July 14, 2011General Condition:
Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)
Paul Danielson, Esperanza Hernandez and myself reprised our hike of last December, from China Camp to Los Padres Dam, to see how this trail had changed in the interim (during this time a pair of hikers became lost on this trail). We were joined by Robert Barringer and since he had not hiked the trail previously, he went in front to evaluate how the trail is handled by someone unfamiliar with it.
The trail has obviously deteriorated since December. Whereas previously we could generally follow tread except on the grassy saddles (where trail hunting was needed), this time we also lost the trail a few times in non-grassy gullies. Our worst case: we spent 6 minutes off-trail searching and ended up missing/bypassing a 300 ft section of the path (that was the only place I used my GPS, which had the trail data loaded into it, to save some time). There were 4 other places were we got off-trail "significantly", i.e. missing over 100 ft of tread before picking it up again, but those did not require as much searching as our worst case. We did find and follow the flags we had left from our previous hike, which provided good guidance on the grassy saddles and other critical spots such that we encountered no difficulty at the two major problem points of our last hike. We also added quite a few new flags. [FYI our two "major" route-finding problems on our December hike took 20 minutes and 11 minutes of searching to resolve, so having those spots flagged definitely helped on this hike.]
The deterioration was mainly due to vegetation growth, which often obscured the tread, forcing us to pause and look for tread before continuing. And we were occasionally swimming through poison oak. Although we needed less "trail-searching" time on this hike, due to the flagging, our hiking time along the Miller Canyon Trail was still longer than on our first hike (excluding "stopping" times such as lunch, sawing, explorations, etc, to make the comparison fair), a result of having to deal with the encroaching vegetation. While our first hike was rather enjoyable, this hike was more of a slog.
For the "lower" (northern) section, the tread gets progressively less distinct as one goes south from the Carmel River Trail junction, but since that section of the trail largely follows the Miller Fork it's difficult to get "lost" even if one does not see a definite trail. Route-finding problems occur primarily on the "upper" section of the trail, south of Miller Canyon Camp, where the trail leaves Miller Fork and ascends over the saddles and sidewalls of the gullies which drain into the Miller Fork, to eventually reach Jeffery Road.
Two "use trail" notes:  the usetrail through the narrow Miller-Fork-tributary canyon immediately south of Miller Canyon Camp is is currently a better choice than the wider-benched "main trail" (shorter and less overgrown, also more picturesque)  I recommend taking the switchbacked main trail which climbs above the stream between 0.6 and 1.0 miles from the northern end of the trail instead of taking the usetrail which follows the stream there (less vegetation and a better view).
At one point on the southern section, erosion (new since our first hike) has now erased about 3 feet of tread along a steep slope, at a point where one would slide a considerable ways downslope upon slipping with possible injury. That was difficult for us to traverse with daypacks and with a backpack I personally would want to avoid that point by climbing to the top of the slope there and traversing there, even though there is no trail [I've noted that point on the gpx file I provide via the on-line Ventana Trailmap: http://ventanahiking.net/ventana_trailmap.html
]. At other places the tread along the slope becomes very thin and could be tricky to traverse with a backpack.