Miller Canyon Trail

Bill Moffitt

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by Bill Moffitt »

Date Hiked: April 28, 2022
General Condition: Impassable (completely overgrown or tread obliterated)

[Ed-jg: Bill has done hikers a service by providing background for the poor decisions he cites as made during the hike - but should also note poor decisions/planning prior to the hike, given the existing trail reports here. In the wilderness, a line on a map is just a line on a map. And not all GPS or map lines follow the actual tread.]

First, the TL;DR: this is a dangerous trail which, in my opinion, should not be listed or used. I spent three days wandering around trying to find my way out and was eventually rescued by the Monterey County Sheriff's department search and rescue team. I am old (62) and not in great shape, but I am quite experienced, wandering the mountains of Nevada and California my whole life, and was well-prepared. Not a "bought a bunch of new equipment at REI last week and decided to try backpacking" story - I was packing, hiking, hunting, and fishing the back country before you were born, probably... ;-) Also, physical condition and age did not have any bearing on what happened - I contend it's all attributable to a poor decision early on, a bad mistake made due to fatigue and the repercussions of that decision and mistake.

I arrived and parked at China Camp at the top of Jeffery Road (the trailhead for the Miller Canyon Trail) a bit past noon on Thursday, April 28. I ate my lunch, paid my parking fee, packed up and weighed my bag (24.7 lbs.), and headed out before 1 with the hope of reaching Miller Creek Camp that evening - 6 hours for a little over 7 miles seemed reasonable, and my (very limited) previous experience in the area and study of the map indicated there would be water and reasonable rough camping available along the way, at least in the spring.

So Koda, my chocolate Lab buddy, and I set out for an anticipated 3-day adventure, down Jeffery Road. Trail conditions: it's a dirt road with tire tracks, indicating you should be mindful of vehicles, although we didn't see any.

What the maps do not show is that there are numerous roads/trails that branch off Jeffery Rd. Some of them obviously lead up to the several cabins at the bottom, while some of them just seem to lead off. Some, but not all, are marked with yellow metal or wooden signs pointing to the trail. At some point we apparently missed one of those signs (although I saw all the rest) and got off on a spur that was heading up the hill. After 10 minutes or so, I felt I was going too high and too northward, pulled out my phone (I use Backcountry Navigator on my Galaxy S10) and verified I was, according to the topo map, in the middle of untracked ground (although I was standing on a dirt road). Backtracking, I formed the impression that this country is probably crossed with trails and roads that do not appear on maps.

I found where we seemed to go wrong - an unmarked spot where I should have gone left and downhill rather than right and uphill - and soon found a marker indicating the direction of the trail. And we pressed on.

I then found the beginning of the trail, although it's not well-marked, and there are a few tracks that lead off into the brush but go nowhere. Fortunately, I finally spotted some orange tape - I followed it to another relatively indistinct track, spotted another blaze of orange tape, and was successfully on my way.

Side note: to whomever placed the orange and orange/silver tape on to mark the trail and whoever did the trail maintenance on the early parts of the trail - you are wonderful, and I want to honor you!

However, after a little while of walking on trail that varied from vague to very well-established (apologies for vague distances and locations - I carefully marked them on my phone, which is dead...), we arrived on a very large oak that had fallen across the trail. The way around was steep and filled with poison oak, which I wanted to avoid, but we went up the slope and worked my way around the roots of the tree, making a note to wash off with Zanfel as soon as possible. It was pretty arduous and took some time (for me), but we got around it and pressed on.

In retrospect, that was my first opportunity to think, "y'know, this looks hard and there could be more like this, so maybe this is not a good trail for me to follow," then turn around and do something else (maybe a nice hike on the Pine Ridge trail). I didn't.

By the time we approached the area called "Nason Cabin" (I did not see a cabin and assume it is a traditional place name) I could not find the track and was relying on the phone to keep me close to where the track should have been. I did still see occasional orange tape in the brush, but they were, by there, sometimes far enough apart that I could not always see the next one and had to "fly blind" at times using the phone as a GPS - I came to term this "GPS bushwhacking."

