Joaquin Miller was ahead of his time in changing his name, moving out west and inventing a personality that was designed to attract attention. An international celebrity during his lifetime, the former Cincinnatus Hiner Miller is probably more famous now for the park, road and school named after him than for his writing.
Two trails start at The Abbey, a white Victorian cottage that was the Poet of the Sierras’ home from 1886 to 1913. The paved fire road that starts immediately above the cottage offers a chance to see some of the monuments Miller left on his 70-acre homestead, which forms the core of the city park. An interpretive marker says the loop is a 50-minute walk, but traveling very briskly, I finished it in just under 40 minutes.
The first landmark is a rather rough-hewn sculpture of Miller on horseback by Kisa Beeck, commissioned by Miller’s daughter Juanita to mark the spot where her mother’s cabin once stood. Miller has the stiff dignity of a medieval grave sculpture, but the horse looks more like a child’s plaything.
Miller planted his land with pines and Monterey cypress; the hill you climb is serpentine, and rocky outcroppings can be seen as you continue your steep ascent. Near the top, a circular stone bench and lookout point encourage you to rest a moment. Like Mountain View Cemetery, this walk offers many spectacular views, so remember to turn around and look downhill often.
Updated: Just around the bend from the lookout point, the road splits around a knoll. If you turn around and and look back to the left downhill, you will see the short path to Miller’s “funeral pyre,” which he built himself in hopes of being cremated on his property. (The city dashed those hopes, but a friend is believed to have scattered his ashes nearby.) Traces of paint on the rough-hewn stones explain why the city doesn’t make the monuments easier to find than they are.
Keep to the left around the knoll, and after a short, steep section, you will see a picnic area immediately beneath Miller’s Pyramid to Moses. If you want to turn this walk into an outing, bring a meal to this site, which offers panoramic views of the city, bay and San Francisco hills. If you keep walking, you will see the roof of the Native Plant Nursery well below you. That is your cue to start looking up, left and behind you for a glimpse of Miller’s monument to the poet Robert Browning, which looks like a castle turret. (Updated Jan. 13, 2013)
Eventually, you will come to a yellow gate, and should turn sharply right and head downhill past the Woodminster Amphitheatre parking lots and the off-leash dog parks.
Where the road dead-ends in Parking Lot 1, you see the last of Miller’s monuments, a stone window that supposedly marks the place where John C. Fremont saw and named the Golden Gate. Sadly, trees now obscure that view. But if you keep bearing right through the parking lot, you will encounter a small trail beneath the Woodminster Amphitheater itself that leads to the Cascade.
In winter, this series of waterfalls and pools is silent, but in summer, the water runs freely and the fountain shoots dozens of feet into the air. Conceived by Juanita Miller and finished by the Works Progress Administration and William Penn Mott, the Cascade is a monument to writers everywhere. Bearing right at its lowest pool will bring you back to the Abbey road, near the statue of Miller.
Getting there: The Abbey is on Joaquin Miller Road, less than a half-mile east of Mountain Boulevard.
Cool stuff nearby: Woodminster stages musicals during the summer that draw heavily on the amateur acting community. Many people take a picnic supper to the park before the performance. A small but heavily used playground is between the bottom of the Cascade and the Abbey.