A Hockett Trail Guide: 10. South Fork Kern

At Tunnel or “Chickenfoot” junction we enter the domain of a slightly different subspecies of golden trout native to the South Fork Kern. This junction was once known as the turnoff to Mount Whitney, but today it is better known as the boundary of two very special watersheds; a boundary that was once infamously compromised to favor one farming community over another.

South Fork Kern Golden Trout

In 1886, Chinese laborers dug a tunnel between the South Fork and Golden Trout Creek to divert water to the former. One account has it that the tunnel was soon dynamited by the constituency of the latter party.

“This narrow, stream-bordered dike is the great landmark for all Whitney travelers, as here the Whitney trail leaves the Hockett. This hranching place is again indicated by a tunnel under the dike which transfers the northern stream almost wholly into the southern. The traveler approaching the forks (Tunnel forks) from either direction will notice the sudden increase in volume of the southerly stream.” — Hubert Dyer, Sierra Club Bulletin, 1893

This is the starting point of two fishing trips: one up Golden Trout Creek, on the Siberian Pass Trail, and another down the South Fork Kern River, on the Ramshaw Trail. Add to those trips Golden Trout Creek as it flows down to Kern Canyon and the upstream South Fork, and Tunnel begins to look like a great base camp.

Once you’ve got your fill of this great golden trout junction, proceed east on the Trail Pass Trail, along the north edge of Tunnel Meadow. Look for a corral about midway, then an abandoned airstrip, which we might call Tunnel International Airport, toward the far eastern end of the meadow.

“THROUGH COOPERATION, Sierra Air ways offers those of our patrons who wish to save time, fast transportation by air, thirty minutes from Lone Pine to our new camp, located in the heart of the Sierra at Tunnel landing field. Tunnel field is the highest airport in the northern hemisphere-elevation, 9,200 feet.” — Chrysler and Cook Pamphlet

The trail then follows the brook that will develop into the South Fork downstream. It may not seem like much at this point, but look again: spot the golden glistening of its native trout?

Eventually the trail pops over a gap and descends into BullFrog Meadow, and finally the cattle pastures of Mulkey Meadow, before ascending northeast toward Trail Pass, the highest point on the Hockett Trail.

Contrary to some popular accounts, the Hockett Trail did not cross the divide at Cottonwood Pass. The route over Trail Pass is shorter, easier, and much better documented among early accounts.

The trail over Mulkey Pass is the shortest, most direct route which may be taken to reach this famous hunting area, although it may also be reached over Cottonwood Pass.” — Chrysler and Cook Pamphlet

More evidence: the Mount Whitney Trail began at Tunnel junction. If the Hockett Trail had climbed over Cottonwood Pass, there would have been no need for the Mount Whitney Trail to go so far south.

“From the summit of the watershed the trail traverses the famous Mulkey Meadows, named after a widely-known Sheriff of early days, and soon strikes the trickling source of the south fork of Kern river. It clings closely to its northern bank for a few miles and then comes out upon a narrow tongue of land, apparently a moraine, lying between two streams, branches of the south and north forks of the Kern, not more than three hundred feet apart.” — Hubert Dyer, Sierra Club Bulletin, 1893

See Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side by Jenkins & Jenkins: Horseshoe Meadow to Kern River Backpack (T114) and Saddles, Ridges, Passes, and Kern Peak Backpack (T115). Also see Hiking California’s Golden Trout Wilderness by Suzanne Swedo: Tunnel Meadow (30) and Kern Peak (32).

A Hockett Trail Guide: 9. Golden Trout Creek

From here we head up the second native golden trout stream along the Hockett Trail, Golden Trout Creek.

California Golden Trout

The original Hockett Trail was without bridges. Its strategy for crossing the Kern River—the river that drowned John Jordan in 1862—was to follow the river upstream to a broad ford above two major tributaries: Coyote Creek, and what was once known as Volcano Creek and Whitney Creek. The trail then crossed at the ford and ascended eastward through a saddle behind a large knob known locally as Chief Joseph. It then crossed Golden Trout Creek (the stream’s third official name) and climbed up to the the vicinity of Natural Bridge, where the Golden Trout Trail passes today.

