Area: French Creek

Length: 3.1

Elevation: 3340 +2320 -310

Condition: inconsistently poor

Solitude: great

Appeal: high

Features: views, isolation, lakes, camp, scrambles

Difficulty: high

Administered: nominally USFS, Wenatchee River R.D.

Trailhead: Icicle Creek

Connects to:
    Icicle Creek
    French Creek Creek
    French Ridge

Guides: 100Alp, CRcc

Maps:
   Green Trails Chiwaukum Mts
   USGS Jack Ridge
   USGS Cradle


 

map

Overview

It is not often that the Romano trail guides are completely wrong, but here is one instance. Kudos for covering the "French Ridge" trail, but at the tag end of this section, he describes the Backdoor Trail as "rocky, insanely steep, badly eroded, and choked in brush." Did he actually try it, or just take somebody's word for it? Indeed, that is the myth that the Forest Service has been trying to perpetuate. Maybe others have been complicit in the deception, to keep this place very quiet and very, very private. If a cranky old marmot can reach the ridge on a day hike , despite the inconveniences, it surely can't be as bad as its reputation.

The official Backdoor Trail is only 2.1 miles. But, for lack of any better place, I cover the extensions here, because they are why you want to go, and why this trail needs to be preserved: certainly in the same class as "Enchantment Zone" areas — to which you will never be allowed to go.

 

Details

Go to the Icicle Creek trailhead. Hike the Icicle Creek trail to the French Creek trail, 1.6 miles. Pass over French Creek, continue 0.1 mile, then turn left onto the French Creek trail, 3.5 more miles to the French Creek Backdoor trail. These first five and a half miles are astonishingly fast and easy. You should find that the historical trail markers are still present at the junction.

First, let's dispel that "insanely steep" myth. Sure, 2090 feet in 2.1 miles is a vigorous climb, roughly 1000 feet per mile, but far from unprecedented in the Cascade Mountains. The grade is roughly the same as the pampered Caroline Lakes trail, but the length is much shorter. In fact, I consider that to be in the comfort zone, not the twilight zone.

As for "rocky," you can expect to find a mix of washed stones down low in the valley, but that gives way to gravelly mineral soil typical of the area higher up. In other words, there is really nothing special here.

How about eroded? If you want to see eroded, go to the Chiwawa River trail, or to any trail that allows motorcycles. Yes, there is a little washing in the lower stretches near French Creek, but this is hardly unusual in any creek valley trail. You pass all of this in the first half mile.

What about brushy? Well, that's true. And it is getting worse for lack of attention, particularly in the first 3/4 of a mile. But most of this brush is a very minor in-your-face annoyance, hardly "none shall pass!". So grow a backbone. If you can't stand a little wildness, stay out of Wilderness. The brush conditions are not good, but more stories than trees are seriously overblown here.

At 4700 feet elevation, approximately one mile, you will encounter the one and only major obstacle, a major league downed tree, approximately 3 feet in diameter. This is the end-of-the-line for stock, but it has settled over the years so that it is no longer a show-stopper for foot travelers. Just a minor exercise to lift over packs and scoot over the top.

French Ridge view

Once you get past that imposing big tree fall, the rest of the trail is in as good or better condition than other major trails in the area. (Except Enchantments, of course, which completely consume all of the maintenance resources.) So we are talking a mile and a quarter of rough trail, the part easiest to reach. Why is it that the Forest Service can't handle a little brush clearing, just once over three decades? Or don't clear it, just take out a dozen or so inconvenient downed trees from the first mile and a quarter. That's a part-day project for a crew of 2 with a good crosscut.

Once you get past that imposing big tree fall, continue on, until at 2.1 miles you reach a small meadow and the southern terminus of the French Ridge Trail.

 

On to the good stuff!

High Trail

It would make no sense to stop here, even if at one time it was a pleasant corner of high meadow. Step over the wood to the unmarked trail heading into the trees to the left.

 

The trail veers across a grassy bench that looks like it could be a pleasant place to camp... but no water. On the other side, scrambling up onto a rounded irregular rib. Now the trail becomes legitimately steep. This impression is aggravated by poor traction in the mineral soil where horse steps have broken down the switchbacks. Grit your teeth and trudge upward, being thankful you only need to overcome about 400 feet elevation here. You can handle it.

     Upper French Creek

High Trail view

 


The climb ends abruptly, and the trail swings on a level contour to the left. The views open up. The trail is much more comfortable here. And did I mention the incredible views?

At 0.7 miles from the meadow junction, reach a point of decision. There is something that looks vaguely like a trail veering up and to the right, and immediately beyond that there is something that looks like a stony horse-gully diving steeply down to the left. Now what?

High Trail view


Go left. Though rather steep, the ugly parts are passed quickly, losing the 400 feet that you hard-earned going up the rough climb. This portion of the trail is not in good shape, so observe its course closely for finding your way out later.

High Trail view


Pass to the left of a small marshy meadow. Just beyond, there are a few more downward but generally firm slopes, and the trail brings you to the bottom of the basin. Find a creek here, with fresh water year-round, and multiple spacious camps. Just in time! You earned a break. This is a great place to establish a base camp, as you spend the next day exploring nearby.

 

The mandatory side trip

Pass over the creeklet on step-stones and continue on good trail, primitive but easy to follow, dropping about 400 feet to a comfortable place for traversing around the spur ridge to the south of camp. Once around on the other side, begin to climb back up the mildly brushy crease, gaining back the 400 feet plus 200 more. In 1.0 mile, reach sparkling clear and bitterly cold Turquoise Lake. There is a small primitive camp off a short distance to the right. (Those with a death wish might pass south of the lake and seek a route to Welcome Lake, around the next spur ridge.)

Turquoise Lake

 

Optional side trip

This is a more advanced project, since there is no trail to assist you for much of the way. From the basin camp, backtrack up to the place where the Ridge Trail started the downhill plunge. Step back a short distance to find the scant side trail that slants upward and across the slopes in a northwest direction. This will take you about 0.6 miles, where it dissipates in snow-rounded boulders and low brush.

Turquoise Lake

 

When you reach this point, look for a prominent snag: an excellent landmark. Note your position with respect to the ridge top and the snag, so you can find your way out on the return trip. Then proceed to weave your way up around boulders and meadow brush to the saddle above.

Turquoise Lake

From there, you will see the obvious and easy boulder scramble down the other side. You can follow around the shallow east side of the lake to a small crude camp on the far side. This lake has some healthy rainbow trout, but they can be astoundingly difficult to snare unless you are an expert at presenting a mayfly. Then anything could happen.