This long hike combines sweeping high country vistas with one of the best routes through the Giant Forest. It's a lot like the Wolverton Cutoff loop, but with more and better high country scenery. The varied environments makes this an especially rewarding hike.
The hike starts with the first six miles of the High Sierra Trail, a long-distance backcountry trail that leads to Mount Whitney. This part of the hike features spectacular views of the Sierra Crest; knowing that the trail continues up and over that dramatic range makes it seem more imposing, not just a pretty row of snow-covered peaks.
Turning off the High Sierra Trail, the route climbs out of the pine woods and more open territory at the edge of the high country. A long, gradual (and somewhat monotonous) descent through unremarkable pine forest follows before the trail reaches the giant sequoia forest. The final few miles feature a succession of immense trees and attractive meadows.
The hike starts from the Crescent Meadow parking lot, which adds some complications. On summer weekends and holidays the road to the lot is closed at 9 am, after which visitors can leave the lot but not enter it. Anyone who doesn't get in before 9 has to take a shuttle from the Giant Forest Museum, but the shuttle only runs between 9 am and 6 pm, making it difficult to finish a hike of this length in time. The lot is also closed in the winter. So if possible, take this hike on a weekday. In any case the peaceful Crescent Meadow parking lot makes for a much more enjoyable start than the hectic, busy Giant Forest Museum lot.
From the lot, take the well-marked High Sierra Trail. The trail is briefly paved, then veers off onto dirt singletrack and climbs a gentle hill. Turn right at a saddle. The rocky trail emerges from the forest onto an open hillside and soon comes to Eagle View where, turning a corner, the Sierra Crest and the big granite outcroppings across the valley come into view for the first time. With all the spectacular alpine scenery you almost expect to hear yodeling.
The trail continues on a more or less level course through attractive pine woods. There's a brief climb with a few switchbacks but otherwise it's a very fast "wilderness highway".
Soon after passing Wolverton Cutoff, the trail begins a gentle but continuous climb, crossing several small creeks. The scenery isn't really anything special until Mehrten Creek, a sizable creek that cascades down a wide, steep rock face with spectacular views. The trail cuts across the open rock face and crosses two branches of the creek.
Turn left onto the next trail (marked "Wolverton 6 miles"). This trail climbs steadily and more insistently than the High Sierra Trail, although it's well-maintained and not steep so it isn't especially difficult. The scenery isn't anything special at first, but as the trail climbs the pine forest thins out, opening up first into attractive meadows and then into open chaparral with lofty views that are even more spectacular than those from the High Sierra Trail.
Turn left at the Alta Trail, which is carved into a steep, open hillside, and descends gradually toward Panther Gap. From Panther Gap, continue straight on the Alta Trail for several miles. This section of trail is rather dull and is the least scenic part of the hike.
The scenery begins to pick up again as you enter the Giant Forest. Right where the trail enters the old-growth sequoias is one of the most scenic stands of sequoias in the Giant Forest — a little meadow with several groups of huge trees. The unusually red trees stand in isolation in and around the meadow, not screened by smaller trees. A lush carpet of purple lupines underlies the trees, an impressive sight in late July when they're all in bloom. A little creek burbles through the meadow.
The lushness ends abruptly at the intersection with the Congress Trail. The landscape here is rather barren and odd-looking compared with the Alta Trail, with more scraggly pine trees mixed in among the sequoias. Continue along the paved trail and take the first dirt trail to the left (at the bench). As you leave the Congress Trail, the lush undergrowth and scenic character of the forest returns almost immediately.
The trail is especially scenic around Crescent Meadow. This open, expansive area has some very nice sequoias as well as the most extensive carpet of purple lupines that I've seen.
After crossing Circle Meadow, the trail climbs a slight hill and then descends the other side. This area isn't as lush although there are still some big trees. Finally the trail reaches Crescent Meadow, one of the park's larger meadows. Despite its grandeur there aren't actually a lot of big trees here, and the meadow is actually a little dull compared with the preceding miles of trail.
The trail ends at the Crescent Meadow parking lot.
© 2011 David Baselt