The Independence Trail

The southernmost 12,000-foot peak in the Sierra Nevada is Olancha Peak, also the southernmost 11,000-foot peak, and one of the three southernmost 10,000-foot peaks of the range. At this latitude, the Sierra has a nearly perfect north-south orientation. The three divides, the Western Divide, the Great Western Divide, and the Sierra Crest, each have their southernmost 10,000-foot peaks at the same latitude (36° 15’ 50”):

Olancha Peak (Sierra Crest): 12,123’
Angora Mountain (Great Western Divide): 10,202’
Maggie Mountain (Western Divide): 10,042’

This is the southern terminus of the High Sierra.

South of these peaks, each of the three divides drops considerably, yet there is no easy way across the range north of Tehachapi Summit. The range continues to be rugged and there is progressively less reason to cross the range as one proceeds toward the southern end of the Sierra. The closer one gets to Tehachapi, the less reason there is to bother with a Sierra crossing.

For good reason, the first trails across the Southern Sierra kept south of the High Sierra, but there were problems with this strategy.

In avoiding the High Sierra, The Dennison Trail and Jordan Trail both crossed two canyons of the Tule River. The Hockett Trail, also known as the Fort Independence Trail, avoided the rugged Tule River watershed entirely by following the South Fork Kaweah River to the Little Kern. This route climbed to over 9800 feet, yet quickly became the preferred route to Trout Meadows, the grand junction of the Southern Sierra. It was difficult until the snow melted, but once most of the snow cleared from the popular trail it was an easier way to go. Above 8800 feet, the route is free of steep slopes, so even with some snow, it is rather easy going.

Beyond Trout Meadows, the Jordan Trail and Dennison Trail encountered another difficulty: the Kern River. Directly east of Trout Meadows, Kern Flat offers a natural fording point, but it is less than ideal, particularly in spring when the river can be treacherous. The head of the Jordan party, Captain John Jordan, drowned at Kern Flat while returning west to announce the opening of his trail.

The Hockett Trail, alternatively, followed the Kern Canyon north to a better ford, north of what was once named Volcano Creek, now Golden Trout Creek. The river has less volume upstream of Golden Trout Creek and Coyote Creek, and better yet, it splits into several rivulets for a short distance.

A bridge was quickly constructed at Kern Flat that made the Jordan-Dennison Trail more safe.

Ironically, it has been reported that Captain Jordan blazed a route up Golden Trout Creek as a late season alternate. Perhaps he would have been better off to select it as his main route, but then it headed a little too far north for his purposes.

The Jordan Trail and Dennison Trail were trails to the Coso Mines, not to Lone Pine or any points north, and so they were temporary mining trails. They crossed the Sierra Crest by way of Olancha Pass and Haiwee Pass, and from the base of these exits, required a significant trip to get to the fertile, settled country north of Owens Lake.

The Hockett Trail follows the lay of the range in a way that its sister trails do not, following ridges, plateaus, passes, seismic faults, saddles, canyon bottoms, and fords in ways that almost appear engineered.

The original trail dipped south of the end of the High Sierra where it skirted around the Great Western Divide. Early accounts indicate that the original route appears to have been preferred till the end of the 19th Century. This original trail intersected the Coso Trail at the south end of the Great Western Divide, opening the route to southerly alternatives for crossing the range. Two options availed themselves to the traveler for ascending out of Kern Canyon, one on either side of Golden Trout Creek. As one approached the crest, one could also opt to cross at Cottonwood Pass, often taken by early Whitney explorers, but slightly more difficult so far as crossing the range is concerned. For those continuing along the main route to the crest, there is a choice between Trail and Mulkey Passes.

Notwithstanding this abundance of choices, the primary route offered many outstanding benefits, such as an excellent ford on the Kern, a remarkably low ridgeline between the Kern and South Fork Kern watersheds, and relatively easy passage over the Sierra Crest.

The Hockett Trail, given that it was a High Sierra trail, provided unsurpassed access to mining and recreational destinations. The beautiful alpine valley of Mineral King was discovered by the Hockett Trail crew, and the first ascents of Mount Whitney employed the Hockett Trail.

As an added benefit, the Hockett Trail also provides unmatched access to every variety of golden trout, as it follows the Little Kern, the Big Kern, Golden Trout Creek, and the South Fork Kern as well. It might justifiably be called the Golden Trout Trail.