The oft-overlooked Wolverton Cut-off Trail threads its way along the eastern edges of Giant Forest while providing a connection between Wolverton and the High Sierra Trail. A good deal of the traffic on this trail occurs as backpackers use the Lakes/Alta Trailhead as an alternative to the traditional High Sierra Trail starting point at Crescent Meadow during times when permits are at a premium. Most dayhikers seem to avoid this quiet corner of the forest, thus missing out on some memorable scenery.
The reason for the route’s relative obscurity stems in part from the logistics of getting from the end back to the beginning. Given that the route begins in Wolverton and ends in Crescent Meadow, getting back to the start either requires a car shuttle or the use of the complimentary Giant Forest Shuttle that runs during the peak season from just before Memorial Day to not long after Labor Day. Even with the free shuttle, you have three separate buses to catch (Gray Line to Green Line to Orange Line), which adds a significant chunk of time. In addition to the logistics of the shuttle, the route maintains an impressive amount of solitude since most foot traffic in Giant Forest concentrates around the four main hubs (General Sherman, the Museum, Moro Rock, and Crescent Meadow), and many hikers balk at penetrating deep into the grove.
The adventurous hiker looking for a unique Giant Forest experience is therefore in for a treat. Aside from considerable solitude, you will visit a remote corner of the grove, travel along lush Long Meadow, reach a jaw-dropping viewpoint just before the Wolverton Cut-off Trail descends to the High Sierra Trail, and walk the opening stretch of the High Sierra Trail itself. Such rewards are fine compensation for the extra effort.
To begin, head north briefly from the Alta Peak/Lakes Trailhead. Very soon, turn right at the junction leading toward Panther Gap. Not long after – perhaps 200 yards – an unmarked path splits away from the Lakes Trail and crosses Wolverton Creek. Be warned that this is an unimproved crossing that can be quite difficult early in the season when the water is high.
After crossing the creek and perhaps ringing the water out of your socks, continue through a thick stand of lodgepole pines before entering a spacious grassy slope descending toward the edge of Long Meadow. Upon reaching the edge of the meadow, the trail heads more or less south through occasionally dense forest before looping around the inlet creek for the meadow and joining a separate branch of the Long Meadow Trail. Turn left here (1.5 miles).
From this junction, you will begin a short, switchbacking climb up and over a saddle to a junction with the Alta Trail. Turn right to put most of the climbing behind you as you begin a moderate descent first through firs and Jeffrey pines and soon through a lightly visited corner of Giant Forest’s sprawling sequoia grove.
The going is pretty smooth until you reach the junction with the Wolverton Cut-Off Trail (2.4 miles). As mentioned in the trail conditions, this junction can be fairly confusing; it is unclearly marked, and a profusion of ferns and other water-loving plants can obscure the signage during the summer. If you’re in doubt about which way to go, look for the tread of the Wolverton Cut-Off Trail as it ascends obliquely on the slope to the left. If you start going downhill, you’ve gone the wrong way.
Once on the Wolverton Cut-Off Trail, you will have four generally easy miles of hiking where you won’t have to worry about making any turns or decisions. The trail itself parallels the Trail of the Sequoias generally at a quarter to half-mile east and about one hundred feet higher. Unlike the Trail of the Sequoias, Wolverton Cut-Off spends only part of its time within the Giant Forest Grove. The remainder of the time, the forest travels through a mixture of trees belonging to the yellow pine belt and the lodgepole red-fir belt.
After working gently uphill with several undulations, the trail crests the prominent ridge dividing Giant Forest from the Middle Fork Kaweah Canyon (5.2 miles). From this point, it’s a fairly steep descent down to the High Sierra Trail. However, before you begin losing elevation, be sure to step off the trail on the right to find a rock outcrop offering one of the most impressive views of the Great Western Divide found anywhere within Giant Forest. This vantage lies a few miles east of similar vantages like Moro Rock, and therefore the Divide seems even larger than it would otherwise. A broad amphitheater containing several forks of Panther Creek swells to the craggy summit of Panther Peak, while the broad pyramidal form of Alta Peak – snowbound during spring – towers high above the massive canyon to the south.
From the ridge, the trail begins a steep descent toward the High Sierra Trail (6.4 miles). After the steep descent, the trail bottoms out at the High Sierra Trail, at which point you’ll turn right to head back to Crescent Meadow. The first three miles of the HST travel through an ever-changing mixture of oak-and-pine forest alternating with dense fir forests, depending on which direction the slope faces. Spring wildflowers brighten the carpet of manzanita and mountain misery that often lines the trail. Views across the canyon toward Paradise Ridge and the Castle Rocks remain with you past Eagle View until you finally cross back over a ridge into a dense forest of firs overlooking Log Meadow. From here, follow the High Sierra Trail back to the Crescent Meadow parking area to conclude your hike.
The trail is in good condition, but there are a couple of spots that may prove problematic. The unimproved crossing of Wolverton Creek is likely to get your feet wet. Also, the Wolverton Cut-Off Trail sign is often lost in a tangle of ferns. I include specific mention of how to find it.
Lodgepole Campground is your nearest and best option.
To Wolverton: From the Ash Mountain entrance, continue 20.7 miles to Wolverton Road. Turn right and follow Wolverton Road for 1.4 miles, and make a left into a parking area for the combined Alta Peak/Lakes Trailhead. To Crescent Meadow: From Wolverton, backtrack to Crescent Meadow Road, and follow it to its end at Crescent Meadow. You can also connect the two trailheads using the Sequoia Shuttle. See explicit instructions in the write-up.