Not long after that, we approached a loose slide area stretching a few hundred feet. while it did not challenge the 4-footed one significantly, it gave way immediately when I stepped into it. Using my trekking poles, I steadied myself on the severe sidehill and started working my way across. It was torturing my feet, because it was so steep and so soft, so my feet and ankles twisted several directions. Then, in the middle, my footing completely gave way and I tumbled downslope, bending one pole and ending up in a heap about 20 feet downslope. It took a while to right myself and get back on my feet, but, of course, I did and finished the traverse.

In retrospect, sitting there on a soft slope, having just fallen, tied up in my pack and my trekking poles would have been a VERY GOOD time to think, "y'know, this is not worth it; just go back, camp out, and maybe do a different hike for a couple days." I again did not. THIS WAS, in my opinion, A VERY BAD DECISION.

After traversing that slide, I was very sure I did not want to go back over it, and I had considered a couple of alternative exit routes. So we pressed on.

The track was very faint to non-existent, and the orange and orange/silver trail tape was inconsistent. I found several pieces on the ground and re-affixed them, and kept more or less on track using "GPS bushwhacking."

We crossed a tiny trickle, Koda had a good drink, and I went off and washed the poison oak off my hands. We still had plenty of water in the bottles and, according to the map, several seasonal streams to cross, so I didn't fill the bottles.

If that made you say, "oops," you're very perceptive.

The next stream crossing had no water, and the same for the next. It was starting to get late by the next stream crossing, and I was getting nervous, because our water was precariously low. There was no visible water, and the crossing was completely covered with berry brambles. I went ahead to trample a path through the brambles, and, when I got to the middle, I heard a faint trickle. I dug down through the brambles and found a slight but usable flow of water. Trampling back out, I got out my pot/cup and my dirty water bag and waded back in. It took some time, but I collected a bag full of water from the trickle and filtered over 2 liters for us.

However, it was, by then, getting dark - too dark to consider pressing onward, and the terrain was steep. I was able to find a bivouac spot with a ledge big enough for Koda to sleep on (not very comfortably, alas). I spread out a "SOL" space blanket to protect us from the damp, cold soil and got a few hours of sleep, essentially standing on a bush, fully dressed, leaning into the slope with my sleeping bag over me.

Dawn came; we ate our breakfasts and pressed on.

The trail tread was faint to non-existent, and I don't remember if there was any more orange and orange/silver trail tape. That bramble patch had clearly not been crossed for a while. However, with the continued aid of GPS, we kept going, passing over another dry creek bed and over the top of a hill. While we climbed over this hill, I knew we were well above the trail, which skirted the hill below. However, looking down the very steep slopes, I liked the terrain we were on better and felt confident we were OK - this is the hill just before the trail takes a right up a canyon for a little ways, crosses a creek, and proceeds down the other side of the canyon to Miller Canyon Camp. We side-sloped down toward the trail until we met an enormous thicket of brush and poison oak that we could not see a reasonable way through. Upslope, downslope, on the (non-existent) trail – no sign of an opening.

I was tired, with only a couple of hours of sleep, and I heard water down below. We went (walked and slid) down the hill to find the creek full and inviting, with a small, flat, grassy area just above us on the other side. I decided I had arrived close enough to Miller Canyon Camp… we crossed the creek, set up camp, and decided to just rest there. I went to the creek to fill the water bottle, came back up the hill, filtered water into the bottles, and went to look at the map to chart a course out.

On the phone’s map, there was a trail shown leading up, out of that canyon, and up to a jeep trail that led to Tassajara road at Chew’s Ridge. That would entail almost 3000 feet of climb in about 5 miles; that provided strong incentive to get some rest before taking it on. And, since the trail did not exist on either of the other 2 maps I consulted, there’s be a good chance I’d have to “GPS bushwhack” it. But I had good confidence we could do that – it had worked well – and we’d be out, tired and sweaty, but heading home. So I reached in my pocket for my phone to verify the plan for the next day.

