Hiking | French Creek Natural Area

So I thought and thought and thought about how exactly I should open this article. In my feature writing class in college, I was taught about how you’re supposed to whet the audience’s appetite with a catchy line that gets them hooked so they don’t stop reading. But I couldn’t come up with just one. This actually became a topic of brainstorming on the hike, and we came up with many. In case you’re curious, coming up with many ways to start an article about something as simple as a hike is not a good sign. I thought about an opening something like: “So you think you want to hike the French Creek Natural Area? Yeah, we thought so, too.” Or maybe: “You will get wet. No, seriously: You will get wet.” Or even something like: “Thirty-nine creek crossings? That’s cute.” As we hiked, we were brainstorming how exactly this article would go and every little while, a new, darkly-humorous, potential opening line would come to mind and we’d bat it around for awhile while we waded through knee-high water at mile 10 of the hike. I also thought about opening with a short anecdote, about how I crawled into bed and lay there drifting off and waking up with a jolt as I dreamed I’d fallen off rocks into the creek or over a cliff or something….over and over.

Now, to be fair to Custer State Park, they do give fair, clear warning at either end of the trail:IMG_20180922_100937786_HDRThe signs are put up where they absolutely cannot be missed, and have brand new meaning now that I’ve been from one end to the other. Sometimes what I read while researching a hike strikes me as a caution given for the sake of tourists who might be looking for a hike but they live at sea level, yada, yada, yada. Yeah, not this one. They’re serious. But what I was wondering is how many people who have written articles on the casually-stated “moderate 12 mile hike” through the French Creek Natural Area have ever actually hiked it end to end in one day themselves, or hiked any of it, ever, at all.Briefly, the trail stats for the French Creek Natural Area, since any hiking article has to cover those, at a minimum: The trail is roughly 12 miles long end-to-end, largely unmarked, though about the first 8 miles from the western trailhead is very navigable and about a mile or mile and a half from the eastern trailhead is also easily navigable. We’ll talk about the middle later. There are 39 (or so) creek crossings. The two points of entry are either from the west at French Creek Horse Camp, or from the east along the Wildlife Loop Road at the French Creek Trail Head. One or two other trail intersect this, including one at Fisherman’s Flats, so there are option for doing a through hike but cutting it shorter than the 12 miles. We hiked west to east, parking one vehicle at the eastern terminus, driving to the western trailhead, and hiking from there. It was a great choice for this hike, since it meant we were overall losing elevation, though the hike was still a very good workout. The 12 mile end-to-end version is not what I’d call a kid-friendly hike. I also don’t recommend doing it if you have a serious poison ivy sensitivity!

We got a little bit of a late start on this glorious first day of fall, since I’d kind of forgotten how long it took to get all the way around the Wildlife Loop. We met up at about 9:30, parked my truck, drove Axel’s car to French Creek Horsecamp, which is the western trailhead for the French Creek Natural Area. We started onto the trail at 10:15. The first creek crossing wasn’t more than a half mile in, and the realization hit us fast that “creek crossings” really meant “creek crossings.” Like, with lots of water. And no good way across. We managed to scramble over without getting wet. Barely. IMG_20180922_102925940_HDRThe second creek crossing was wetter, the next was wetter, and we quickly gave up all pretense of keeping dry. I hiked for several miles in sandals, which worked okay for the crossings, but wasn’t great on the feet overall. I began to realize that “You will get wet” was not, as I had thought, an exaggeration or referring to getting a splash here and there. They meant it. You WILL get wet.IMG_20180922_120113116_HDRThe views along this trail were absolutely pristine. French Creek Natural Area is kept in such a way as to minimize human impact on it, so other than the trail itself and occasionally a blaze on a tree marking intersections with other trails, and evidence of human fire suppression efforts from the Legion Lake Fire, the area was wonderfully untouched. Open forest opened up to wide open meadows. Looming canyon walls, enormous boulders, and of course the creek, were stunning under a blue sky. These pictures don’t do the landscape justice, of course, particularly since the only camera I took was on my phone. IMG_20180922_130200341_HDR IMG_20180922_120241502_HDRIMG_20180922_143141911_HDRIMG_20180922_133408450_HDRAt Mile 6, the halfway point, we took our lunch break. We’d been hiking only about 2 or 2 1/2 hours and had made great time overall. Lunch was refreshing – dried fruit, dried chickpeas, beef jerky, turkey sticks, and hardboiled eggs are great hiking food – and we continued on our merry way, feeling great about life and optimistic about the remaining 6 miles of the trail. We started to keep an eye out for “the Narrows,” the pinnacle of the hike, but it never came, and never came. We started to wonder if in recent years the trail had managed to bypass this ominous spot.

