The Windy Ridge Trail is often referred to as the 4th of July Trailhead because it starts off at the old 4th of July pack bridge arcing over the North Fork of the Clearwater River. Nearly one hundred years ago this bridge carried Rangers and packers across the river with their strings of packhorses and mules burdened down with supplies. Mining, logging, construction, and maintenance all made contract packing a booming business back in the day. It was estimated that in 1927 the Clearwater Forest was serviced by some 225 head of saddle and packstock. By 1976, the development of roads and use of trucks to haul supplies had diminished that number to a mere 18 head (The Clearwater Story, Ralph S. Space, 1981).
Today, this graceful bridge would carry seven hikers and three dogs across the North Fork River with the same faithful sturdiness she’d offered for a hundred years.
It’d been a while since The Clearwater Trekkers have met up at the Orofino City Park and caravanned out to the North Fork area of the Clearwater corridor. It’d been even longer since we showed up on time, but this Saturday morning found us pulling into the City Park at 8:00 AM where we met up with a new Trekker eager to join us on the Windy Ridge Trail.
After going over our route and destination on the map, we loaded up and headed out. The 4th of July Trailhead is a two and half hour drive from the Orofino City Park if you take Highway 12 east to Greer, then turn north on Highway 11 towards Weippe, then a right onto French Mountain Rd just before entering Pierce. French Mountain Rd, also known as Forest Service Rd 250, winds through the mountains for 30 miles, bringing you to the Bungalow Ranger station on the North Fork River. If you cross the river and take a right, you’ll stay on Forest Service Rd 250 and find the Windy Ridge Trail and 4th of July pack bridge 8 miles down the road on your right.
We met up with two more Trekkers who had camped out at the trailhead the night before, and after a few introductions, we hit the trail.
The Windy Ridge Trail is a single track trail open to hikers, bikers (including motorized), and equestrians. Coming off the bridge, the trail hooks left and follows the North Fork River for a while before switching back up the hillside. The first several miles of this 24 mile trail is a steady climb up to Bear Butte where it intersects with Trail #580 coming in from Weitas Creek.
There’s an optional loop here, following trail #580 past Bugle Point and down to Weitas Creek, then taking trail #20 north to reconnect with Forest Service Rd 250 at the Weitas Creek Campground. Or you can stay going south on the Windy Ridge Trail and follow it along the ridge to Cook Mountain and past Monroe Butte, all the way down to Forest Service Rd 500 at 12 Mile Saddle.
The Forest Service site says it’ll take you 15 hours to hike the full Windy Ridge Trail. I think that’s crazy. It’d take me at least 4 days!
Our hike today only took us a few miles up the hillside through lush, green vegetation, the perfect environment for the black-stemmed Maiden Hair Fern. (A “thank you” to Into Cascadia for this info!) A steady stride and jovial conversation were enough to master the incline. We took regular rests where the trail cornered at a runoff stream, giving us a little open space and the dogs a chance to refresh themselves.
Grey clouds hung over us throughout the day, but they held their water and kept the temp low while we climbed. We tried to make it to the top of the ridge before lunch, hoping for an opening in the tree line to give us a grand view of the mountains across the river. But the trail kept climbing, and even began to turn back into the woods, so we back-tracked to an open area on the trail and settled down to grab a little food.
After lunch, we made quick work of the return trip. In the thick of the trees it’s hard to tell exactly which slope the trail is climbing, so we found ourselves gathered around the pickup tailgate reviewing our hike on the map. We pointed out other trails in the area, discussed the Weitas Creek loop idea, and generally fantasized about all the time we’d love to spend in these woods. It was a good chance for Jacob to get out of is carrier and stretch his legs, too. The dogs, on the other hand, were quite content to collapse in the truck bed.
Eventually, the time came to say our farewells. Until our next adventure….
The drive back along the creeks and rivers and over the mountains is interminably longer with sleeping passengers weighing down time, but the journey is so worth it.
See you on the trail!