And it wasn’t there.

Looking quickly around our campsite, I didn’t see it, so I went down to the creek. It was there, under about 2” of water, still on. I pulled it out, turned it off, shook it out, and set it in the sunshine to dry out.

THIS was the BAD MISTAKE due to fatigue. I normally keep the phone firmly clipped into a nice mount on my pack’s shoulder strap. When I arrived at camp, I pulled it out of the clip and put it in the pocket of my pants, and it fell out when I crouched to get the water. Dumb. And, as it turned out, nearly fatal.

I left it out in the sun as long as I could. I then tried to turn it back on, and… it turned on! But, instead of the nearly 60% battery power it had previously, it showed 10%. This was a big problem, because that would not allow me to “GPS bushwhack” a non-existent trail – either the one I wanted, or even backtrack the Miller Canyon trail. I turned it back off, we had dinner, and we had a much fuller, more comfortable second night’s sleep in this lovely place.

Of course, the next morning I had to face my problem. After breakfast, we hiked upslope and found a faint trace of the trail, which led us to the creek crossing, which led to where my desired trail should take off up the hill. I could find no trace of that trail, and the area where I expected it to be was extremely steep, loose, and dangerous. I might not have been able to even “GPS bushwhack” the trail even with a a good GPS, but, without one, there was no hope.

So my only hope was to backtrack the Miller Canyon trail, which I already knew was hazardous, and I knew I probably could not do without GPS. An early glimmer of hope came when the trail continued from where I was and – unbelievable! - there was an orange and an orange/silver trail ribbon attached to some brush ahead of me! There was no clear track, but it gave me the belief that I could hack through the brush and poison oak, and I did… only to find exactly what I had found on the other side the previous day – nothing. I could not see any sign of the trail, and I could not find our track coming in. The ground was steep but extremely loose, and our tracks were immediately obliterated. There appeared to be a track leading down the canyon (which I now believe to be a deer trail), so we followed that for a bit. It eventually came to the point where this creek empties into Miller Creek (or Miller branch of Carmel River), which I could see was well below the trail. We tried climbing up the slope to find the trail, and almost tumbled down again. Koda actually slipped and rolled, then slipped down 10 feet or more before he could stop. I realized this was simply too dangerous with too low a chance of a good outcome – I already knew, even if we found the trail, we’d lose it again.

So we found ourselves at a life-or-death decision. We could try to backtrack the Miller Canyon trail without the use of GPS. I had turned on the GPS to see if we could find the other trail, so it now had 5% battery, which meant we’d get a few short GPS position “shots” but only a few minutes of continuous tracking. As I saw it, there were three likely outcomes: we’d miss the trail and go wandering off in the wrong direction until we parched, starved, or were eaten by bears/cougars/whatever, we’d wander off (or even on) the trail and end up on one of the many steep slides we had seen and encountered, fall, and break multiple bones, or we’d miraculously luck out and find our way out. I’m reluctant to bank on miracles.

The other consideration was hellishly hard work, but not miraculous: work up the bottom of the canyon until we arrive at the cabins at the bottom of Jeffery Road, and walk out. That is the path I chose for us.

After laboriously working our way up Miller Creek (down in the bottom of the canyon) for two and a half days, we accepted rescue from the Monterey County Sheriff's Search and Rescue unit and I was lifted out via CHP helicopter while Koda walked out with the SAR team. We were still mobile and still had food and water, but I was weak and injured - I lost both my big toenails and cracked a rib on the journey up-river. Still, we were able to drive home to a very relieved family at the end of the fifth day of our three-day trip. And I, recuperating quickly, am able to relate this to you: please do not use the Miller trail from China Camp. It is beautiful, but it is NOT worth the trip.
Michael H

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by Michael H »