Then we reached this sign:
IMG_20180922_152334804_HDRIMG_20180922_152001146_HDRFisherman’s Flat. The trail we were on continued on up that hill and veered to the right. We followed it a little, but it became clear that wasn’t our trail. The hillside was steep and covered with black-charred standing dead, eerie yet peaceful, with yellow wildflowers brightening the rugged slope. It always amazes me what fire does to a landscape, and not the destruction either, but the renewal. Really amazing. Anyway, we worked out way back down to the creek, since we figured that was where we needed to go. We were now in the bushwhacking, boulder hopping, cliff climbing phase of the hike. But we didn’t know that yet. We left the comforting trail behind us and entering some sort of no-man’s land. There wasn’t a trace of trail from this point on for a long time, except a faint scratch here and there of what might have been trail, maybe, if you squinted and tilted your head just so. I changed back into hiking boots, and by the next crossing my feet were soaked.

No, seriously. You will get wet.
IMG_20180922_155407937_HDRThe canyon started to draw together, and the comfortable thought that we had bypassed the Narrows grew fainter, and a little uncomfortable thought that we hadn’t bypassed the Narrows grew more persistent. Let me explain the Narrows. At this point, the canyon becomes narrower (see, it’s an aptly named spot), French Creek becomes all the more powerful, the boulders in the creek get bigger, the canyon walls get steeper, the brush along the creek gets thicker, etc. And the trail is gone. And I mean gone. Some things we read seemed to suggest that it was possible to follow other hikers’ trails along the creek, but I don’t know what other hikers they were talking about. All the other hikers seemed to have stopped somewhere around Fisherman’s Flat. There was absolutely no trail. It was guesswork. So we guessed our way down the creek and across the creek and then unmistakably came to the Narrows. We’d wondered once or twice a ways back, but this was unmistakable. The going stopped altogether. And again, the picture doesn’t do this spot justice.
IMG_20180922_155659254_HDRSeemingly sheer cliffs on either side, and the creek suddenly became so deep it was almost like glass on top, funneling through a narrow channel. Hiking guides I had read suggested it was possible to swim the length of the Narrows, “about 100 feet,” but that sure wasn’t on our agenda. Maybe if it had been 100 degrees out, but it wasn’t. The water was freezing, deep, and scummy on top. No, thanks. So we turned around and veered up the side of the canyon. Scrambled, hands-and-feet fashion, to the top, emerged on top streaming sweat and heaving for air, and then practically slid down the other side. Then crossed the creek very wetly, had a surprise encounter with an irritated rattlesnake, scrambled up another cliff, and slid down the other side. Great fun. Makes your knees feel 80 years old.

