A Hockett Trail Guide: 3. South Fork Drive

This leg starts just above the South Fork bridge where the Old Three Rivers Highway meets Sierra Drive. The original route was probably closer to the path of present-day Cherokee Oaks Drive, but that’s a dead end. What is today called the Old Three Rivers Highway ends at South Fork Drive, which our route follows to its end. South Fork Drive was not completed into Sequoia National Park until well into the 20th Century. The upper portions of the drive were until fairly recently considered the Hockett Trail. Well after the time cars were driving to Giant Forest, and after backpackers were crossing great iron bridges along the High Sierra Trail, there was still no road entering Sequoia National Park along the South Fork. The road ended at Cahoon Ranch, well outside the park. The upper portion of the road that was later cut and blasted out of the mountainside remains quite primitive, and can offer quite a bumpy ride.

The Hockett Trail's entry into Sequoia National Park

The Hockett Trail’s entrance into Sequoia National Park, 1899.

South Fork Drive crosses the river three times, each a potentially critical watering hole. Cinnamon Creek is also a useful water source. Always treat water at these elevations, unless you get it out of someone’s spigot.

My best guess is that the three river crossings represent the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th crossings of the original Hockett Trail over the South Fork. The terrain appears to dictate these crossings. The first crossing was probably well above the present-day Sierra Drive bridge over the South Fork. The old Hockett Trail probably crossed the South Fork at seven places.

This leg probably should not be attempted in August. My brother and I bicycled up from Tulare as teenagers, and suffered. We walked our bikes most of the way up from Three Rivers. It is probably best attempted on bicycle, just use a bike that’s been maintained, and be prepared for a workout: the elevation gain is 2800 feet. On the other hand, it’s a very enjoyable return ride, with reasonable grades and light traffic. One can always drive, of course, but don’t forget to stop and smell the cow pies. There is some very pleasant country along South Fork Drive.

See Exploring the Southern Sierra: West Side by Jenkins & Jenkins: Highway 198 Car Tour (T84).

The Devil’s Tinderbox

From the first crossing of the South Fork Kaweah River above Three Rivers (elev. 962 ft) to tree line on Hockett Hill above Owens Lake (approx. elev 6700 ft), the Hockett Trail is, with few exceptions, a forested trail. Even the Coyote Pass alternate over the Great Western Divide is well-forested. The only places where trees do not accompany the trail are where it crosses the Malpais lava flow and large meadows such as Tunnel, Mulkey, and Burnt Corral Meadows.

There are few places, however, where the woods that accompany the Hockett Trail could be rightly described as rain forest. Perhaps portions of Garfield Grove might be described as such with some imagination, but the original Hockett Trail didn’t even have that (it was routed below the grove on a sunny ridge).

There are streams, but nearly no lakes. Kern and Little Kern Lakes were born of landslides in 1867/8, after the Hockett Trail’s creation. Kern Lake is more of a marsh at present than a lake, and will soon be a meadow. Little Kern Lake might necessarily need to drop the adjective from its name.

The southern Sierra Nevada is drier than the rest of the range, but there’s no lack of growth, and in many places undergrowth. In fact, the southern Sierra has forests and even chaparral at elevations where there would only be tundra in other parts of the range.

I’ve often encountered forest fires on or near the Hockett Trail. That ought to surprise no one, with all the sunshine and firewood at the ready.

I missed the 2002 McNally Fire, which spared the Hockett Trail, but managed to burn nearby Hockett Peak.

Little Kern Lake during the West Kern Fire.

Little Kern Lake during the West Kern Fire.

The year after the McNally Fire, I had planned to backpack up the Little Kern River, but the Cooney Fire got in the way. My friend Juan and I backpacked up Kern Canyon instead, where we witnessed the West Kern Fire. Two years later, the Kern Fire struck the Kern Canyon. The next time I planned a trip up the Little Kern River was in 2006. That year, the Tamarack Fire got in the way. The Kern Canyon was hit again by the Grouse Fire in 2007. Every one of these 1000+ acre fires—except the McNally—were ignited by lightning.

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 Coyote Cutoff

The Hockett Trail provided a further advantage, which was utilized more and more as time went on. This feature was a cutoff over Coyote Pass that shortened the trip across the Sierra substantially.

The Hockett Trail was blazed during the Civil War, but to fight another war, against the Indians of Owens Valley. This is why it was also called the Fort Independence Trail. Originally, this trail was conceived for pack trains rather than horsemen and hikers, so it skirted around the Great Western Divide rather than crossing the great barrier. The route, however, made a crossing of the Great Western Divide feasible, not by way of rocky ridges, but by ascending the forested slopes along Rifle Creek.

Though this cutoff was a difficult one, it was not particularly hazardous, and was known to be used commonly by horsemen as late as the 1970s.