Date Hiked: March 25, 2022
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

I hiked from the Carmel river trail up Miller Canyon trail to Miller Canyon camp. I was surprised on how easy most of the hike was with the 'red' rating of the trail. I did some trimming along the way and put flagging at most of the creek crossings. I should have brought more flagging though. After another trip I bet the trail could be upgraded to 'orange'. There are two rough spots and the trail is very faint most of the time. But even with the faintness of the tread the hiking is generally in easy grassy oak river bottom. There is one spot where the tread is completely covered in bushes for 100 yards. Also where the trail branches between a use trail and the actual trail I tried to hike the original track both out and back but couldn't follow it, on the way back through that little section I walked in the creek and found where the use trail crosses the creek to the north side complete with some flagging someone else put up. Also there are a few overgrown meadow crossings. Between clover basin camp and miller canyon camp there is a cow trail that veers up the hill to the west and has way better tread than the actual trail even though it goes in the wrong direction, don't be fooled like I was.

[Ed advisory: the Miller Canyon Trail south of Miller Canyon Camp does not follow the river, so is easy for hikers to wander off on deer trails, giving it a bad reputation in Search & Rescue which has had to be called. Currently flagging does exist from 1/2 mile north of Nason Cabin to the southern trailhead - but north of that is uncertain. Also, unlike the northern half, the southern half requires walking along sideslopes with little/no tread.]
annevoi
Posts: 4
Joined: Sun Aug 19, 2012 12:13 am

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by annevoi »

Date Hiked: February 2, 2022
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

Two Ventana Wilderness Rangers spent the day flagging the trail, to just over 2 miles in from the Jeffery Rd. trailhead (the Nason cabin site). We intended to scout a bypass around a treacherous, steep section of the trail .5 mile past the cabin site, but ended up just tending to the 2-mile stretch due to lack of time, and plenty to do.

The trail is passable-to-difficult to that point.
pantilat
Posts: 116
Joined: Tue Jan 07, 2014 1:16 pm

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by pantilat »

Date Hiked: November 28, 2021
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

From the end of Jeffrey Road for 0.5 mile the trail is easy to follow with logs relatively recently cut out. Thereafter the trail becomes more of a route with flagging to guide the way. This is passable for another mile or so, but the tread in the middle section eventually becomes so faint to non-existent to the point deer paths are often more defined. The trail also traverses moderately steep slopes into and out of small drainages with debris concealing the tread and some of the flagging has been taken out by recent blowdowns. Suffice to say, accurate GPX is very highly recommended if not nearly essential to stay on the route. Plentiful, unavoidable poison oak. That being said, Miller Canyon has a gorgeous forest including Santa Lucia Fir, Coulter Pine, Valley Oak and Live Oak.
Maret

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by Maret »

Date Hiked: October 1, 2021
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

We parked on Tassajara Road outside of China Camp. We then biked down Jeffery Road to reach the Miller Canyon trailhead. We left our bikes at the trailhead (36.309748, -121.593480). We hiked along the trail for an hour and a half, until we split off towards the Miller Fork of the Carmel River. We ended our hike along the river (36.313795, -121.604141). The hike back to our bikes was easy, however the bike up Jeffery Road was very steep.

The trail can be hard to follow but if you keep an eye out for orange tagging you can stay going in the right general direction. There are some fallen trees, overgrown bushes, and poison oak on the trail.

PASSABLE but difficult!
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VWA_Ranger
Posts: 86
Joined: Thu Oct 29, 2020 4:41 pm

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by VWA_Ranger »

Date Hiked: January 14, 2021
General Condition: Difficult (brushy and/or many deadfalls, faint tread)

*** VWA/USFS Volunteer Ranger/Trail Crew Report ***

Forest/Trail Status: CLOSED, Los Padres Monterey Ranger District is closed per Forest Order 05-07-51-20-22
Current Fire Restrictions: No Campfires, Stoves with valid Campfire/Stove Permit.