Now, what was nowhere in anything I read about this area is that after the Narrows it never really opens back up. From then and for the next couple of miles, there is no trail and it is some pretty hefty bushwhacking and creek stomping. Wet creek stomping. But this middle part might just have been the prettiest part of the whole hike. The creek was wonderfully wild, and we spotted little gems along the way, such as this waterfall.
IMG_20180922_170416968_HDRBack to the creek crossings. I’ve got butterfingers and never tried to take a picture in the middle of the creek, but here are a few that Axel got of French Creek. Axel kept pretty careful count of the crossings from the beginning, but stopped counting at 29, since that’s when the actual “crossings” ceased, and we started wading for long stretches at a time, right around the Narrows. How do you count those? So we really don’t know how many creek crossings there were, but we do know that for almost 13 miles, we zig-zagged back and forth across the creek and then finally in the creek itself, when the brush on the shore was too thick to navigate. We estimate that we were in the creek for a mile, all told. So much for keeping dry. But I found, to my pleasant surprise, that the water actually felt great and was a cushion against any kind of friction. Because, as we had been told, you will get wet on this hike. Wet. Usually we could wade in nothing more than knee-deep or just below the knee, but occasionally we stumbled into deeper spots that went halfway up the thigh.
IMG_20180922_182728203_HDRWe’d been watching the time tick by and began to feel that we were racing the clock to be to the end of the trail before dark. We had lights with us, but were not at all anxious to be bushwhacking in the dark. I fully understand why people backpack this area instead of trying to do the full 13 miles in one day, although we did it and others supposedly have, so it is doable. It just depends on what kind of hiking experience you’re looking for. We’d occasionally see little tracks of pressed down grasses that looked like the shreds of a trail, but as quickly as we found them, we’d lose them again. And again. But finally, in the last mile and a half or two miles of the hike, we started to see signs of human disturbance. A footprint here, an improved bank, even a little spillway near a creek water-level meter. Finally, the trail was unmistakable and I knew I wouldn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of missing church the next day, particularly since I was scheduled to do music.
IMG_20180922_183145424_HDRThe sun was gone and the canyon was starting to feel a little dusky. I have to admit, I was pretty thrilled to finally find the trail again. Our official mileage for the hike was 12.8 miles, definitely a good day’s work.

A couple things I will say to close out this article, to kind of set the internet records straight, since I don’t feel that anything I read fully did justice to what this area is like. Now maybe you’ll hike it and get finished and think, “Good grief, she way overblew this! This was an easy hike!” But I doubt it. There’s a reason you can hardly find a review on this particular hike. To quote a line from this hike, “I’m afraid we might have been lied to.”

1) Do NOT try to hike this one alone. I know it is hiking wisdom never to hike alone anyway, but this is one hike to absolutely not hike alone. If you happened to slip and get injured in a creek crossing (likely), fall off a cliff (definitely possible), get hypothermia (likely), sprain something (highly likely), you wouldn’t be found for a long time. Seriously. So don’t hike this one alone.

2) Tell people where you’re going, even if you’re hiking with someone. Self explanatory.

3) Take a walking stick or a pair of trekking poles. I would recommend trekking poles, if they’re sturdy enough for rough usage. The first couple of creek crossings were dicey without sticks, and I can safely say we would have gotten a lot wetter or worse if we hadn’t picked up sturdy sticks along the way. Amazing the difference an extra balancing point makes when crossing or wading in the creek on slippery rocks, especially as your legs grow fatigued and your feet start to hurt! We avoided a number of deeper spots in the creek by probing with the staffs, and were able to avoid twisting our ankles in the tangle along the shore. By the time we finished, we felt deep fondness for our walking sticks and kept them. Trekking poles would have been even better, but I was being frugal. By about mile 11, I couldn’t have cared less about frugality.

4) Don’t even try to keep your feet dry. It is impossible, so just embrace it from the beginning and you’ll save yourself some time and effort. This is not a creek where you can bushwhack a little up or downstream and find a crossing. We tried to keep our feet dry for, oh, I don’t know, the first four crossings. We gave up quickly, and our time greatly improved, and it was much less effort.

5) Watch your step. The whole way. If it isn’t slippery rocks at the creek crossings, it’s stump holes from Legion Lake Fire, ankle-deep mud, or poison ivy, or poison oak, or rattlesnakes. Watch your step.

