The French Creek Bushwhack

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By Crystal Egli

Last Week Andre wrote a post about fishing along French Creek, and today I’m going to tell you about the hike out there– er, rather, the bushwhacking/stream fording/boot soaking/confusion inducing trek we embarked upon in order to find somewhere suitable to pitch our tent and fish. This hike is not for the feint of heart, but if you are a back country pro, consider this a secret spot worth the effort to get to.

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It really was this green!

French Creek is located in the beautiful Custer State Park. CLICK HERE FOR DIRECTIONS to the trailhead. We drove all the way to South Dakota from Denver in hopes of avoiding the swarms of Memorial Day campers that saturate the Colorado Rockies every spring. And avoid them we did! If nothing else, the difficulty in navigating French Creek trail prevents all the car-camping masses from penetrating too far up the trail, and you’ll have it pretty much yourself. In fact, ours was the only vehicle at the trailhead on a Saturday afternoon of a 3 day weekend, and we only saw our first person when we had almost made it back to the car the next day.
What we did see though, was tons of wildlife. We spotted a 1/2 dozen deer within the first 1/2 mile of trail, as well as fresh Bison poo, although no big guys were spotted in person. So walk softly and carry a big… camera.

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French Creek Trail is 12 miles long from the East Trailhead to the West Trailhead, and it’s not an easy 12 miles. We began at the East Trailhead, and due to bushwhacking, back tracking and stream fording, we didn’t get very far in before stopping to set up camp. At first the trail is well defined and easy to follow, but as you get further in the foliage converges overhead, then closes in around the sides, and finally causes you to lose the trail completely underfoot. There are flags hanging from branches,  but be warned that some of them don’t actually lead you on the best possible route. When unsure of the path ahead, check out the next flag you see, but don’t trust them completely and be ready to backtrack.

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So, how are you supposed to navigate this leafy green labyrinth I just described? When in doubt, follow the river. French Creek flows within a fairly narrow canyon, maybe a couple hundred yards wide. The path is easy to follow from the trailhead parking lot into the canyon, and once you’re within the confines of the canyon walls, just take any path you can that follows somewhat close to the river. You can’t possibly accidentally make it out of the canyon– the rock walls rise a hundred feet or more into the sky. If you look closely you can see cave openings and other cool niches adorable little animals undoubtedly call home.
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The first stream crossing… not too bad!

Let’s go back to the East Trailhead. When you first reach the Creek it might be bone dry. Don’t let that fool you!! For much of the year French Creek runs “dry” in this section– it’s actually just flowing underground. As the creek twists and turns its way up the canyon to the West, the water will start flowing. At first it’s easy to cross and you could do so practically in sneakers. Someone has strategically placed hopping stones across several of the first stream crossings (if you can actually find the right spots to make your way across.)

If you hike the entire 12 miles, you will cross back and forth over the creek 42 times.

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We got about 5 crossings in before the water level rose much higher and our waterproof boots proved useless. Standing before Creek Crossing #6, we stopped to discuss our options. There was nowhere to set up camp, as everything pretty much looked like this…
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Sometimes the trail is well defined. Sometimes it’s not.

…and the creek wasn’t showing us any fish yet so Andre would have packed his rod, his boots and his waders all for nothing. Wait a second… waders. Andre had waders! And thus begin our brilliant plan. I’ll let pictures and video tell the story from here.
And then this beautiful moment happened, which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of our relationship:
Yup. That’s right. Andre ended up carrying me back and forth over the stream about 5 more times until we reached this awesome sight:
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A big ole fishing hole!!! CLICK HERE to read Andre’s post about this sweet fishing spot.
A few dozen more yards up the trail we stumbled upon this campsite, which had a fire pit even though you’re *not supposed to have fires*. So don’t make a fire in it!! So… place to set up camp– check. Sweet fishing location– check. We were home for the night.
The moment we set up the tent, the rain began to fall in ernest. It didn’t stop Andre though– he went back out to catch some slabs, and catch he did! (If you’re an angler, definitely check out his post.) Meanwhile, back at camp, hungry as I always am, I slaved over boiling a cup of water to pour into my Mountain House dinner. (Have you ever tried them? They’re delicious.)
French Creek_EglisOutdoors-4378We set up a trail cam in hopes of catching Mr. or Ms. Bison, whose fresh droppings we kept spotting along the trail. It doesn’t exactly seem like great Bison-roaming habitat, but we saw the evidence! But alas, the trail cam caught exactly nothing. Why I even bothered writing this paragraph, no one will ever know.
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I just wanted an excuse to post a picture of poop.

If you’re thinking about hiking French Creek, weigh the pros and cons first.
PRO – It’s absolutely beautiful.
CON – It requires bushwhacking and an intuitive trail-finding spidy sense to navigate.
PRO – You’ll probably be the only ones out there.
CON – You’ll have to cross the creek many times. And don’t bother wearing shorts and sandals– the rest of the trail is no place for such attire. You’ll definitely need sturdy boots and long pants.
PRO – The fishing is great– the fish aren’t used to being fished.
CON – Did I mention the poison ivy yet? There’s lots of poison ivy. Wear those long pants.
PRO – Lots of wildlife! Wish we had brought our actual camera on this one. (Pics are from my phone.)

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If you’re up for an adventure in the truest sense, check out French Creek Trail. If you’d rather not have to think and make decisions while you enjoy your hike, this one probably isn’t for you. We probably won’t go back any time soon, but it made for some pretty photos and we had a good time, being the laid back and care free wanderers that we are. French Creek wasn’t for everyone, but it was for us. That one time.
– C. Egli
PS. While searching for all the “French” gifs I came across an awesome one with no place to put it. Does anyone from my high school french class remember this??
Categories: HikingTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Je ne peux pas attendre jusqu’à ce que vous marcherez le ruisseau allemand!


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