The aforementioned fording strategy led to the placement of Lewis Camp, a popular old hang out for Hockett Trail travelers, just north of where the ranger station is today. Even if you’re not about to ford the Kern—and you’re surely wise to avoid it—make sure to take time to wander up the canyon with your rod anyway, and see if you can spot any ruins along the way.

The present-day Golden Trout Trail features a steel-girder bridge, and it crosses the river downstream at a better bridging point, just below Golden Trout Creek. It then climbs out of the canyon along a somewhat more difficult route, just south of Golden Trout Creek.

Along the way, the walker sees numerous signs of geologically recent volcanism, such as columnar basalt, the basalt flows of Malpais (literally “bad country” in Spanish; akin to “badlands”), Natural Bridge, and beyond the flows the cinder cones themselves, active as recently as five thousand years ago.

The basalt fields dominate the floodplain to Groundhog Meadow and the accompanying cinder cone. Beyond this point the basalt persists in a more scattered pattern, and the Golden Trout Trail soon encounters several glacial moraines before ending at Tunnel junction.

See Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side by Jenkins & Jenkins: Horseshoe Meadow to Kern River Backpack (T114). Also see Hiking California’s Golden Trout Wilderness by Suzanne Swedo: Cottonwood Pass to the Kern River (31).

A Hockett Trail Guide: 7. Little Kern Valley

Here, near the headwaters of the Little Kern, is where the Golden Trout leg of the Hockett Trail begins, and the native country of my favorite variety of golden trout.

The Little Kern Golden Trout

Ladies and gentlemen, present … fly rods!

… or just sit by the stream and enjoy the show.

The Little Kern descends quickly, then levels out as it flows down a v-shaped canyon toward its confluence with Shotgun and Rifle Creeks. Trail 31E12, which once formed a shortcut between Wet Meadows and Coyote Pass, has been unmaintained since 1995 at least, but the recent Cooney and Tamarack fires may have helped to clear away the accumulated overgrowth (undergrowth to the trees; overgrowth to the trail). About halfway down the canyon, the trail enters another zone of meta-sedimentary schist and marble.

The Hockett Trail and the Great Western Divide

Again, a shortcut to the Kern Canyon follows unmaintained trail 31E12 up over Coyote Pass. Though the original Hockett Trail did not cross the Great Western Divide, and all the accounts that I have read indicated travel around the divide, some early travelers probably did cross the divide at Coyote Pass as a late season alternate. That said, I have seen no early maps that indicate that the Hockett Trail itself crossed the divide; in fact, the only Coyote Pass trail I’ve seen indicated by maps before 1958 was not associated with the Hockett Trail, but proceeded from Mineral King. This is the same general trail that crosses the divide at Coyote Pass today. On an 1896 map of Sequoia National Park, it was labeled the “Poison Meadows Trail”, and “Dangerous”.In Chapter Three of The Challenge of the Big Trees, Lary M. Dilsaver and William C. Tweed indicate that the Hockett Trail did indeed cross the Great Western Divide, but the only details they provide on the matter contradict that indication:

“The Hockett Trail began near Tharp’s Ranch on the Kaweah River, ascended the South Fork of the Kaweah to the subalpine plateau now known as Hockett Meadow, then crossed into the Little Kern; it briefly combined with the Jordan Trail only to diverge to the north again and cross the main Kern in the vicinity of Kern Lake.”

The only way the cited passage could be true is if the trail skirted around the Great Western Divide, and met the Jordan (Dennison) Trail at Trout Meadows.

“There are four well beaten trails entering the valley of the little Kern from Tulare Valley and all unite before reaching the Big Kern.” … the roughest, up the South Fork of the Kaweah.” — P. M. Norboe (1903), cited by Floyd L. Otter, Men of the Mammoth Forest, pg 32

W.F. Dean of the Mt. Whitney Club included the following description of the Hockett Trail in an account of a trip that he took in July 1897 from Mineral King to the Chagoopa Plateau:

“We then followed the Hockett trail, via Round Meadow, Lion Meadow, and Burnt Corral Meadow.”

Note that this traveler skirted around the Great Western Divide as late as July, and that he identified the name “Hockett Trail” with that circuitous route.

Still, in spite of so much evidence, local common knowledge has it that the Hockett Trail had a late season branch over the Great Western Divide. Old hearsay dies hard.