6) Poison ivy…yes. I’ve never seen as much in my life. So if you’re sensitive to it, you WILL get it. I just don’t see any way around that. Just be aware.

7) Do NOT cut yourself short on time. And don’t wait until the trail gets hard to decide to turn back. The trail is great for about 7 or 8 miles. Those last four-ish miles take longer than the first eight-ish and are much more tiring, so keep that in mind.

8) Hike with a GPS or map. This is a must for this hike, or you’ll go crazy. You can’t get lost (that’s the one true thing I read on the online information I read on this hike) since you just follow the creek, follow the creek, follow the creek. Stay with the creek and you won’t get lost. But you might go crazy wondering where you are and how much more of this nonsense you can put up with. Unless you just really love hikes where you’re getting tangled in trees and vines and wading in thigh-high water and staggering out to try to follow what looked like a faint trail only to lose even that again.

9) Lastly, this is a burn area from the Legion Lake Fire in December 2017. Hiking in burn areas does pose inherent risks, so do be mindful of that, particularly if it is a windy day. Look up, look down, look around.
IMG_20180922_185613401_HDRNow the clincher to this whole wonderful day was actually after we had reached the trail terminus, got one last picture or two by the trail sign, and were walking to my truck. I had a sudden, uncomfortably vivid mental image of my truck keys sitting on the front seat of Axel’s car, 12 miles away. The problem is, it wasn’t just a mental image. I actually had left my keys on his front seat, 12 miles away. Go ahead, laugh. We had a bunch of ideas on how we could resolve this pickle, including calling in “two suspicious persons along the Wildlife Loop Road,” and then just waiting for law enforcement to show up. We didn’t do that. But an hour later, my dear sister and her friend, Luke, came and rescued us. Sweet people. But I won’t hear the end of this for a long time, I know.IMG_20180922_190721775_HDRIf you decide to attempt this hike, good for you. It is totally worth it. Just be prepared. We were prepared, but we didn’t expect what we found, if that makes sense. It was an absolutely fantastic (miserable) blast, and I fully intend to do it again. There something very exhilarating about abject misery when it resolves in the splendor of a full moon in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention the glorious exhilaration of hard work, sweat, and seeing God’s beautiful Creation from a new perspective, in the untouched places of this region.IMG_20180922_194519132_HDRBut you will get wet. No, seriously: you WILL get wet.


Hiking | Iron Mountain Loop Trail

Ever since I saw this trail listed in my Falcon Guide hiking book, I’ve wanted to do it, and we finally made it out Sunday after church. The Iron Mountain Loop explores the eastern corner of the Black Elk Wilderness. Other sources list it as a 5.1 mile loop, but we came out at exactly 6 miles. It is a pretty gentle trail overall, but it is long enough and has enough up and down to make it a solid hike that I do think most would enjoy, whether experienced or novice.
IMG_2934eBasic directions for this hike: Start at the Iron Mountain Picnic Area, where the trailhead is clearly marked as Centennial Trail 89B. About a quarter mile down the trail, the trail splits. We hiked clockwise around the loop, so we took the left hand trail, which is the Iron Mountain Trail #16. Eventually the trail intersects with FS 345. Take a right and follow this road for about a mile or mile and a half, with multiple bridges crossing creeks at various points. The Grizzly Bear Creek Trailhead will be on the right hand side of the road. Follow Grizzly Bear Creek Trail for a little less than a mile, taking a right onto the Centennial Trail. After a little more than a half mile, take the Centennial Bypass, clearly marked towards the Iron Mountain Picnic Area, to complete the loop.
IMG_3030eIMG_3008eThis time of year is one of the prettiest in the Hills, when all the aspens and other hardwoods start to turn and brighten up the dark ponderosa and spruce forests. Wildflowers are still abundant, but are quickly being overshadowed by the brilliance of the autumn foliage. Deer, squirrels, snakes, and a few sleepy bumblebees were pretty much the extent of the wildlife we saw. Maybe we hike too loud. After all, a group hike is a social event!IMG_3003eIMG_2981eIMG_2994eThe landscape was stunning, of course, particularly with the autumn sneaking up on us. One website mentioned a “waterfall feature,” which really was just a pile of rocks down which the water fell a few feet, but it was beautiful nonetheless. I would love to see this trail in the springtime or early summer, since I’m sure the wildflowers would be more than abundant in this area! IMG_3044eTo top off the day, we got dinner at the Himalayan restaurant in Keystone, which I now can highly recommend. Definitely a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon! God’s creation and Christian fellowship. A lovely afternoon.


