Mill Creek off Mount Lassen


Stretch: Ponderosa Road to Highway 99
Difficulty: Class V (1 or more portages), harder at higher flows
Distance: 30 miles, 2 days
Flows: kayaks 500 - 1500 cfs, IK minimum 300
Gauge: measured downstream at Los Molinos (MLM)
Gradient: 62 fpm, miles 1-3 and 8 over 100 fpm
Put-in: Black Rock USFS campground, 2100'
Take-out: Route 99 bridge, 240'
Shuttle: 60 miles, 2 hours each way
Maps: USFS Lassen NF, AAA Northern California, Topo
Season: May to July, depending on snowpack
Agency: USFS, private
Notes: © 1997 Bill Tuthill, CreeksYahoo

We all agreed, Mill Creek was definitely the highlight of our California trip: a superb run with numerous classic class IV and V drops, most of which can be boat scouted. There are many, many gorges, some of which pinch down to less than a boat width wide in places, and this dramatically increases the thrill factor. The scenery is fantastic!! It all adds up to a classic run. Mill makes it into my top five best creeks ever, behind the Little White Salmon and Clear Fork Cowlitz.
--Jason Rackley, Oregon Kayaking webmaster

Mill Creek from Ponderosa Rd. to Highway 99 is an unusually scenic run, which should be boated more often than it is. Since its season is later than Deer Creek's, it is possible to do both runs every year.

Although the water is quite silty because of volcanic ash deposits high on Mount Lassen, the lava scenery is fantastic. In perhaps a dozen places, the creek runs thru deep gorges only a few meters wide, often with ferns growing from the overhanging cliffs. Locals claim to have jumped from one bank to another, which is certainly possible at several spots.

Class IV rapids occur consistently, until you hit the diversion dams in the Sacramento valley. There are some steep class IV+ or V- rapids near the beginning, two narrow class V gorges in the middle of the trip, plus a .3 mile portage around a class VI near the end.

Charles Martin's guidebook Sierra Whitewater disrecommends this run, saying, “we were so scared the whole time that we had little chance to enjoy the fine scenery.” Stanley's second-hand 2nd edition writeup claims that some plastic boaters did the whole run without portages. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I have no idea what quirk of hydrology made it possible for kayakers to run (not portage) Dead Man's Narrows, a log-choked class VI nightmare around mile 23. However Holbek's 3rd edition writeup gives the impression that he ran this in 1993.

We completed the trip in 1.5 days, though we brought food for 2.5 days. Four of us agreed that Mill Creek is harder than lower Deer Creek, but easier than upper and lower Deer Creek combined. There are fewer class V rapids on Mill Creek than on upper Deer Creek, but the portaging is worse, and the murky water makes submerged rocks hard to see.

Put in at on the right bank at Black Rock campground, where mosquitoes are a problem in early morning.
Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA Early morning put-in below Black Rock
The creek flows pleasantly over gravel bars and thru boulder mazes, and then the bottom drops out. The gradient is almost 90 fpm for about 6.5 miles. A hiking trail on the right bank provides an exit.
Pioneer's Portage, class V-, scout left
Halfway down is a steep falls in the center with a small log below. A less turbulent channel against the right wall is mostly blocked by a large tree (1997). The only feasible exit on the bottom right goes into a big hole.
Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA
Pioneer's Portage from scout rock above Running the big drop with safety set below
Landslide, class IV+ or V-, scout right
The left bank slid, probably in the flood of 1997, creating a long boulder slalom with an exit that is difficult to scout. Enter in the center, move right, then cut hard right to avoid a hazardous boulder mess that plugs all the lazy exit routes.
Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA
Boulder mess near bottom of Landslide Easier rapids allow boaters to enjoy scenery
Afterwards, mostly boat-scoutable class III-IV rapids for over a mile.
Ramirez' Rescue, class IV+, scout right
A wide open boulder garden with a tricky center route (1997) that fully rewards your scouting efforts. Named for an incident during the first kayak descent.
Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA
Scouting Ramirez' Rescue from the right Yellow yak below crux of Ramirez' Rescue
Long Point visible on right, large creek comes in on left.
Some class IV ledge drops occur, runnable in today's plastic boats.
Avery Creek (perhaps dry) comes in on right. Nice side hike.
Another creek comes in on right, and gradient tapers off. Distinctive Table Mountain soon comes into view.
Table Mountain Gorge, class IV-V. Boat Gunwale creek on the left announces the start of this section. Charles Martin doesn't even mention this gorge, but here it is. The cliffs rise on both sides of the river, and huge boulders often choke your way. One line and one portage might be necessary because of downed trees (1997). After about a mile, the canyon opens up.
Deep Gorge, class V. Charles Martin doesn't mention this gorge either, which contains the toughest runnable rapids on Mill Creek. Class IV-V rapids continue unabated for what seems like 2 miles. The first one is a long steep chute, runnable but easily portaged on the left. All the rapids are runnable (1997), although some only marginally so, and all can be portaged with moderate effort near river level, although one required passing boats from a small eddy at the brink of a falls up a cliff, a team effort.
Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA
This one turned out to have a logjam One of the many narrow canyon passages
Little Mill Creek comes in on the left.
From here, Mill Creek alternates between relatively open sections and ultra-narrow class IV gorges in the soft lava bedrock. If a tree blocked any of these passages, it could spell disaster.
Small creek comes in on the left. Just past the next rapid, across from a cliff, there is an excellent bench camp on the left bank, with a sandy beach below. Good camps are hard to find on Mill Creek.
Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA
Calm pool from the beach below camp Early morning finds everyone still in boat
The creek continues alternating between relatively open sections and ultra-narrow class IV gorges in the soft lava bedrock. The tension mounts in anticipation of...
Portage! Dead Man's Narrows, class VI
Recognition: the canyon opens up into grazing land, and the smell of cows assaults you for the first time. There is a ramshackle barbed-wire fence high on the left bank, perhaps not easily visible. Beach on the left with willows and sandy slope above. A ranch shed, not visible from river level, is high on the right.
The rapid: an inviting class III leads into a canyon with vertical 40' walls about 50' apart, and a deadly boulder jumble filled with logs. You can climb the right bank to scout if you want. At lower flows it is possible to run the lead-in and portage over large boulders, but this involves boating past an undercut down below. It is safer to portage .3 mile over a scenic, and relatively level, oak-shaded cow pasture on the left.
Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA
Innocent class II lead-in to the class VI Climbing down to river level after portage
Several more class IV drops, including an overhang decorated with maidenhair ferns, and then the creek flattens out.
Surprise class IV ledge.
Diversion dam #1, lineable on left.
Diversion dam #2, washed out in the flood of 1997, runnable on right.
Mill Creek near Los Molinos CA We couldn't believe it was washed out!
Diversion dam #3, lineable on right. On our trip, it was sad to watch Coho Salmon unable to swim up past this dam, which has a poorly designed fish ladder.
Class II rapids amid willow and cottonwood scenery, much nicer than Deer Creek after it emerges into the Sacramento valley.
Highway 99, take out on right bank. There are access points upstream, but they are of questionable legal status.

For a trip description and more pictures of Mill Creek, see the Oregon Kayaking website.

Shuttle Directions

The usual shuttle is from the north past Paynes Creek then on Ponderosa Road to Black Rock. Pondersa road is even worse to the south of Black Rock than it is to the north. Steve McCabe lives near take-out in Los Molinos and offers shuttle service, cellphone 530-519-1040. Steve is willing to run shuttles on Deer Creek also.


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