French Creek, Trail of the Fur Trappers

15 Jul
The trail near French Creek in the valley bottom

Ian is a spot in the lower center of the picture, as he heads for the trail near French Creek in the valley bottom. “French Falls” cascades down Bald Mountain across the valley.

Hike with Steve and Ian on July 16

Our Trailhead: 39º25’25”N, 105º54’32”W, 10,528 feet
Real Trailhead: 39º25’20”N, 105º54’34”W, 10, 498 feet
French Pass: 39º26’21”N, 105º57’6”W, 12.020 feet

Hiking distance: 6.5 miles

According to the web site for Pike and San Isabel National Forests (www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/recreation/trails/spk_french_pass_trail.shtml), French Pass, on the Continental Divide at the head of French Creek, was used by an early trapper, “French Pete,” to travel between two of his preferred trapping areas, one in the Blue River Valley, and one in South Park. Later a wagon road was built over the pass, but was abandoned when easier passes were found.
Our hike consisted of a walk up French Creek to French Pass and back. From Jefferson, go north onto Park County Road 35. The road turns to dirt in two miles. At three miles, turn right onto PCR 54, Michigan Creek Road. At 5.7 miles, take the right fork, following the sign to Michigan Creek Campground and Georgia Pass, and continue past the campground at 6.8 miles from US285.
The trailhead is hard to find; in fact, we didn’t find it until we were almost done with the hike. At 8.9 miles, the road crossed French Creek. There was a cleared area just before the creek on the left, and two four-wheel-drive roads leaving PCR54 on the right. You should park in the cleared area on the left. As for us, we drove past the creek, and parked on the side of the road.
The map I used showed an old jeep road south of French Creek, and a trail north of the creek. We didn’t see the jeep road, and so looked for a trail, but found none. Not being averse to a little bushwhacking, we plunged into the woods. After all, the trail should just follow the creek up the valley, and we could hear the creek to our left.
We had a glorious day for a hike, with warm temperatures, a crystal blue sky and gentle breezes. In the woods, we found hints of a trail, a dim path with rocks in a row on the downhill side, but it disappeared,  appeared, and disappeared again. The undergrowth was thick, and here and there were slash piles, signs of fire mitigation. A tributary gulch and steep hill after it pushed us away from the creek. We crossed the tributary, and went down the hill through an aspen grove, and came out into a small, lush meadow near French Creek. The treeless tops of Volz and Boreas Mountains stuck out of the spruce forests into the sky across the valley, and quiet ponds lay at our feet. We didn’t need no stinking trail.
We stayed up the hillside north of the creek and out of the bushes. We angled up higher, then down lower, looking for a trail, occasionally finding animal paths that soon disappeared. The terrain varied from spruce and pine forest to open meadow, filled with green grass, wildflowers and butterflies. In these hillside meadows, paintbrush were common. Their colors ran the gamut from pale yellow-green, through shades of orange to burgundy, and almost blood-red.
The valley slowly curved from westward to northward as we walked, and the forest thinned and the trees shrunk as we approached timberline. Black Powder Pass between Boreas and Bald Mountains came into view, and soon we could see the cliffs east of the ridge on Bald Mountain.

A gnarled bristlecone pine

A gnarled bristlecone pine lives its life pushed by the wind. Black Powder Pass is in the background.

When we finally got ‘round the corner in the valley and approached timberline, the vegetation had changed dramatically. Trees were restricted to tight groups, here a tight bundle of spruce, there a bunch of bristlecone pine. The bushes in the valley bottom came up the hillside in fingers for us to wind through. French Creek itself came not from French Pass, but had its headwaters in bowls below the cliffs on Bald Mountain. Its waters cascaded down the steep mountainside, “French Falls” one might call it.
A trail finally presented itself in the last half mile or so of the valley, leading us through the bushes toward a snowbank that blocked direct access to French Pass. We had to abandon our new-found trail, and climb farther up the hill to the east. While going through the short bushes there, a bird flew up from the ground, nearly at my feet. A bird doesn’t let trouble come so close without reason.After a short search, I found her nest and three green and brown eggs, hidden low in the alpine flora.
Wildflowers in the valley come in many colors, but yellow was predominant near the top of the pass. The blossoms of the potentilla bushes in the valley were at their peak, and higher up snow buttercups were common. Higher still was a four-petalled flower I didn’t recognize, and on the pass where the snow had recently melted were multi-petalled yellow flowers that grew in bouquets.

 

A clutch of eggs hidden in the alpine bushes

When a bird waits until I’m only a few feet away before she flies, it can mean only one thing: She guarded her nest as long as she could. A quick search revealed the nest and the clutch of eggs hidden in the alpine bushes.

The Summit County side of French Pass dropped away quickly and wide, allowing a sweeping view to the north up the Blue River Valley. A corner of Keystone Ski Area was visible, as well as snowcapped peaks and distant mountain ranges beyond. Our quest for a great spot to have lunch was at hand.
At the top of French Pass there’s a rock cairn holding a post in place. A well-used path went past the post and under the snowbank on the Park County side of the path, coming out below the snow. For our return trip, we decided to follow this path. This meant first going around the snowfield, and down the steep hill to the bottom of the valley, back through the bushes and yellow wildflowers, and through bits of swampy streams fed by the melting snow.

 

Our first view of French Pass

Our first view of French Pass. We had to skirt the snowbank on the right.

At the bottom of the valley we found a good, wide, well-used trail that wound through the bushes and, lower down, the clumps of trees at timberline. In the upper valley, Black Powder Pass and Boreas Mountain were in front of us. A big snowbank on the pass still had an overhang at its top, formed by the relentless winter winds.
The trees grew larger as we descended, and slowly moved together to form small groves, and finally a forest. Near Boreas Mountain, the valley narrowed, and we found a gate. There was no fence, just two posts and a gate. Very strange. The path turned just above the gate, and led us across French Creek on a footbridge of logs, then up the ridge on the far side, and onto an old road. Ian led the way down the road, and we made good time. Suddenly he stopped, and pointed to the trail in front of him. There a baby grouse huddled, trying to blend in with the vegetation, although there wasn’t any on the trail. Realizing he’d been seen, the little guy flapped his little wings and ran into the bushes, finally disappearing. We took a few steps forward, and mother grouse, invisible to us at the edge of the path, took off after her young one.
The road continued down the valley, on the side of French Creek opposite that which we’d gone up. When we were nearly back to PCR 54, we found a sign, “French Creek Tr. 651.” From the sign, we stepped through the trees and onto the clear area off the road just before it crossed French Creek. Looking back, we found that the sign is not visible from the road.
The trail up French Creek gives easy access to the high country, timberline, alpine meadows, and spectacular views. If you go, park in the cleared area on the left just before French Creek. After a short search, you’ll find the sign for the French Creek Trail. We came down the trail to the right of the sign, but the trail to the left is the more-traveled path; the two probably connect up the valley a ways. Either way, you’re bound to find more than you even hope for.

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