The kittens were very intrigued, particularly the most timid of the three, Boomerang, when Katie and I began setting the hammocks up Sunday night. I mean, we were in their trees. It was clear that was going through their little fuzzy heads. HammockingThis was my first venture into hammock camping (yes, in my front yard). Once I finally got up at 6am and went to the bathroom, got a snack, and an extra blanket, I slept wonderfully for the next two hours! Somehow I didn’t really realize I was cold all night, but the extra blanket to go under the sleeping bag and actually climbing into the sleeping bag rather than using it simply to line the hammock really made the difference. I slept great.

It was so cozy sleeping (or trying to sleep) under the stars, even though without my contacts in they look like little faint fuzzy blobs. Kittens periodically came and checked us out. We heard the cows occasionally. The coyotes sang a little at first. There wasn’t a single bug. Once we woke up, we brought out tea and coffee, huddled in our blankets, laughed at the kittens and their shenanigans, chatted, and watched the morning roll in. It was delightful.

Meet Cinders

Okay, there’s another cat in the family…Actually, there are three, since Kashka had another litter of kittens back in April and somehow we ended up keeping all three. I have to say, it has been a delight. And Anna further delighted me by gifting me one of that litter. Ember was the first, a year and a half ago, and then this little adorable devil kitten was gifted to me just a few weeks ago or so. I almost refused her, but she snagged my affections pretty hard.
IMG_2903eOf all the cats we have had, this one thrives on physical affection the most. We’ve never had a cat that would cuddle (and I mean cuddle) and submit to being held for a half hour or more at a time. I love it. She is terribly affectionate, purrs like a motorboat when I so much as look at her, attacks me while I sleep (one of her not so nice characteristics), and literally has climbed our walls. She’s hilarious.

I’m not generally an advocate for cat collars, unless, of course, they’re town cats and tend to be “about town” cats. However, we now have three black cats (Kashka isn’t very creative with the colors of kittens she has), and two of them are virtually identical, except one is a boy and Cinders is a girl. It is a little awkward to have to “check” each time I want to identify one from the other. Thence, the collar. Makes it a lot easier.

As a teenager, I would occasionally joke about one day being the crazy cat lady (I’ve always loved cats), always attaching it to a hypothetical future day when I was “old and single”, old at that time being 30. I never really thought it would happen since I was allergic to cats at that time, and I really didn’t think I’d still be single that far in the future. It was just something funny I’d say to get a reaction or something, when I was 16 or so and 30 seemed a loooong ways away. Well, I’m no longer allergic (to our cats, at any rate), and I’m “pushing 30”, as a dear relative reminded me more than a year ago. So I think I can say I’ve reached the status of crazy cat lady, especially when I wake up in the morning with two cats in my twin sized bed with me. It makes me smile.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: God was so good to bless us with animals. So much was wrecked after Adam and Eve and their sin destroyed the purity and perfection of Creation. But God in His goodness has left so much beauty and joy and delight to cause us to wonder and marvel and praise Him. Little tastes of Eden.


