Published on June 29th, 2015 | by tanya0
Hiking the French Pass Trail in South Park
Colorado is essentially one big playground. Authors Alan Apt and Kay Turnbaugh couldn’t agree more—their new edition of Afoot & Afield: Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Rocky Mountain National Park has over 180 hikes in the Rocky Mountains.
Here’s a bonus hike that is a must-see this summer:
South Park: French Pass Trail
This is great getaway opportunity that isn’t very far (around 2 hours one way from Denver) but would require camping or lodging to enjoy it in a relaxed way. Exploring spectacular South Park is always fun, and the historic town of Fairplay offers B&Bs, and an old hotel for lodging; or there is a campground on Kenosha Pass and another near the trailhead. On the trail, you can just enjoy the carpet of wildflowers, or be ambitious and climb one of the 13,000 foot mountains at the top of the pass.
Distance Up to 6.0 miles, Out-and-back
Elevation Gain 1400 feet (starting at 10,600 feet)
Trail Use Leashed dogs OK, option for kids
Agency South Park Ranger District, Pike National Forest
Map Trails Illustrated Breckenridge & Tennessee Pass
Facilities Campground on the way to the trailhead
HIGHLIGHTS One of the prettiest hikes in the state offers everything: a beautiful riparian area, a riot of nonstop wildflowers, and panoramic peak views. However, it also features a very healthy bug population because of the abundance of water and the lush vegetation that goes with it, so take precautions. The pass goes all the way to Breckenridge, but you’ll need a car shuttle on the other side, unless you are prepared to add 10 miles to the end of the hike. You can also summit two 13ers: Bald Mountain or Guyot Peak. The former, which is described below, is a steep, beautiful climb, the latter an “exciting” knife-edge ridge walk.
DIRECTIONS Take Highway 285 south over Kenosha Pass toward Fairplay. After you descend approximately 3 miles from the pass, you reach Jefferson; turn right (west) onto County Road 35. In about 2.5 miles you come to County Road 54 (Michigan Creek Road), bear right (west) and continue past the Michigan Creek Campground in about 2 miles. Continue on County Road 54 toward Georgia Pass. Check your odometer and drive 2.25 miles past the campground to a curve and creek crossing, where there is an opening for informal camping. You can park in the flat spot before crossing the creek. The trailhead sign is in the trees, southwest of the parking area.
Most of the trail is a wide, two-track, old mining road. The beginning is easy mountain biking, but then the trail becomes very rocky and stays that way for most of the trek. Although for many stretches, it isn’t rocky, the descent to Breckenridge is even rockier; don’t bike it unless you are a rock hound. The rocks are very passable on foot and easily avoided. The trail begins across the road from the parking area to the west at a large sign that reads trail 651. It zigzags through tall spruce and fir trees with lots of wildflowers from the outset.
You start off around 10,600 feet with soaring ridgelines around 12,000 to 13,000 feet above, bathed in reds, yellows, and greens of every shade, and of course the typical, dazzling, bright blue sky. As the trail swings from an S shape to a W shape, it flattens and becomes a gorgeous meadow stroll. The trail climbs around 400 feet in the first mile and then swings northwest, passing a huge pile of talus that was once a ridgeline. After 1.5 miles, around 11,000 feet, the trail acquires the rocks that make biking it bumpy. At this point you can see the pass dead ahead (west-northwest); to the southwest is Black Powder Pass, which is a tough bushwhack. The northwest ridge across the valley is a tall arm of Guyot, hidden out of view high above. The peak just to the left (southwest) of French Pass is an impressive, cliff-slashed subpeak of Bald Mountain.
The trail takes a sharp right off the mining road into the drainage and across a magnificent meadow of wildflowers. Listen to the sparkling sounds of the water as you journey downhill, north-northeast and then northwest as you cross two streams. The flies and mosquitoes love the water (and you, too). The wildflowers are in full riot, requiring sunglasses, as you climb out of the drainage parallel to the creek. The trail bears left across another bright meadow and tracks, affording you a terrific sweeping view of the riparian valley, the ridgeline with multiple peaks across the way, and the impressive hulk of Bald Mountain.
Around 2 miles the trail takes another sharp right (northeast), but this time it climbs 130 feet in 0.25 mile, briefly testing your legs and lungs and giving you an even better view. It then tracks through low willows, climbing ever more steeply until it takes you to the bottom of a steep dirt-and-scree mound that is often covered by snow late into the summer.
You climb 600 feet over the last mile, but the view from the top of the pass is well worth it, with the tempting slopes of Bald Mountain on the left and the sharp slope of Guyot on the right. Also visible are the distant members of the Mosquito range and the route flying downhill into a verdant valley, which ends in trendy Breckenridge. Enjoy the cool breezes of 12,046 feet, have lunch or at least a snack, savor your accomplishment, and enjoy your reverse-course views of South Park and the Tarryall Mountains.
Great for Kids
The trail climbs very gradually and opens up to great mountain views in the first 0.5 mile, making it a good scenery stroll if you want a short out-and-back with young children or a relaxing hike.
Want more hikes like this? Enter to win a copy of Afoot & Afield: Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Rocky Mountain National Park!