Hiking the French Hill Trail in the Smith River National Recreation Area of the Six Rivers National Forest is well worth the effort. You’ll have solitude, you’ll gain good views of Siskiyou Wilderness and nearby ridges and slopes, and you’ll see a wide variety of plant life.
And you’ll also get a good aerobic workout. The French Hill Trail climbs pretty much the whole way from its beginning at the Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center on US Highway 199 to its end at French Hill Road.
Note: I love this trail and hiked it several times with my golden retrievers Hana and Molly back when I lived in Crescent City. It’s just a little too far out from Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park to be included in my book Hiking the Parks: Redwood National and State Parks (coming in spring, 2019). That book does include two trails in the Smith River National Recreation Area: Myrtle Creek Botanical Trail and Craigs Creek; both trails border Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park – and both have redwoods. The French Hill Trail has no redwoods (that I saw, anyway).
French Hill Trail Key Data
Distance: 5.6 miles roundtrip
Type: Day hike
Total elevation gain: 1650 feet
High point: 2005 feet
Contact: Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center in Gasquet, California
Maps: USGS Gasquet, Smith River National Recreation Area map with hiking trails
Trailhead GPS coordinates: N 41 50.662 W 123 57.903
Notes: dogs allowed; toilet, picnic tables, and information at the Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center across the street; car shuttle possible for a one-way hike (see discussion of French Hill Road near the end of the post); some poison oak trailside
Driving Directions to French Hill Trailhead and Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center
Reach the Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center in the town of Gasquet on US Highway 199. It’s 14.4 miles east from the intersection of US Highway 101 and US Highway 199 just north of Crescent City and 19.1 miles west of the Collier tunnel picnic area near the California-Oregon border. The trailhead is on the south side of Highway 199 about 150 feet east of the Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center. You can park along the south side of Highway 199 in the designated area or at the Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center.
Hiking the French Hill Trail
The French Hill Trail (2E25) was originally a pack route from Gasquet Ranger Station used for the construction of the Camp Six Lookout. It’s a well-designed and maintained trail, but do watch for poison oak, which occasionally intrudes on the tread.
Start level past thimbleberry, bigleaf maple, tanoak, and Douglas fir. Douglas fir is the predominant tree throughout the hike, with smaller quantities of tanoak and sugar pine.
At 0.1 mile the climb begins and it won’t stop until the end of the hike at French Hill Road. Quickly cross a small stream that you’ll re-cross two more times. Note the copious understory of huckleberry, salal, rhododendron, sword fern, and bracken fern, plants that border the trail the entire way, along with occasional poison oak. Cross a dirt road at 0.3 mile, one of several times that signs with arrows will keep you on the correct path.
The first sugar pines appear trailside at 0.9 mile, followed soon by the 1-mile marker on a Douglas fir on the right side of the trail. At 1.1 miles pass to the left of a flat filled with tanoaks and madrone and then climb beside a lush and wild draw before crossing a small unnamed creek at 1.3 miles.
Views of Smith River Drainage, Siskiyou Wilderness, Pacific Ocean
You now hike west a bit and then begin hiking on a ridge that will take you nearly the rest of the way to French Hill Road. At 1.5 miles views open up to show the surrounding serpentine mountains, with a tree-framed easterly view up the Smith River canyon to the high peaks of the Siskiyou Wilderness in Klamath National Forest.
The 2-mile marker is again on the right on another Douglas fir that’s next to a sugar pine. Soon after look west past the Smith River drainage to see a sliver of the distant Pacific Ocean.
French Hill Trail Ends at French Hill Road
The path tops out at 2.7 miles at an elevation of 2005 feet before dipping slightly to meet French Hill Road at 2.8 miles. You can arrange a car shuttle for a one-way hike by having the second car (or the person picking you up) at this spot.
French Hill Road (Del Norte County Road 411) leaves Highway 199 2.2 miles west of the Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center and 5.1 miles east of South Fork Road. French Hill Road starts paved and quickly becomes good dirt. Go 4.8 miles and look for a wide area on the right with room for 5 or so cars. There is no sign, so watch carefully. The trail, easy to miss from French Hill Road, is on the left across from the parking area. The trail quickly reaches a sign on a Douglas fir with the trail name and length.
Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center
Otherwise, take the relaxing downhill ramble back to the trailhead at the Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center. The Visitor Center has a wide range of exhibits both inside and outside that detail interesting aspects of local natural and human history, and you can also obtain handouts on other Smith River National Recreation Area trails and other recreation opportunities throughout Six Rivers National Forest and beyond, including Redwood National and State Parks. The Smith River National Recreation Area Visitor Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 to 4:30, and may be open on Saturdays in summer. For another nearby hike, see my description of the Darlingtonia Trail.
Your Take: French Hill Trail
Have you done the hike? What did you think? Any questions?