The French Fry Trail is 5.5 miles one way and is suitable for hiking and mountain biking. Moderate difficulty. Horses are permitted but not advised as some stretches are narrow with little forward visibility to spot approaching bikers. Dogs on leash are permitted but not motorized vehicles. There is an elevation gain of about 600 feet followed by a descent of about 400 feet. No water or rest rooms.
The trail head is at the Rock Creek Bridge on Iron Mountain Road near its intersection with Keswick Dam Blvd. Limited parking for 2-4 cars. Similar limited parking at the trail end at the intersection of Middle Creek Road and Rt. 299. This guide proceeds westward as do most hikers. Mountain bikers generally find the reverse direction easier riding.
First things first: The name. A section of the trail along Rock Creek was cleared by locals for equestrian use starting in the 1980s. To them, it was the Rock Creek Trail. Mountain bikers started using it and, when one of them found a French fry wrapper alongside, began referring to it as the French Fry Trail. When BLM, the McConnell Foundation, and others extended the trail in 2014 the name stuck. Thus, the French Fry Trail.
This is a trail through a recovering devastated area. Starting in 1896 for about 30 years this landscape was barren. Essentially all vegetation for miles around had been choked by noxious sulfur dioxide fumes from copper smelters, the first of which was located about a mile north on Iron Mountain Road more or less where the Spring Creek power station is now located.
The ore, rich in iron and copper but unfortunately heavily contaminated with sulfur, came from Iron Mountain Mine and was processed by the Mountain Copper Company headquartered in London. Lord William Keswick was the chairman of the board. To drive off the sulfur, originally mixtures of cord wood (much of it plundered from public land) and chalcopyrite (a mineral of iron, copper and sulfur) were heaped in rows eight feet high, twenty feet wide, and several hundred feet in length along the banks of Spring Creek. These were ignited and left to burn and smolder for several months. In 1900 this practice was discontinued in favor of mechanical roasters but even so there was no abatement of SO2 emissions, which increased to 800 tons (!) per day. Additional mining companies, Mammoth, Balaklava, soon joined in the bonanza and built additional smelters nearby.
While aggrieved farmers and residents not economically benefited by the smelters protested vigorously, the business, journalistic and judicial communities were much in favor of desecrating the landscape as long as it brought money to the area. Thus, in these “good old days of no regulation”, the unfettered exploitation and despoliation persisted until the price of copper crashed in 1918 after the WWI armistice.
Although Ponderosa pines and live oaks can live hundreds of years, you will see few if any century trees on this trail. Reforestation started in the 1930s and between 1948 and 1963 two million pine seedlings were planted and tens of thousands pounds of acorns were sown. But the land was so scoured of topsoil and so deeply eroded that the success rate was abysmal. Eventually it was left to Mother Nature to heal herself.
Typically, locally the sequence of flora recovery after despoliation is: grasses, bushes like manzanita and toyon, knobcone, grey and then yellow pines, and finally blue, live and then black oaks. See if you can determine where this trail is in that progression.
Note: Smelter data was taken from the well documented book Murder of a Landscape: The California Farmer-Smelter War 1897-1916, by Khaled J. Bloom, 2010.
In addition to copper smelting, placer gold mining was avidly conducted in the area before and after the copper boom. You can see evidence of this in the form of quartz, greenstone, and granite tailings as you hike or bike the French Fry.
The first quarter mile of the trail on the north side of Rock Creek climbs to the old Southern Pacific (nee Central Pacific) railroad grade. The original rail bed was laid along the west bank of the Sacramento River in 1883 to connect the railroad northern terminus at Redding to Ashland and beyond. But in 1948 a section of the railroad was rerouted to this location to bypass the Keswick Dam construction site. The last train ran on this track in 1974.
Crossing the track bed, the trail enters chaparral thick with manzanita and an occasional ponderosa pine. Shortly the trail splits; the right fork is more obvious, has a better tread and skirts Rock Creek. This fork, labelled Special Sauce, has numerous bumps and jumps and banked turns which are a small nuisance to hikers but is one reason this trail has become a favorite with mountain bikers in a few short years.
About a mile from the trail head and just past a large pile of granite tailings, stone terracing appears on the downhill side. This is now thought to be the work of Chinese laborers shoring up a mining ditch. For the next mile or so Rock Creek is off and on visible, and in the wet season, pleasantly audible.
Shortly after crossing a small bridge and squeezing past a sheer cliff the trail veers away from Rock Creek. But to the north are pretty views of the canyon and Shasta Bally and South Fork Mountain.
At about 2.5 miles the trail crosses a WAPA power line maintenance road. This is the only practical emergency bail-out point, this dirt road leading down to Granite Drive and Rock Creek Road.
The trail continues to climb through pockets of young oaks and grey and knobcone pines. And one lone incense cedar. Keep your eyes open on this section of the trail and you may encounter some curiosities, some natural and one made from bicycle parts.
As the trail winds around the crest of a 1300-foot foothill, it presents a vista of the Redding plain and the Sacramento River. Here on the south side of the peak, whether because it is somewhat sheltered, or for some other reason, the knobcone and grey pines are older and taller.
Now the trail descends to the east, crossing a small bridge, yielding more photo ops of Redding, and finally ending at the trail head in the Shasta Guild property. Cross the parking lot and follow the road to the right to the gate at the intersection of Middle Creek Road and Rt. 299.
Marion Schmitz is a retired chemical engineer and a member of the Trails and Bikeways Council of Greater Redding. The TBC is a non-profit that advocates, plans, builds and maintains trails, bikeways and open spaces in the region. It plans to issue additional trail guides from time to time.