There were no trails across the Great Western Divide until the early Twentieth Century. Though some travelers crossed the Divide, most took the Hockett Trail around it. Parties would often take this circuitous route to reach destinations that are now accessed in a fraction of the distance, thanks to the high-tech expressways—er, trails—of the Twentieth Century.
The Hockett Trail was completed by Union troops during the Civil War as a light pack trail, with the intention of replacing the trail with a wagon road. There was no dynamite and no steel involved. The stream crossings and slopes were moderate. It was a route that a pack train could follow without any engineering at all.
In 1879, a mining road was completed to the valley of Mineral King, in anticipation of riches that never quite materialized. With this road, the western segment of the Hockett Trail would be bypassed by parties heading around the Divide. The new road was cut through treacherous terrain—not a natural route, but a direct cut through a canyon. From then on, getting around the Divide generally meant crossing Farewell Gap from Mineral King and meeting the Hockett Trail in Little Kern country.
The trail from Mineral King met the Hockett Trail where the latter crossed the Little Kern River, just east and downstream of Wet Meadows.
The trail drops rapidly from the summit of the ridge to the Little Kern, where it is joined by the trail from Mineral King.
Mount Whitney Club Journal, May 1903
The Hockett Trail west of the Little Kern developed a reputation as a rough trail, but this was probably because it was nearly abandoned after Mineral King Road was completed. That decline ended soon after the creation of Seqouia National Park in 1890. As before, the Hockett Trail was the labor of soldiers.
I have stated that the Hockett trail is the worst in the mountains. It has been greatly improved within the last year or two by the soldiers stationed in the Sequoia National Park.
Mount Whitney Club Journal, May 1903
The first trail blazed over the Great Western Divide appears to have been more circuitous than the current Coyote Pass route that replaced it.
During the summer of 1900 Forest Ranger, Ernest Britten marked out a trail from the vicinity of Bullion Flat (southeast of Mineral King and Farewell Gap) to the lakes on Kern River.
Mount Whitney Club Journal, May 1903 — Important Trail Work, pg. 83
The cut-off was soon re-routed and improved, and by Summer 1902 much of the old circuit around the Divide was largely abandoned. Soon after that, a bridge was built across the Kern River, and the old ford was abandoned as well. This, in turn, meant the old trail up the north side of Volcano Creek was also abandoned.
Early in the year 1901 the Visalia Board of Trade expended more than one hundred dollars on the “cut-off” from the vicinity of Bullion Flat to Kern River, improving the grade, and shortening the distance of actual travel to less than one half of that of the old Trout Meadow route. This is now the only trail regularly traveled between these points. Money has been appropriated by the bodies previously named herein to further improve this trail and to build a bridge across Kern River. The work will be done with the assistance of the forest rangers and the Mt. Whitney Club as early this season (1903) as the melting snow will permit.
Mount Whitney Club Journal, May 1903 — Important Trail Work, pg. 84–85
Though the original Hockett Trail fell into disuse within about 16 years of its completion, much of it is still maintained, and much of the rest can still be followed without too much difficulty. The old ford is still there, of course, and the route is relatively free of cliffs and dangerous stream crossings. The Hockett route, in fact, is much as it was when the trail was first blazed in 1863.