Although it's not as scenic as the rest of the park, the chaparral and bay tree-covered foothills area is a nice alternative when higher elevations are covered with snow. The best trail in this area is the Middle Fork Trail, which has a passing resemblance to the nearby High Sierra Trail, except it doesn't have any sequoias, the views are more restricted, and it's too hot to hike in the summer. The 5-mile trek to the nice backcountry campsites at Panther Creek seems to be fairly popular with both day hikers and backpackers.
The first four and a half miles of trail climbs through open chaparral with views mostly of the wide Middle Fork valley but also of Castle Rocks, Moro Rock, and the Great Western Divide. The same sights are visible from many of the Giant Forest area high country hikes, and in comparison it's kind of strange to see them from below. The trail is wide and well-maintained in this area. As it approaches Panther Creek, the trail enters woodland and becomes more brushy.
Start at the Hospital Rock parking lot. From April through September it's possible to drive up to the actual trailhead and save about 2 miles of hiking. However, from June through September it's usually too hot to hike in this area.
Cross the main road. To the left, a set of steps leads up to some Indian pictographs on Hospital Rock.
Take the unmarked paved road toward Buckeye Flat. The road climbs gently for half a mile, then splits: to the left is a dirt road to the Middle Fork trailhead; to the right, the paved road descends to Buckeye Flat. Go left.
The road continues to climb gently, then descends slightly to a cul-de-sac and the actual trailhead. There's some parking and a food storage bin here for summertime visitors.
The trail descends and after just a few yards crosses a creek. Like all the creek crossings on this hike, there's no bridge. This is the deepest creek crossing until Pather Creek and the only one where you may have to get your feet wet even when the water is low. It may not be crossable during very high water.
The trail contours along the chaparral-covered hills, offering some views of Moro Rock above. The river roars below. Castle Rock comes into view and is eventually left behind. Later, a bit of the snow-capped Great Western Divide becomes visible.
The trail becomes increasingly brushy after about 4 miles. It passes through some patches of mixed broadleaf forest, then enters the forest for good just before descending to Panther Creek.
The roar of waterfalls gets louder as the trail approaches Panther Creek. The creek is deep but can usually be crossed on some stepping-stones. To the right is a large waterfall which can't really be seen because it's below the trail. Through the trees to the left is a smaller, easier to see waterfall. Far below, another small waterfall is visible on the Middle Fork.
Just on the other side of Panther Creek is a flat area in the woods with a view of the valley. This attractive spot is a popular campsite. After Panther Creek the trail continues to ascend through the woods. This part of the trail doesn't really add anything to the hike, so it makes sense to turn around at Panther Creek.
© 2012 David Baselt