About Mill Creek Falls (“Left Hand”)
Mill Creek Falls was an unexpected natural waterfall surprise that I hadn’t planned on visiting when we made a return trip to Moab 16 years after our first visit. Waterfalls weren’t even on our minds as we had targeted the iconic natural arches and rock formations in both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park to incorporate in our itinerary. However, that all changed when we saw that snow was still very present in the neighboring La Sal Mountains, which made me realize that there had to have been waterfalls given the quantity of snowmelt that was surely draining towards the slickrock paradise of Moab. And so we made a spontaneous change of plans where I devoted some waterfalling time to look for a natural waterfall, and this was the result of that search. It was locally known as “Left Hand” probably because it was referring to the canyon carved out by the North Fork of Mill Creek, which was on the left hand side as opposed to the South Fork of Mill Creek on the right hand side. And as you can see from the photo above, it was a modestly-sized 30ft play waterfall where dozens of people were beating the heat (including a handful of people doing a cliff jump) as well as looking for petroglyphs! For years, this place had been a local secret and wilderness study area on BLM lands (Bureau of Land Management), but in recent years, word of mouth and inevitably the internet made this place a secret no more.
In order to access the falls, I started from the pretty well-established Mill Creek Trailhead, which was almost literally within the town limits of Moab (see directions below). Then, I followed a pretty obvious dirt and sand trail (it looked like it had been a road) going past a couple of structures before reaching a dam spillway barely a quarter-mile into the hike. There was a pretty tall “waterfall” at this dam, which enticed a handful of people content to just scramble to the bottom and cool off, but this wasn’t the goal of the hike. So as the trail narrowed to the right side of the dam, the trail then disappeared into Mill Creek just a short distance further upstream. For this crossing, I was able to avoid getting wet by clinging to the ledge on the right of the creek, but it could be just as easy to have water shoes and wade right through the creek and resume the trail hiking further upstream.
The dry hiking resumed as the Mill Creek Canyon remained pretty wide open while flanked by shrubbery. There was a signed fork in the trail where the left side was a brief detour following along Mill Creek in a somewhat narrow and overgrown trail before rejoining the main, sandy trail. Continuing on the main trail, the canyon walls quickly closed in and the path followed along the base of the north-facing cliffs before reaching a stream crossing at the confluence of both North Fork (“Left Hand”) and South Fork (“Right Hand”) of Mill Creek at about 0.5 miles from the dam. While it might be possible to look for a way to stay dry while doing this creek crossing, I’ve found it was easier to not fight it and just wade across. The water was about shin deep when I did it in late April 2017 so it was a good thing that I came prepared with Keens and not ruining a good pair of hiking boots.
Now the trail continued along the North Fork Canyon (“Left Hand”) and made at least three more crossings of the North Fork of Mill Creek. I recalled that one of the crossings was almost as deep as knee- to thigh-deep. Given the quantity and depth of the creek crossings as well as the narrow width of the canyon, it made me think about the possible flash flood danger should a Summer monsoon thunderstorm quickly dump rain further upstream and the creek would quickly swell in this area. There was no threat of it during my Spring Break visit, but it was definitely something to keep in mind as the thunderstorm threat would grow in the hotter months of Summer. Anyways, it was otherwise a pretty straightforward hike for the remaining 0.3 miles before arriving at the Mill Creek Falls, where the canyon boxed in and I was literally surrounded by tall cliffs in a scene that part scenic wonder and part swimming hole playground. This overall hike was about a mile in each direction (2 miles round trip) taking me roughly 30-45 minutes in each direction (roughly 90 minutes away from the car).
As an added bonus, it was possible to get up to the top of Mill Creek Falls, but that meant I needed to backtrack on the trail before taking one of several informal paths leading to a pretty steep slickrock climb. At the top of the climb, I then followed a ledge eventually leading to the top of the falls while also offering a different perspective of the waterfall and canyon themselves. It looked like it was possible to continue hiking beyond the falls and further along into the North Fork of Mill Creek Canyon, but I only went as far as the waterfall. By the way, this path was how people were able to get around the brink of the falls to do a pretty risky cliff jump to the somewhat shallow plunge pool at the base of the falls. In other words, you better know what you’re doing if you’re going to do the cliff jump. Otherwise, you’re just asking for broken bones or even paralysis.
Finally, I was made aware that there were petroglyphs in the canyon. However, I only managed to scramble up to a rock panel that had faint etchings of animals. I wasn’t sure if they were legitimate Ute petroglyphs or just modern vandalism, but from looking at the literature out there, the ones I saw were nothing like the more obvious petroglyphs that might look like the ones behind the Wolfe Ranch on the Delicate Arch Trail in Arches National Park. I was told that you need to know GPS coordinates or have someone in the know show you, but their whereabouts were intentionally not revealed to help minimize the chances of vandalism. In fact, it has been said that Mill Creek Canyon itself was being loved to death given the higher visitor numbers so it may have to become a fee area in order to fund the maintenance, personnel, and infrastructure required to support large quantities of people while maintaining the character of the canyon itself. When I visited, there was no fee collected, and in my experiences, urban blight would inevitably occur in such “free” places. Thus, I’m sure accessibility will inevitably change as there is greater awareness concerning the impacts of visitation here (something to be mindful when you make your visit).
From Main Street (US191) in downtown Moab, I turned left onto E Center St and followed this street for about 0.4 miles before turning right onto S 400 E Street. Then, I followed this street for another 0.4 miles before turning left onto Mill Creek Drive. I then continued driving on Mill Creek Drive for the next mile (keeping right at 0.5 miles to remain on the road and avoiding Sandy Flats Rd) before I then turned left to go onto Powerhouse Lane. I followed Powerhouse Lane to its end 0.6 miles later, where there was a parking area for Mill Creek. The last 0.3 miles of this drive was on well-used unpaved road.
Note that it was also possible to drive directly on Mill Creek Drive from the US191 when approaching Moab from the south. If you go this way, then Powerhouse Lane was just under a mile on your right from the US191.
For geographical context, the town of Moab was about 113 miles (under 2 hours drive) west of Grand Junction, Colorado, 54 miles (under an hour drive) north of Monticello, 234 miles (over 3.5 hours drive) southeast of Salt Lake City, 339 miles (under 5 hours drive) northeast of St George, and 725 miles (over 10 hours drive) northeast of Los Angeles.
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