrable walls of Navajo Sandstone contrast strongly against the darkening sky warning of an approaching storm. But the clouds are keeping the heat at bay and so I choose to ignore the threat and proceed on my merry way. In the wetter areas Gambel’s oak, Russian olive, water birch, willow and cottonwood thrive. In the dryer soil I walk through perennial grasses, sagebrush, blackbrush and squawbush along with patches of prickly pear cactus sporting a full growth of their reddish fruit pods known as tunas.

Recent rains have produced a wealth of late season wildflowers – primrose, scarlet gilia, asters and broom groundsel - 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 starting to display their yellow blooms.

A little beyond the third stream crossing, the Steelbender climbs out of the canyon over some challenging rocky-ledged terrain - my signal to depart from the main track so I can further pursue my exploration along the creek. At a section of downed fence I find a very faint, unmarked path that travels through a huge abundance of Indian rice grass. Before long I find myself opening and closing a cattle allotment gate followed by a long stretch of taller-than-me sagebrush that envelopes me with its delightfully pungent smell of turpentine.

After three more crossings I finally arrive at a large log cabin that was abandoned long, long ago. Sadly the years and weather have taken their toll - walls and chimney are still upright, but the roof is completely gone – the rock walls of the food storage cellar still stand, but its roof has collapsed, too – and the only thing left of the corral are a few dilapidated wooden posts.

The gathering clouds continue to diminish the heat – a welcome respite as I savor this little patch of riparian paradise. In the background the crickets crank out their nostalgic tune – the ravens boom their calls – and the sprightly flocks of tiny gray bushtits fly from one patch of vegetation to another.

Studying the fragments of times gone by, I wonder who built their home here and when did they pull up stakes and depart? They had plenty of water and pasture, so what happened to make them leave? Was it an injury or illness that forced them to go? Perhaps they’d experienced too many harsh winters in a row? Or maybe old age was catching up to them and they had to be closer to town? I have many questions, but no answers; the past will most likely remain locked in the secrecy of this hidden location.

Pondering over what might have been I am paying scant attention to the changing weather – all day the sun has been peeking in and out of the angry puffed up clouds – and now the leaves of the cottonwoods steadily rustle an ominous warning in the strengthening breeze. My mind is moving from the past to the present as I contemplate what a great place this remote spot would be to live - a perfect escape from the complications and hassles of the modern world.

The dark mushrooming clouds and impending rain shake me out of my romantic daydreams of an off-the-beaten pathway of life. I grab my pack and hastily move along trying to stay ahead of a potential downpour. Flood warnings are up! I hurry to negotiate those six creek crossings while I still can anxious to return to a more secure place called home.

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