In my usual early summer effort to get my legs into hiking shape, Saturday I did a close-to-home loop hike starting in Huntington Canyon, ascending Flood Canyon and then descending Mill Canyon. I’ve had this route planned since last year when I learned about a sawmill that used to be near the mouth of Flood Canyon, but I never got around to doing the trip last season. I didn’t even decide to hike it until Friday evening. I got my gear ready and went to bed a little bit early, then woke up early on Saturday and drove into Huntington Canyon. I brought my 11-year-old Brittany Spaniel Torrey with me but left Boulder at home, since lately I’ve felt guilty about not taking the dogs hiking with me but they’ve been too much of a handful together. I left the Jeep at the Mill Canyon trailhead, then followed the Pipeline Trail that parallels Highway 31 until I reached the Flood Canyon trailhead. There’s no bridge across Huntington Creek at Flood Canyon. In fact, the Flood Canyon trail isn’t on the USGS topo map or listed among the official Forest Service trails. I searched the area and found a fallen tree across the creek that sufficed to get me across while keeping dry. Torrey struggled a bit while crossing the creek and I almost thought I’d have to go in after her, but she pulled herself out after some effort.
Near the mouth of Flood Canyon I began searching for the sawmill. First I found an old stove half-buried in the dirt. Finding nothing else right at the mouth of the canyon, I started up the trail. I encountered a dead raven directly on the trail, and a minute or two later there was a dead fawn on the trail. Things were off to a creepy start. I climbed a hill on the north side of the trail to get a better view of a clearing to the south and saw a large piece of rusty metal that looked like it could have been a steam boiler. I hiked in that direction, having to go out of my way to find a place to cross the entrenched watercourse, which had been deeply eroded by flash floods after the 2012 Seeley Fire. Then I heard something crashing in the trees to the south. After looking up into the trees for a short while I spotted a bull moose, and he was uncomfortably close to me. For a couple of minutes he just grazed and didn’t pay me much attention, but then he moved down into the same clearing I was standing in. And then he walked over and began grazing right on the trail! I didn’t really have anywhere to go because he was standing on the upper trail and there was a deep watercourse between me and the lower trail. I just stood there and watched him, while he occasionally looked up to check me out. Eventually he just stopped grazing and walked down the trail, then climbed the hill to the north and disappeared over the ridge. I breathed a sigh of relief and got back to checking out the sawmill location.
I reached the rusty metal piece and found that it was just a large pipe. Near the rusty pipe was a concrete foundation of some sort. Whatever wooden structure had been attached to it had mostly burned in the wildfire six years ago. Inscribed in the concrete was “Cox, Aug. 29, 1940.” Too bad he didn’t leave his first name. There was only a small amount of other junk lying around, mostly metal and glass. I wonder what other wood had burned during the fire. Here’s what little history I learned (through e-mail from Harvey Howard, whose grandfather was a foreman at several mills) about this sawmill and a couple of others in the area. At the beginning of World War II, more timbers were needed to expand and shore up some of the coal mines in the region in order to manufacture more steel for the war effort. Some of the coal mines had thicker coal seams than most and required taller trees, so some sawmills (including this one in Flood Canyon) were started up to produce longer timbers. The mills were built in 1939 and ran until sometime after the war ended (the 1940 inscription in the concrete may have been made after it dried). There used to be a large steam boiler at Flood Canyon, but there were also gasoline engines running some equipment at all the mills during this time.
Torrey and I continued up the trail, which was originally a logging road built to haul logs to the sawmill. Where the trail crossed a small stream coming in from a side canyon there were bear tracks in the mud, as well as a few faint tracks on the trail above there. Just as I’d seen in Mill Fork Canyon last year, there were carvings in the aspen from people riding dirt bikes up these trails in the late 80s and early 90s.
The trail crossed over to the south side of Flood Canyon and shortly thereafter departed the old logging road, becoming narrower and a little steeper. There were more wildflowers and more burned trees on this side of the canyon, which made for a pleasant contrast. Near the top of the ridge a herd of about a dozen elk crashed through the trees a few hundred yard above me. I caught only a few glimpses of them, and Torrey perked up and looked in their direction but remained by my side, with both of us just curiously observing. I got to the top of the Flood Canyon trail and tried climbing a short trail leading to point 10,205′ on Candland Mountain. After only a short distance I’d had to climb over or crawl under several fallen trees, and I reached one section of fallen timber that was just too difficult to bypass, so I gave up on hiking that peak. I’m glad I attempted to reach the peak, however, because there were some very old aspen carvings along the way. One was made by Mont Cox in 1935…perhaps the same Cox who carved his last name in the concrete at the sawmill? The square lettering sure seems to be a match!
I sat on a log at the top of the ridge dividing Flood Canyon and Mill Canyon and ate lunch. While there I heard a chainsaw down on the Mill Canyon side of the ridge, and a short while later two men on horseback came along. Their names were Ken and Dale, and they’d just cleared the deadfall from the trail along Mill Canyon and were going to work their way down Flood Canyon. We chatted for a while, and it turns out they’re members of the San Rafael Back Country Horsemen, who I follow on Facebook. That makes two consecutive weekends in the backcountry meeting people I’m familiar with online. They headed down Flood Canyon while Torrey and I enjoyed descending the freshly-cleared Mill Canyon. I’m glad I was doing the loop counter-clockwise, because Mill Canyon was steep and exposed to the sun.
Torrey is either out of shape or just showing her age, because she was having problems on this last half of the hike. She would walk ahead of me for a short while, but then she’d stop in the shade and lie down waiting for me to catch up, which is entirely uncharacteristic of her–that’s more like something Boulder would do. Once we got close to the watercourse in Mill Canyon, Torrey could sense that there was water and ran ahead. By the time I caught up to her she was lying in the water and lapping it up. She had dropped down a steep hill about 40 feet below the trail to get to the water, and I had a difficult time encouraging her to climb back up to me. About half a mile later we were at the bottom of the canyon and she took a well-deserved swim in Huntington Creek. We’d hiked about 6.5 miles with 1,900 feet elevation gain. It was a little more mellow than the previous weekend’s hike to Deseret Peak, but it seemed extremely easy compared to that one. Maybe I’m ready for some Colorado 14ers next weekend?