From Rifle Creek, unmaintained Forest Service Trail 32E02 follows the river south. The original Hockett Trail ascends southward over a saddle, then descends to join 32E02, and follows that same trail, also unmaintained, to Trout Meadows.

After following the river for about a mile, trail 32E02 veers away from the Little Kern, and does not return to it, but there are places where it is not very far from the river. One such place is where the old Dennison Trail probably merged with the Hockett Trail, at Sagebrush Gulch.

Juan fords the Little Kern

A short hike along the north side of Sagebrush Gulch on unmaintained trail 32E11 takes you down to the Little Kern ford where that mountaineer and man of leisure Dennison may have crossed on his way to the Coso Range. He probably came down off the Western Divide along Mountaineer Creek (wouldn’t that be appropriate?), but we can access this ford more easily via Clicks Creek (also on trail 32E11).

See Exploring the Southern Sierra: West Side by Jenkins & Jenkins: Coyote Lakes Backpack (T58) and Two Rivers Backpack (T59). Also see Hiking California’s Golden Trout Wilderness by Suzanne Swedo: Lion Meadows Loop (11) and Northern Golden Trout Tour (20).

A Hockett Trail Guide: 6. The Western Divide

After crossing Hunter Creek, the incline increases as the Hockett Trail leaves the Hockett Plateau for the Western Divide. After ascending 850 feet, the trail reaches a ridgecrest that might deceive a traveler into thinking he’s reached the top, but he has another 300-foot climb ahead. All-in-all, it’s not a difficult ascent to the divide at Wet Meadows Entrance (9824′).

The original boundary of the park actually extended eastward beyond Wet Meadows to a longitude line. Since 1978, the Wet Meadows Entrance has been an entrance into the Golden Trout Wilderness.

The Western Divide is the divide that lies west of the Kern watershed, from Farewell Gap (above Mineral King) to the Greenhorn Mountains. It may be thought of as a branch of the Great Western Divide. It is not, as a whole, given a name on maps, so I take the name from the Western Divide Highway (California State Route 190). It is the first of two divides crossed by the Hockett Trail (the original trail skirted around the Great Western Divide).

On the eastern side of the divide, the trail (31E11) descends toward the Little Kern. The first signs of Wet Meadows bring the trail to a group of large campsites and the roofless remains of a cabin built by the Pitt brothers. At the downstream end of the meadows, there is a rather well-developed camp worth visiting. Be warned, though, that the trail splits at the meadow, and the branch adjacent to the meadow is not maintained.

Below the meadow, the trail encounters a trail to Quinn Patrol Cabin (31E13) on the right. From this junction, trail 31E11 continues toward Mineral King, and we descend in an east-southeast direction into the canyon of the Little Kern, taking care to stay south of the hump that rises just south of Wet Meadows Creek. The descent becomes increasingly more steep into the canyon. The last 400 feet are the worst. This route, once-upon-a-time trail 31E12, has not been maintained, or even used for many years, due to the facts that (1) trails in and out of Mineral King provide alternatives that did not exist in the 1860s, and (2) the Forest Service has not maintained trails in the Golden Trout Wilderness since 1995. Thankfully, some routes are maintained by packers, volunteers, and cowboys. There is hope, however, for this abandoned classic: the 2003 Cooney Fire may have cleared some of it for us.

This leg of the Hockett Trail ends at the Little Kern River, where we reach the first trout stream in the native range of the California golden trout. 31E12 and the old Hockett Trail crossed the stream here, as the canyon is more navigable on the east side. The river is relatively calm here, and the canyon bottom is relatively broad. The outlet stream of Wet Meadows, the Little Kern’s first tributary, flows into the river just upstream. See if you can spot the benchmark 7923 on the east side of the river.

See Exploring the Southern Sierra: West Side by Jenkins & Jenkins: Hockett Meadows–Little Kern River Backpack (T93).

A Hockett Trail Guide: 4. Ladybug vs. Garfield

Clough Cave is not the only cave in the South Fork area. There are four that I have heard of, one of which was discovered in 2006 and featured in National Geographic. Hundreds of such caves occur in marble outcrops which appear in the Sierra’s eroding meta-sedimentary shell. There are at least a half dozen such outcrops in the South Fork area.