Hiking | Iron Creek Trail #15

It has been awhile since I hiked any of this trail, and I had forgotten how beautiful it is, or never made it to the beautiful parts! Iron Creek Trail trailhead is just off Iron Mountain Road across from Lakota Lake. Definitely not a heavily trafficked trail, partly, I’m sure, due to the fact that it isn’t a destination hike – there isn’t something spectacular at the end. It isn’t challenging and there is very little elevation gain. The most difficult parts are the creek crossings, since the bridges are very simple foot bridges, and one bridge is a single rather bouncy plank. Given that most of the hiking we do includes a lot of uphill and some more challenging terrain, I enjoyed the change of pace, and got a kick out of the review on All Trails that said “seasoned hikers” may not enjoy this trail because it is too easy. I must not be a seasoned hiker.
IMG_2487eWhile I thoroughly enjoy a challenging hike, or a hike with a view at the end, I get so much joy and satisfaction out of a simple walk along a beautiful path, with wildflowers to gaze at and friends to talk to. Sometimes all that is needed is to get away, not necessarily to go somewhere and see something in particular. IMG_2505eThe fall colors are sure showing their stuff right about now, and will only intensify over the next few weeks. On the one hand, it makes me a little sad. The days have already gotten so much shorter, and the nights so much cooler. Both of which I love, but the growing season and the late evening hiking season are fasting fading away. But on the other hand, it means that snow is just around the corner, and the change of seasons is always exhilarating. IMG_2520eIMG_2615eIMG_2527eIMG_2583eIMG_2607eIMG_2596eIMG_2595eA new crop of wildflowers, the late summer ones, have bloomed, and the trail was lavishly adorned with those so-rich autumn colors – the yellows of changed leaves and goldenrod, and the reds of poison ivy and rosehips and woodbine, and the warm golds and browns and tans of spent flowers and dying leaves. Asters and closed gentian added splashes of amethyst.IMG_2586eIMG_2620eIMG_2637eIMG_2512eIMG_2631eWild hops was abundant and rather aggressive in one small area, which was fun for me to see, since I’ve never seen wild hops before! I always love finding new plants. The vine had taken over a good-sized tree, and the hops cones, such beautiful little things, hung in among the bright green leaves. IMG_2524eIMG_2531eOur hike was shortened somewhat by a thunderstorm rolling in and chasing us out eventually. The weather in the Hills can change so dramatically and so quickly. After hearing a constant roll of thunder for awhile and seeing hail clouds, we figured someone somewhere was getting hailed on (we were correct, we found out on the way home), but we stayed dry. But this is definitely a trail I’d enjoy hiking further on, and maybe taking hammocks and camping overnight!
IMG_2642eI don’t know about other hikers, but this one sure enjoyed this hike and the splendid views along Iron Creek.


Strange Neighbor

We’ve had our share of rattlesnake encounters over the past few years, including three that our dad has killed up by my grandma’s house. So sorry, to anyone who might be offended by that. But Dad can’t hear the rattle, so it really is a matter of safety, and our uncle’s dog got bitten by one two years ago, so we’re inclined to have a little animosity towards the critters. But I digress. When I got home last night and saw one of the kittens headed towards something darkly colored and mottled and narrow lying in the grass, I had a little panic moment. I kind of love our cats. But when it didn’t strike them (and when I got more than a quarter-second impression and reaction), I inspected the critter closer and found this ugly cute salamander.
2018-09-08_10-18-212018-09-08_10-18-04He was a large variety (the shoe is for scale), and wasn’t too happy the kittens were inspecting him. We’ve never really encountered these out here at our place, since there isn’t ever really any permanent moist-ness, but there he was. I scooped him into a box and deposited him a ways away, since I read that salamanders, including the western tiger salamander (this guy) are toxic to a certain extent and figured I’d get him out of the cats’ reach. I’d be more than happy for some input from anyone who knows more than the internet on this matter, especially since my experience is that the internet tends to exaggerate. For instance, I read that aloe is poisonous to cats, but I have a friend who had an aloe plant, until her cat ate it. The cat was fine.

Anyway, what a strange neighbor.