French Ridge – Testing Bushwhacking Skills
It seems that the more you change your plans the harder something is to plan… go figure… but in the end it always seems to work out!
This traverse had been re-planned probably three times before we finally just walked into the Ranger Station in Leavenworth and started asking about trail conditions. We saw a few loops that looked interesting, and finally settled on a loop that started with French Ridge, that allowed us multiple options for extending the loop, depending on weather and trail conditions.
A dear friend was getting married near town Saturday, and we had the opportunity to extend the weekend into an extended trip. Camping options for Saturday night were non-existent due to it being 4th of July weekend, but as luck would have it, another friend was vacationing in town in a little cabin and allowed us to car-camp in their back yard! Things do have an odd way of turning out sometimes…
We parked at the Black Pine Horse trail head, as that seemed like a safer place to leave the car overnight. The Icicle Creek trailhead was only a few hundred feet up the road, with an easy rock-hop across the creek that flowed over the road.
The two miles along Icicle Creek to the French Ridge trail was more like a lovely stroll. Horses are often on this part of the trail, so the path was well worn and wide. About a half mile before we came to our cutoff, there were some beautiful views of Icicle Creek. Here we had a quick snack and filled up our water, as we knew there would be no water sources for about 8 miles along French Ridge.
One mile into our assent up French Ridge we were well aware that the trail hadn’t been maintained much. Luckily the elevation gain was very gradual, so the crawling over downed trees and wading through shoulder-high brush wasn’t too terrible. I will, however, re-think my attire the next time I go onto a trail that hasn’t been verified as “maintained”. A hiking skirt probably wasn’t the best choice, judging by my scratched up legs by the end of the day.
I’ll admit that the bushwhacking was getting on my nerves, and I may have had a few choice words under my breath the second time I tripped and fell, but once I saw the view from that ridge, it made every scratch and scrape worth it.
The nearly 360 degree viewpoint boasted incredible views of Bulls Tooth, Chiwaukum Mountains , Sixtysix Hundred Ridge, The Cradle, and layers of the Wenatchee Mountains. It’s places like this that make everything else in the world melt away, and all that’s left is you, in awe, grinning like kid in a candy store without a care in the world.
We spent some time on the ridge relishing in the beauty, and then started towards the connector trail that would lead us back down the ridge. En route was a spot where an old fire tower used to be – this landmark was only listed on one of our maps, so if you have a new one, you wouldn’t even know the spot existed. We came to the faint trail pealing off the north side of the ridge trail, and dumped our packs to explore. We found the marker and took in the views, which weren’t quite as good as our previous viewpoint, but still amazing none the less. Weaving through wildflowers we made our way back to our packs and continued on.
Next time I’ll make sure I understand my map’s legend better… we came to a trail crossing that wasn’t listed on either of our maps. One direction had a sign that says “Trail Not Maintained”, and the other direction looked like a much more traveled trail continuing along the ridge. After exploring a few hundred feet in both directions and reviewing the map again, we realized we were at the location on the map where the trail line changed from “Hiker/Horse” to “Unofficial/Unmaintained/Position Approximate”. We later found out from some trail workers the next day that the other trail is a fisherman’s trail the goes to Turquoise Lake.
The two miles down the unmaintained trail was certainly not the highlight of the trip. I was very grateful that we were going down that mess, and not trying to hike up it. About 1.5 miles down, there was a beautiful spot next to a waterfall that I can imagine not many people had the pleasure of seeing. At this point the trail opened up a little more, as it seemed that a few brave people had come up to see the falls and called it quits there.
The French Creek trail was a sight for sore eyes, and we took a little beak here before heading on towards Klonaqua Lakes, where we planned to camp for the night. We were already 11 miles in to our trek, and only had 4 more miles to go, thought with a steep final ascent to the lake.
The two miles along French Creek trail was pretty uneventful. A nice mellow reprieve from the gnarly French Ridge trail, but no real views. Lost of blowdowns pulled off the trail, and the creek was a lot like ever other creek out there.
We passed the Snowall Cradle trail and took a look at the creek crossing. This was one of the three options we had as a return route the next day. The creek was deep and cold, and it looked like we would have had to wade through waist high water to cross it. That didn’t sound appealing.
Right before the Klonaqua Lakes trail, we came to a little creek crossing that required some rock hopping. This would be an easy crossing for most, but I still need more work on my water crossing skills, so I was a little terrified to say the least. The creek wasn’t too deep or fast, so if I fell it certainly wouldn’t be deadly, but it would still be cold and wet… With some assistance and coaching I made my way across. Sounds odd, but I was pretty proud of myself! I thought back to when I had to cross smaller creeks and the fear I had then. It’s a good feeling to feel like you are progressing in skills, and overcoming fears that you have.
The two miles up to Klonaqua Lakes was a brutal way to end a long day. It was only 1,400 feet of elevation gain, but most of that was packed into one mile. After the long and challenging traverse over French Ridge, my legs were shot. It was getting late and we didn’t even know if there would be a campsite available when we arrived.
There were two other couples with camp set up when we arrived to the lake. The wind picked up, and it felt like the temperature dropped 15 degrees. There were even a few little patches of snow near the lake. We were told there was one more campsite available, which required crossing the water outlet from the lake. I saw the rushing water over slippery logs that extended an old small dam that we had to cross, and I just needed a minute to gather myself. My legs were tired and I was shivering. The last thing I wanted to do was slip off the logs to the water below because my legs were shaking and I couldn’t feel my hands. So I quickly put on another layer, double checked with the other campers that there were no other spots, and psyched myself up to get myself across the water. Again, with some assistance I made it across with nothing more than one wet foot.
The next morning it was raining and the clouds had rolled in. I knew I should have taken a picture of the jagged mountains that encased the lake when we arrived! It was a spectacular view, but we were more concerned with setting up the tent and getting some food into us upon arrival.
We quickly packed up and headed back down the trail towards French Creek. Luckily the rain had stopped, so we were only getting wet from the brush holding on to the water. The weather still looked sketchy, and it seemed like there was a good chance of more rain. We were told by some trail workers the day before that both alternate trails we were considering were still very overgrown, and the trail was hard to follow in some places. We could either hike 16 miles via Meadow Creek, or 8 miles back via French Creek. Not typical for us, but we opted for the easier route this time, with hopes of coming back when the trails had been worked on a little more to explore Meadow Creek and Snowall Cradle trails.
French Creek back to Icicle Creek trail was mellow and we were able to keep up a fast pace. I wouldn’t call the trail spectacular, or chose to go back again, but it did have some nice views of French Creek, as well as some neat areas with old-growth forest and some beautiful terrain with rocks, moss, wildflowers, and snags.
Soon we were back at the car with a 24 mile weekend under our belts! We had reservations at the Icicle Creek RV Park to stay in one of their little cabins that night, so we headed back, showered, and spent some time tooling around in Leavenworth. A great way to end another fun traverse!