At South Fork Campground we are confronted by a choice between (a) following the river to Ladybug and (b) ascending up the south face of the canyon.

The original Hockett Trail stayed near the river to just beyond Ladybug. This is the most direct route, but it requires two additional river crossings, and adds a very steep ascent after Ladybug.

The Hockett Trail and the South Fork, 1896
The Hockett & Salt Creek Trails (1896)

The difficulty of the second crossing is not trivial. It is in a small gorge, and the river rushes precipitously downhill there. I lost a water bottle several years back attempting to ford the river just upstream. The last bridge that crossed at Ladybug was washed out (as were others) in the winter of 1969. After that, the Hockett Trail was no longer maintained from end to end, unless one considers the Garfield-Hockett Trail a branch of the Hockett Trail, which I do.

Garfield Grove on an October morning

The reasons I have for considering the high route through Garfield Grove to be part of the Hockett Trail are:

  1. it is probably a superior route to the original one that was abandoned in 1969
  2. it serves all the needs of the original trail
  3. it is adjacent to the original trail and rejoins it quickly

The original trail does avoid snow in the early season, but I’ll take snow over snow melt just about every time. Consider Christopher McCandless.

Still, Ladybug is a great spot for trout fishing and, of course, lady bugs.

My friend Juan and I recently attempted to follow the old ascent up the big hill, but found that it was every bit as overgrown as we had been told. We found ourselves crawling through low-lying tunnels under thickets, hoping to come though to an opening, but the tunnels just kept on going.

Nothing that a good fire couldn’t fix.

The alternative is a long, strenuous haul up the north side of Dennison Ridge, but it offers plenty of shade, moderate slopes, frequent water sources, beautiful forests, stately campsites and all without any drowning hazard. Even with ice on the ground, this route is quite safe in most places.

One of the last wild nesting sites of the California condor before its reintroduction was a fire scar in a giant Sequoia tree, just on the other side of Dennison Ridge. Dennison Ridge, Dennison Peak, and Dennison Mountain get their names from a mountaineer who blazed the first trail across the southern Sierra. It is said that he died after stumbling over his own bear snare, just on the other side of this ridge that bears his name. Dennison's Chili

Legal camping on the Garfield route begins at Snowslide Camp, just beyond Snowslide Canyon, source of the infamous 1876 slide, what I like to call the “Centennial Slide” as a mnemonic. Downstream, at canyon bottom where the slide planted a small Sequoia grove, is the first legal campsite along the old route: Ladybug Camp. Above Ladybug, the old trail gets mighty steep and dry, so there isn’t really any other good camping along this leg of the old route.

See Exploring the Southern Sierra: West Side by Jenkins & Jenkins: Hockett Lakes–Summit Lake Backpack (T86) and South Fork Kaweah River Day Hike (T87).

The Golden Trout Trail

The Hockett Trail was first chosen for its efficacy as a trans-Sierra route, and specifically chosen by the Union Army for its usefulness as a trail between forts in Visalia and the Owens Valley. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the route of that old trail also traces the native range of California’s distinctive sport fish, the California golden trout. In addition, the Hockett route follows streams east and west of that native range. This makes the Hockett route an ideal route for the sport fisherman.

The three watersheds of the golden trout are, from west to east, the Little Kern River, Golden Trout Creek, and the South Fork Kern. The Hockett Trail followed these streams from its crossing of the Little Kern at Wet Meadows Creek, down the Little Kern Valley, up Kern Canyon, Golden Trout Creek, and finally the South Fork Kern.

“Here the trail branches, and there are two routes to Big Cottonwood, two or three miles further on. Both routes are plain. The one following up the east bank of the stream leads over a low divide between Little and Big Cottonwood, and brings one finally to the last-named. Here is an ideal camp; wood, water, grass, and trout are in plenty. The wonderful golden trout of the Sierras are here, in overwhelming abundance. It is no exaggeration to say that the poorest angler can here at almost any time of day catch strings which would drive the frequenter of local streams wild.” — Hubert Dyer, Sierra Club Bulletin, 1893

The attractiveness of the Hockett route isn’t limited to the Kern watershed. On the west side, the Hockett Trail followed the Kaweah River from the Kaweah Delta to the headwaters of the South Fork Kaweah. On the east side, the Hockett Trail followed Cottonwood Creek, stocked with golden trout since 1876, before dropping down “Hockett Hill” into the Owens Valley and turning north toward the Owens River, yet another notable fishing stream of the region.