Description:

With the Monterey Ranger District Forest still closed, VWA/USFS Volunteer Rangers continue to prepare for its reopening. Today volunteer Rangers patrolled and flagged the first three miles of the Miller Canyon Trail.

Trail conditions are as follows:


Trail is passable, with a few difficult spots due to fallen trees or post-fire vegetation, and occasionally confusing due to offshoots and animal trails. Some tread is in mediocre shape.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
DISCLAIMER: This report is for informational purposes only. Trail conditions may change at any time. The Ventana Wilderness Alliance assumes no liability for the use of this information.
The Los Padres National Forest Website can be found here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/lpnf/
To learn more about the Volunteer VWA/USFS Ranger and Trail Crew Programs visit https://www.ventanawild.org/stewardship.
Attachments
Flagging along the trail.
Flagging along the trail.
A dry Miller Canyon Trail
A dry Miller Canyon Trail
User avatar
VWA_Ranger
Posts: 86
Joined: Thu Oct 29, 2020 4:41 pm

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by VWA_Ranger »

Date Hiked: December 12, 2020
General Condition: Passable (some brush and/or deadfalls, tread evident)

*** VWA/USFS Volunteer Ranger/Trail Crew Report ***

Forest/Trail Status: CLOSED, Los Padres Monterey Ranger District is closed per Forest Order 05-07-51-20-22
Current Fire Restrictions: No Campfires, No Stoves in backcountry. Cold Camping Only.

Description:

With the Monterey Ranger District Forest still closed, VWA/USFS Volunteer Rangers continue to prepare for its reopening. Today volunteer Rangers patrolled and flagged the first two miles of the Miller Canyon Trail.

Trail conditions are as follows:


Trail is passable, with a few difficult spots due to fallen trees or post-fire vegetation, and occasionally confusing due to offshoots and animal trails. Some tread is in mediocre shape. The endpoint of their patrol was approximately N36°19.010 W121°36.293.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
DISCLAIMER: This report is for informational purposes only. Trail conditions may change at any time. The Ventana Wilderness Alliance assumes no liability for the use of this information.
The Los Padres National Forest Website can be found here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/lpnf/
To learn more about the Volunteer VWA/USFS Ranger and Trail Crew Programs visit https://www.ventanawild.org/stewardship.
seagoat1724
Posts: 28
Joined: Sun May 26, 2019 3:39 pm

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by seagoat1724 »

Date Hiked: October 23, 2018
General Condition: Clear (no obstacles and tread well defined)

Between Clover Basin Camp and Miller Canyon Camp
Trail is good, but the trail maintenance crew is a cattle herd. Trail is soft and dusty but easy to follow trampled brush, which is not so good looking. Seems like the cows went up stream past Miller Canyon Camp. Also, many trails lead up the right canyon wall (looking upstream) most seem to go to Clover Basin but maybe there is a way out from up there. No clear evidence of them continuing on trail past Miller Canyon Camp, which is just past the camp and climbs away from the creek to the left looking upstream.
seagoat1724
Posts: 28
Joined: Sun May 26, 2019 3:39 pm

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by seagoat1724 »

Date Hiked: October 22, 2018
General Condition: Passable (some brush and/or deadfalls, tread evident)

Between Carmel River Trail Junction and Clover Basin
Trail is passable. Some sections good but most of the tread is overgrown or falling down slopes. Frequent stream crossings make staying on trail more challenging and multiple false trails are present. Cowpies present 1/2 mile before Clover Basin camp.
Clover Basin camp has evident cow activity and is rutted up and covered in cowpies making ground lumpy, pocked, and dusty.
taylor
Posts: 4
Joined: Wed May 08, 2019 7:50 pm

Re: Miller Canyon Trail

Post by taylor »

Date Hiked: May 7, 2019
General Condition: Impassable (completely overgrown or tread obliterated)

The Forest Service has posted a sign at China Camp indicating the Miller Canyon Trail is lost or impassable.
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