Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
Go prepared! - Caving Checklist
Scratching the Surface
For those who dare to drive French Joe Canyon Road into the Whetstones, French Joe Canyon provides a nice little canyon hike that is a gateway to hardcore, off-trail scrambling and hiking. Let's start from Hwy 90 on this one because there are important facts that one must know before deciding to check out the canyon.
From Hwy 90, you will need to drive west into the Whetstones on French Joe Canyon Rd. This "road" is from the very beginning one of the worst roads on which I have ever driven. You absolutely MUST have a high clearance vehicle, I would not do it without 4WD or AWD, and your truck WILL get desert pin-striping. It took my dad and I 40 minutes to drive a little over 2 miles. It was ROUGH. There is a shaded area to park/turn around near the end of the road. The road continues a few hundred feet further into the canyon, but it would require one to drive through a large wash and the cost benefit analysis on that one weighs well in favor of parking where we did.
From our parking spot, at about 5100 feet, we hiked to the end of the road and into a tree covered, cobblestone-like wash. West would be the general direction of our entire hike into the Whetstones via French Joe Canyon. At about .3 miles, we exited the wash to the left and were on a trail through the trees. From this point, for a few hundred yards, we would crisscross the wash a few times. At approximately .45 miles the trail led back into the wash and we had the option to go right or left. We went right (NW). At this point, we remained in the wash for about a mile. From time to time, it slotted up and there was a variety of neat rock formations and walls. There was a little easy scrambling at times. We also saw some deer. At about the 1.45 mile mark, we came upon some mines. The entry holes were along a steep wall and whatever we were to do from here, other than turn back, would be tough.
Step one was to have a look at the holes. I'm guessing they were for mines for novaculite, a mineral used for whetstones for which the Whetstones were named. One of the holes looked so small, though, that I thought it might have been for caving, and we all know that the Whetstones are world-famous for that! At any rate, I went about 100 feet into the hole that looked like a mine. There were some old ladders in there. There were also all kinds of bugs buzzing around in there. At that moment, my dad shouted that it wasn't wise to be in an old mine, and I exited. I subsequently felt something in my pants and ZAP! I dropped my pants, a wasp fell out, and I pulled its stinger from my thigh. Maybe those bugs buzzing around in that mine were wasps.
We decided to scramble a bit to the left of the mines (S). From here on out it was hardcore. There was no trail. It was steep. The footing and grip were horrible... loose rock and dirt. The vegetation was harsh... shindaggers, Yuccas, Agaves and Prickly Pears. Wasps. Yes, there were more wasps. We found this to be strange, since just a week prior these slopes were covered in snow. Weren't wasps supposed to be dead now!?! My dad got zapped in the neck. Ouch! So at this point we were higher than the wall at the mines and south of the wash. We scrambled north along a peak in the direction of the wash. We had a nice view of a peak called "The Cape". We were around 6200 feet, and the shin daggers faded away, but the vegetation thickened immensely as we rounded the side of the peak to its north face. This face was steep and packed tightly with shrubs about chest to head high that camouflaged occasional Agave spears. We used gravity to drop us through the scrub back into the wash... a whopping grand total of about .2 miles above the wall with the mines. We had lunch and decided that we would head back out (E) along the north side of the wash. The terrain had a gentler grade and the vegetation didn't look quite as thick. We still ended up hitting a bunch of shindaggers again, and it was still some pretty major bushwhacking, but it was easier than the south route we had taken around the "mine wall". We hiked east along the top of the wash until we descended into it about 3/4 of mile from the car. From there, it was just a matter of going back the way we came.
Conclusion: The French Joe Canyon hike to the mines is short, relatively easy, and is pretty neat with its tree cover, rocks, walls, and close-up views of the seductive striations of the Whetsones. If you get out of the wash and go beyond the mines, WATCH OUT. We only scratched the surface, and it was some of the wildest and toughest scrambling and bushwhacking I've ever done. You could really hurt yourself back there, so if you go, be careful, allow yourself a lot of time, and take it slowly. Also, make sure you are okay with the facts regarding the drive on French Joe Canyon Road.
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.