Walk Your World: Assault on French Hill

By Richard Wiens, The Triplicate February 14, 2012 01:27 am

  ABOVE: The trail switchbacks its way up French Hill. The Del Norte Triplicate/Richard Wiens
ABOVE: The trail switchbacks its way up French Hill. The Del Norte Triplicate/Richard Wiens
All uphill hikes are not created equal. Most have dips and level stretches. Some are short but steep and have to be broken into arduous phases by frequent rest stops. Then there’s French Hill Trail, a 1,600-foot ascent on a gradual but strikingly steady three-mile grade.

“This is more like training than hiking,” I said to Laura halfway to the top last Saturday. And sure enough, on the way back we met a woman with walking poles and a small dog who said she was getting ready to traipse around the Pyrenees mountains. Perhaps reflecting her taste for European vacations, she said she hiked French Hill often.

Exotic travel plans aside, this would be a great place to build endurance by jogging or mountain biking if you’re both athletic and accurate enough to avoid plunging off the trail. Even walking requires care, although the sometimes precipitous path was well maintained.

This week’s winter heat wave had yet to arrive when we struck out from the trailhead across U.S. Highway 199 from the Forest Service Gasquet visitors center. It was chilly in the late morning shade. Soon enough, our internal heat generators kicked in with the climb.

We were east of Del Norte’s redwood lushness, but the lowlands were decorated with moss, ferns, streams and thimbleberries that gave way to huckleberries, making us pine for summertime. Speaking of conifers, the Smith River watershed is replete with them. While Douglas firs dominated early, we were only 12 minutes in when we encountered a pine cone the size of a rat to be reckoned with.

It had fallen from a sugar pine, and there were plenty more along the way.

Through switchbacks and rolling curves, the northerly view across to other mountainous woodlands improved and we caught occasional glimpses of the shrinking highway, the Gasquet airstrip and the Smith River. Briefly pointed east, we saw a distant snowcap of the Siskiyous.

We never stopped climbing except to catch our breath and sip water. Thoughts of the pleasant downhill return trip that awaited us grew more prevalent, but the focus needed to be on the here and now because that dropoff beside the trail threatened a much quicker descent.

There was no dramatic moment of summit achievement, just a gradual awareness that we’d finally flattened out atop a wooded plateau. The trail ended with the first dip of the day, a slight one leading to French Hill Road.

We always prefer to do the toughest part of a hike early on, but you could start the journey at the top by driving 4½ miles up French Hill Road to the trailhead. Or, you could leave one car at the bottom, drive a second to the top, and walk one-way, downhill-only.

Ahh, but the descent was sweeter for the ascent. Also more treacherous, because while we were walking faster and enjoying better views, the dropoff was no less steep.

We had taken an hour and 40 minutes going up. It was an hour and 10 minutes coming back down, and that included the chat with the lady bound for the mountains of France.

A bit more provincial, we felt sufficiently well-traveled for having conquered French Hill.

 

TRAIL NOTES


THE HIKE: Three miles up and a much quicker three miles down French Hill Trail south of Gasquet.

HIGHLIGHTS: Views down to the distant Smith River, straight across to other mountainous woods, and occasionally up to the snowy Siskiyous — but watch your step!

SWEAT LEVEL: It’s not steep, but the steady three-mile climb is plenty strenuous. Using two cars, you could also make this a one-way downhill, in which case the only stress is taking care to not plunge off the trail.

GETTING THERE: From Crescent City, a 20-mile drive first north on U.S. Highway 101, then east on U.S. Highway 199. The trailhead is across the highway from the Forest Service visitors center just east of Gasquet.