Today, the Hockett Trail route and the trout streams along it enjoy wilderness protection from South Fork Campground on the west side to the outskirts of Horseshoe Meadows on the east side, largely due to the creation of the Golden Trout Wilderness in 1978. Unfortunately, fishing on the lower Owens River is not what it was before the Los Angeles Aqueduct, though efforts are being made to restore the stream. As for the state of the trail itself, it is not wholly maintained, and segments of the original trail were completely abandoned as far back as 1969 and 1940. Much of the original route is now paved over, and some of it has been under Lake Kaweah since 1962.

The Early Hockett Trail

The trans-Sierra supply route of the Civil War period commonly known as the Hockett Trail was completed in 1862-63 for two functions:

  1. moving miners and supplies to and from mines in the Coso Range east of the Sierra.
  2. moving soldiers and their supplies to and from Fort Independence (AKA Camp Independence). This was primarily to defend and promote the interests of white settlers against local Indians.

The first function, the commercial reason for the trail, is the reason why the trail was named after the Visalia businessman John Hockett. For this same reason, the Hockett Trail may also rightly share the name “Coso Trail” with the Dennison and Jordan Trails.

The second, military function is the reason why it was also called the “Trail to Fort Independence”. Hockett and the Union Army worked together in developing the trail.

The Hockett Trail found other uses before it was even completed. It served as a route for discovering and accessing new Sierra peaks and valleys. Mineral King was discovered by a hunter on the Hockett Trail crew in 1862 (Hale Tharp later claimed to have visited Mineral King earlier, but even if he did his visit had no historical impact). Ranchers appear to have used the trail to move their livestock to the Hockett Plateau during the drought of 1863.

Though the Hockett Trail was the primary trail across the southern Sierra throughout the late 19th Century, it probably did not serve the Cerro Gordo mines, as they were not generally known until after the Hockett Trail lost much of its purpose as a supply route with the completion of the McFarlane toll road over Greenhorn Mountain in 1864, the opening of a stage service on that road in 1865, and the end of the Owens Valley Indian War in 1865.

The city of Los Angeles gained dominated trade with Cerro Gordo by 1868, and her geographic advantage over Visalia became clear. By 1905, as work on the Los Angeles Aqueduct began, Owens Valley was in practical terms within LA’s city limits.

The completion of Mineral King Road in 1879 diverted traffic away from the westernmost segment of the Hockett Trail, but it may have made the rest of the trail even more popular. The original Hockett Trail, often labeled the Trail to Fort Independence, can be seen skirting around the end of the Great Western Divide on area maps throughout Sequoia National Park’s first decade (the 1890s).

“The Hockett trail was made in early days, and to-day it remains a plain, well-blazed track from Lone Pine through to Visalia.” — Hubert Dyer, Sierra Club Bulletin, 1893

Mountaineering, golden trout, and the establishment of Sequoia National Park kept the trail popular into the 20th Century. The first people to climb Mount Whitney, America’s highest peak until 1959, were fisherman who used the Hockett Trail to get to the Kern River, and the Hockett route continues to give sport fisherman access to some of the most striking freshwater fish in the world.

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.

Sierra del Fuego

The southern Sierra, from the headwaters of the Kern River in Sequoia National Park southward to the sweep of the Kern River into the far southern extreme of the Tulare Basin, is morphologically dominated by a single seismic fault that splits the range into western and eastern legs, and gives the range a southerly slope with a solar inclination that helps to give it a rather sunny, flammable aspect. This southerly descent is considerable. Though the two divides of the Southern Sierra feature peaks as high as Mount Whitney (14,495 feet) to the east and Mount Kaweah (13,802 feet) to the west, one need not travel far south before no more 10,000-foot peaks remain.

In this sun-bathed high country, the trout seem to disappear and reappear in the golden light that flows through the rivers and creeks, as the flux of the streams sways left and right like a tree in the breeze. The gold trout sometimes seem custom-made for these sunward streams.