The gushing water of Mill Creek Falls, recharged by recent rain, announced the presence of the falls before I could see them. As the forest gave way to the streambed, I found a series of cascades tumbling through the woods along the lower Susquehanna River in York County, PA — an area known more for its quiet pastoral landscape than a tucked-away waterfall oasis.
While Mill Creek Falls is easily accessible from a nearby road, you might find it more rewarding to include the falls in a longer walk, covering a mile or two, which reveals some of the ways in which people have tapped into the power of the Susquehanna River over time. My son and I set out to explore this route on a Sunday afternoon in March, starting on the west side of the river at a well-marked parking area situated to attract history buffs in search of Lock 12.
This little slice of history was once part of the 45-mile Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal used by merchants and farmers to transport lumber, coal, grain and other supplies up and down the river during the 1840s. While several portions of the historic canal still exist, Lock 12 represents one of the most well-preserved remnants.
Lock 12 is easy to access from the parking lot — either from a dirt path or down some concrete stairs that lead to the lock and a picnic area. In addition to enjoying views of the river, we explored the inside and outside of the structure’s stone walls — held together by long, antique nails — and read interpretive signs about the heyday of Lock 12, when horses and boats set the pace of commerce. I had heard of locks, but it required witnessing one in person to understand how they were used to raise and lower water levels to accommodate boats moving through changing elevations.
After touring Lock 12, we returned to the parking lot and walked down the shoulder of River Road toward the Holtwood Dam. Along the way, we caught a glimpse of some ruins, nestled within the woods, constituting the old mill for which the Mill Creek area is named. Streams like Mill Creek were an invaluable source of power to early American settlers and generations that followed. In the 1800s, Lancaster County, across the river from Mill Creek, averaged about one dam every two miles.
Unlike the ruins, the formidable Holtwood Dam is impossible to miss.
Heeding numerous signs about trespassing, strong currents and rising waters, we found a spot along the rocky river bank from where we could watch the swollen Susquehanna send a massive flow of water over the dam. We were captivated. Observing this structure, with the endless parade of logs and other debris cresting the wall and spilling into a swiftly moving river fueled by recent rains, is a humbling testimony to the force of nature.
In addition to generating power for the region, Holtwood Dam — along with its counterparts at Safe Harbor and Conowingo — plays an important role in the river’s ecosystem. The dams once blocked the movement of American shad, eel and other species trying to move upriver to spawn and complete their life cycles. Now, all three dams provide fish lifts that assist with the passage to upstream habitat.
After witnessing the dramatic scene set by Holtwood Dam, we headed back in the direction of Lock 12 along River Road, but not before taking a detour to find those waterfalls. Located about halfway between the dam and lock, a conspicuous trailhead marked with a blue blaze leads the way to the portion of the Mason-Dixon Trail system that includes Mill Creek Falls.
From the road, the walk to the falls is not strenuous. The trail is mostly wide, flat and easy to navigate. Wildflowers peeked through damp leaves, and lush moss covered rocks and tree trunks along the gushing stream. A blue sky commanded attention through the branches of budding trees.
As we meandered along the gently sloping path that hugs the stream, we greeted many others suffering from the same spring fever that had led us here so early in the season. My son took photographs while several families walked their dogs and explored with children.
I envisioned returning once the rhododendrons begin to bloom in late spring, or during the fall when leaves begin to turn. I’d also like spend time here on a lazy summer afternoon, when the water moves at a gentler pace, to dip my legs into one of the inviting pools situated between torrents or don some water shoes to wade in and explore this small and secluded oasis from a different perspective.
In any season, this short hike reveals much more than waterfalls. I know that many people enjoy the river for recreational pursuits like fishing and kayaking. But our visit to Lock 12, the Holtwood Dam and Mill Creek Falls reminded me of the many other ways the river has served our region and continues to do so — to advance commerce, to generate power and, especially for my son and I on an early spring day, to renew the spirit. It is a powerful resource for sure.
Getting There: The Mill Creek Falls are easily accessible from a trailhead on River Road, which runs parallel to the Susquehanna River in York County, PA. From the intersection of PA Routes 74 and 372, drive 2.2 miles east on PA 372. Just before the Norman Woods Bridge, turn left onto River Road. Park at the Lock 12 parking lot on the right. Smaller parking lots are located farther down River Road.
The Mason-Dixon Trail originates near the Appalachian Trail in Cumberland County and heads east for 200 miles along the Susquehanna River and into Maryland before looping back toward Pennsylvania near the town of Chadds Ford. The section of the trail that passes by Mill Creek Falls is mostly wide with a gentle slope, steepening slightly as you approach the falls. Most people can enjoy the falls at a leisurely pace within an hour or two.
Feeling ambitious? The Mason-Dixon Trail System awards a Certificate of Completion to hikers and runners who complete the 200-mile trail all at one time or section-by-section within a calendar year. Those in search of an even bigger challenge might consider hiking or running the 428-mile Mason Dixon, Appalachian, Horse-Shoe and Brandywine Trail loop to earn the prestigious Quadruple Crown.
Save the Date: On National Trails Day, June 3, the Mason-Dixon Trail System is partnering with the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam to clean up existing trails and build new ones. For information or to sign up, visit mason-dixontrail.org.