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One problem with being a waterfall lover in the Harrisburg region is that there aren’t many waterfalls close to the area. Sure, I can get to a lot of great Pennsylvania waterfalls in a few hours, but if I want to stay closer to home, there really aren’t any options outside of Letort Falls or Acriggs Falls.
So, when I discovered that there was a great waterfall in southern York County, I knew I had to check it out. (Check out another set of waterfalls I found in York County at the nearby Duncan Run.)
Mill Creek Falls is located in a very rural section of York County, PA, just off Route 372 near Holtwood Dam.
Coming from downtown York, I turned off of the main road onto River Road immediately before crossing the Norman Wood Bridge over the Susquehanna River to Lancaster County, where there are also great hikes such as Tucquan Glen and Shenks Ferry. (If coming from Lancaster County, take the first right immediately after crossing the bridge.)
About a mile down the road, just after the first bridge, is an unmarked, but quite obvious trailhead that heads off to left at approximately these coordinates: 39.819163, -76.336048.
This is the Mason-Dixon Trail, a nearly 200-mile trail that is popular with day hikers. However, very little hiking is required to reach Mill Creek Falls. In fact, the whole trip to the top of the falls takes less than five minutes from the trailhead.
The Mason-Dixon Trail follows along the hillside a good distance above the creek below. After a very short distance, you’ll see Mill Creek Falls and have a wonderful look at it from above.
Roughly 20 feet from top to bottom, this waterfall makes two turns in 3 different drops that are separated by a few feet.
The trail offers nice views of the falls, but it’s also possible to head down to creek level to see it more closely. From my experience, the best spot to descend is in a rocky area near the crest of the falls. However, if you opt to do this yourself, be very careful as it was quite difficult.
From the bottom of Mill Creek Falls, the angle and slope of the falls look quite different than it does from the top.
In fact, because of the twists in the falls, it is actually a bit harder to see the entire falls from the bottom than it is from the top. However, being so close to the beauty of the falls is certainly worth the trip to the bottom in my opinion.
Back on the trail, I definitely recommend continuing on the trail upstream for another 5 minutes of relatively easy walking. Along the stream, there were several sections of small cascades, that make the creek quite beautiful and add the wonderful sound of falling water to the soundtrack of the forest.
Eventually, you’ll reach a fork in the creek. At this point, the trail turns to the right and starts uphill. However, before heading uphill, take a moment to look to your left. Here, on the stream that flows into Mill Creek, you’ll see a small second waterfall.
Unfortunately, getting to this waterfall not only requires some tricky wading and rock balancing but also requires navigating a small logjam in the creek. However, while it’s only about 6-8 feet tall, this upper waterfall is worth seeing if you can do so safely.
While you could turn around after seeing this second waterfall, I definitely recommend continuing along the Mason-Dixon Trail.
Where the stream splits, the trail breaks with Mill Creek and heads sharply uphill. There are a series of steep, but not overly difficult switchbacks that take you to the crest of the ridgeline.
Once at the top of the ridge, continue walking along it for about 5 minutes. Eventually, you’ll come to a small rock outcropping that has nice views of Holtwood Dam when there are no leaves on the trees.
This is a great spot to rest for a bit, and, in season, catch some nice views of the Susquehanna River.
From here, you could continue to follow the Mason-Dixon Trail, which will eventually meet back up with the road near the dam, or you can return the way you came.
While I’ve continued on in the past and there’s nice scenery, it requires a long road walk to get back to your vehicle, so I’d recommend simply returning the way you came so you can check out the waterfalls a second time.
Overall, Mill Creek Falls and this section of the Mason-Dixon Trail are surprisingly unknown given how impressive they are and how beautiful this area is. However, just because you’ve enjoyed the beauty of the area, there’s still more to see at nearby Lock 12.
At this point of the Susquehanna River, the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal once ran alongside the river. Going the 45 miles from Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, to Havre De Grace, Maryland, the canal was open from 1840-1895 and carried lumber, coal, grain, and other supplies along the river.
While several areas of the canal can still be seen today, the best preserved is Lock 12, which is along the same road as Mill Creek Falls (look for signs for the lock when driving back to the main road).
The walls of the lock are quite well preserved and still show signs of where the old doors would have been. View of the lock can be had from the top or from inside the lock, giving you a unique vantage point.
In the vicinity are several signs that explain the history of the canal and how it worked. You’ll also likely notice the ruins of several buildings that would have been in use during the mid-1800s.
From the Lock 12 area, it’s also worthwhile to follow some of the trails behind the lock down towards the Susquehanna River just a few minutes walk away. Being below Holtwood Dam, the river here is very shallow with many small pools full of minnows and crayfish. This scenic area is definitely worth checking out for its semi-natural beauty.
I would definitely recommend a visit to Mill Creek Falls and the Lock 12 Area. This quiet corner of York County provides a great mix of beautiful natural scenery and interesting history sure to give you a few hours of fun.
How to Get to Mill Creek Falls and Lock 12
Both Mill Creek Falls and Lock 12 are located off of River Road on the York County side of the Susquehanna River near Holtwood Dam.
To see Mill Creek Falls, drive about a quarter-mile down River Road from Holtwood Road. Park in the second lot that you pass on the right.
From here, continue walking further up the road until you reach the bridge over Mill Creek. The waterfall is located about 100 yards up the trail that starts just after the bridge on your left.
The trailhead can be found at the following coordinates: 39.819141, -76.336116.
To see Lock 12, park in the first parking lot that’s located directly adjacent to Holtwood Road and take the short trail to the lock.
Looking for more great things to do in the area? Check out the White Cliffs of Conoy, Chickies Rock, The Pinnacle, and the Indian Steps Museum.
[Click here for information on how to use the coordinates in this article to find your destination.]
Jim Cheney is the creator of UncoveringPA.com. Based in Carlisle near Harrisburg, Jim frequently travels around Pennsylvania and has visited, written about, and photographed all 67 counties in the state. He has also traveled to more than 30 different countries around the world.