Trail building work is underway on the Mill Creek reroute, a singletrack alternative to the once-popular Mill Creek Road on Vail Mountain.
Mill Creek Road used to be open to anyone who wanted to take a four-wheel drive vehicle through the area east of Vail Mountain known as Mushroom Bowl. But the road was closed to the general public for motorized use as part of the White River National Forest’s 2011-2015 Travel Management Implementation Action Plan.
Following the restriction of motorized use, hikers and mountain bikers could still use the road to access the Benchmark area east of Highline Express, adjacent to Vail Mountain at 11,800 feet. Popular with long-distance runners, the Vail Recreation District’s half-marathon race frequently received praise for using Mill Creek Road for a large part of the course.
The Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance immediately began imagining what a singletrack alternative to Mill Creek Road might look like.
“We’ve been advocating for continued access since the Golden Peak expansion was approved,” Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance Executive Director Ernest Saeger told the Vail Daily in January. “And if we’re going to continue to have access in there, then it should be on a sustainable singletrack trail which has been moved away from Mill Creek, to further mitigate impacts to the riparian habitat in Mill Creek.”
In July, the alliance’s Trail Conservation Crew, along with McGill Trails, got to work on that singletrack alternative. The project was approved by the U.S. Forest Service in April.
Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis, in her decision memo, said after decommissioning Mill Creek Road, the remaining trail in the old roadbed does not meet sustainable trail standards and should be removed, but there’s also a need to maintain recreational access in the area.
“The purpose of this project for a Mill Creek Trail reroute is to remove the trail from the existing old roadbed in order to create a sustainable trail outside of the roadbed, which will further minimize impacts to Mill Creek beyond the Golden Peak (record of decision) requirements,” Veldhuis said. “The need for this project is to maintain existing recreational access by replacing the decommissioned trail route as a sustainable, managed non-motorized trail.”
The new trail will be approximately 1.5 to 3 feet wide and 7 miles long, running from the lower reaches of the Mill Creek Valley to the top of Benchmark Peak.
Veldhuis said the Mill Creek trail rerouting will meet resource protection goals by reducing the disturbance area associated with the existing trail from 17 acres to less than 3 acres in the new location.
“There will be a net reduction in sediment available for transport into the waterways as a result of this project,” Veldhuis said. “Also, by moving the trail corridor further from Mill Creek, the vegetative buffer between the trail and stream will be enlarged, reducing the potential for mobilized sediment from the trail reaching Mill Creek.”
The new trail will also provide “enhanced recreational opportunities for the public by providing a modern and sustainable trail design that maintains access in the Mill Creek area,” Veldhuis added.
The trail will travel past old-growth pines and East Vail cliff faces before reaching Benchmark Peak where a 360-degree view is available.
The alliance is assisting along with the National Forest Foundation and the Great American Outdoors Act in seeing the project through. A detailed Mill Creek reroute page on the alliance’s website clarifies that while the alliance did not initiate the project, it members are “super excited” about the “seemingly endless singletrack trail connections to Two Elk, Grand Traverse, Cougar Ridge and beyond” that the trail will provide.
The Mill Creek trail will have a seasonal closure of May 6 through June 30 annually in order to prevent resource damage in the upper elevations of the trail that historically hold snow late into June, as well as to be consistent with the annual closure of Vail’s Back Bowls during that same time period. The annual closure of the Back Bowls was established by the U.S. Forest Service for the protection of elk during calving season.