One of my hobbies, and my future career, is cartography, or map making. One day I decided to use my mapping software to scout a route around the Domeland Wilderness on Sequoia National Forest, 2.5 hours north of Los Angeles. Not wanting to hassle with ride shuttles or hitches, I decided to try and make a loop/lollipop route through the area primarily using annotated U.S. Forest Service trails. I traced the line and dropped pins on key locations such as water crossings and potential campsites. I also added the mile markers along the way to help keep track of pace and distance. Once I finished the map I printed out the elevation profile and jotted down some notes in my pad to take with me. Now all I had to do was find an opportune time and maybe even a willing teammate to join me.
There are many reasons why I picked this area to map and hike. First, this area sprawls out west of the Pacific Crest Trail as it meanders north towards Kennedy Meadows and is rarely visited. I first laid my eyes on the area hiking through in 2015 and wondered why on Earth would the trail not go through the area. Which leads to my second reason: the trademark of this area is all the outcrops of tasty granite domes, exposed through glacial erosion and the uplift of the Sierra Nevada batholith. The best part is that the elevation isn't too high along the route as it would be further north along the PCT/JMT corridor. Also, the area has a commanding view over the South Fork Kern River from the west. Depending on weather, I would say the best times to hike this loop are June to September. Unfortunately, I'm not always free on time so when opportunity knocks I have to answer it, even if it seems a little off season.
As luck would have it my time to put my hiking shoes on the map was at hand. In the middle of February 2020, I enlisted my buddy Ant (trail name) to join me on a short 2.5 day, 39 mile walk through Domeland. 2020 was not a typical snow year and we hadn't had a snow storm come through since right before New Year's. Warmer, sunnier weather had melted almost all the snow below 8,000' in the entire Sierra. Additionally, there was a weather window predicted to last up to 7 days with temperatures only down into the high teens at night, something a warmer sleeping bag and some extra clothes would fix, especially since we wouldn't be carrying 15 pounds of food. Ant had not been hiking much after the 2019 season and I had only been day skiing so we decided to take it easy and see where things would go and how we were feeling after the first day, an easy 9 miles in to start. We decided to leave on a Saturday to be back before Grumpy Bear's Resort closed for the night on Monday so we could grab some hot food before we crashed for the night.
Ant and I left from Bishop, CA and drove down to Kennedy Meadows Friday after he got off work. We got to Grumpy Bear's and ate dinner and chatted with some locals. Scott, the owner, let us stay in one of the trailers on the property as we were the first hikers he'd seen for the season. Not surprising considering it was still the dead of winter and talk of a strange virus going around. After a decent night's sleep we grabbed a hot breakfast and some coffee (one less meal to pack out) and got a ride to the PCT trailhead. It was good to be back on trail after skiing and snowshoeing the past few months.
We hiked a few miles south on the PCT and after an hour or so took a short break. We got to talking about weird things and I took out my wallet to show Ant something related to the conversation. For whatever reason I zipped up my wallet and set it down next to me instead of securing it in my pocket. We soon packed up and hiked away from our break. Another hour or so goes by and we pause for the cause. As soon as I sat down I audibly muttered the word, "Shit". I knew right there without patting myself down I had left it. Now a good 2-3 miles past our last break spot and not wanting to waste time, I decided I'd leave it and get it on the way back since it was also on the stick end of the lollipop shaped loop we were hiking and more than 3 miles south on the PCT. We also saw no human tracks on the trail at all which made me think we wouldn't see another soul out in the Domelands. We pressed on under the agreement that we would remind each other about the wallet until I recovered it. It became a game after awhile and we even had fun making songs about the dang thing. When Ant asked me why I didn't want to go back right away to get my wallet, I just reassured him that there were no ATMs out there and the cops could run my plates at Grumpy Bear's to help ID my body. He nodded in concurrence, what can you do, eh?
The weather was fantastic. A cool breeze kept us from breaking too long when we did but the direct sunshine and constant movement warmed us up quickly. The PCT was still nice and clear for us for the first 6 plus miles before we had to cross the Kern about the point where the PCT veers south away from the river. We probed around before finding a slow, smooth crossing point. The water levels are lower and slower in the winter, but are deathly cold so we made the crossing fast only having to expose our feet and lower calves. It was bone chilling cold and felt like they were being crushed and burned at the same time. We quickly dried off in the sun and got back underway. Did I mention cold water is not my fave? You won't catch this guy jumping in alpine lakes anytime soon unless I'm on fire.
The first of the biggest navigational issue immediately became apparent as the trail we were to immediately join was not to be found. After the Manter Fire devastated the area in 2000, most of the Forest Service carted trails lay in waste. This is not an unique case on Domeland; this is a systemic problem of the Forest Service due to lack of funding. This is mainly because of the budgeting for wildland fires across much of the western United States and the lack of access to once widely used Forest land. Needless to say the same situation is currently affecting parts of Sierra, Stanislaus, Eldorado, Tahoe, and other National Forests.
We looked at the map and decided to try and track the trail, but after about 30 minutes it was clear that the trail was gone. We readjusted out sights and started across open, rolling terrain. A mile before camp we had to make another crossing of the Kern, but this time we were able to make a dry crossing across some stones. We decided to make camp a little earlier so we could have plenty of light to cook and relax before we climbed into our bags and slept for the night. We found a nice pile of boulders to cowboy camp against as a wind block and had an amazing pastel infused sunset. After slurping down our chow we nestled into our bags like ticks and turned the sign. Sometime after dark I got up to pee and looked up at the night's sky. Infinite stars and the rest of the Milky Way.
We woke up just before sunrise and brewed up some coffee and breakfast. We both slept well but we could both feel the aches from not being in great hiking shape. The word Slow was now in our vocabulary for the day, as was wallet. Most of our gear hung out to dry for a little bit in the morning sun while we finished our coffee and packed the rest away. We agreed on a mileage goal for the day but were also realistic to how we were physically feeling. We hiked west and climbed up into the shallow mountains following Tibbets Creek which carved its way up into the high country. The creek was bone dry partially due to the atypical low snow year and also from the devastation caused by the Manter Fire. Even 20 years later this area has not rebounded or regrown much. Most of the regrowth is chaparral, sage, and manzanitas with most of the trees not returning at all. This made for a pretty dry stretch of the route, but we had figured on carrying more water just in case we moved too slowly. For this stretch we were supposedly on Forest Trail 35E10, but there wasn't much of anything resembling a trail.
The trail through here eventually just turned to mush and we navigated by terrain association for most of the day. With the exception of a few snags there was not much cover for shade. The light breeze cooled us as we walked and sitting in the shade on breaks was nice until we had to start moving again because of the chill. The trail sits below towering granite ridges with oddly shaped outcrops and huge flaking domes. Around each bend we were greeted by even more spectacular views of the wilderness area. Soon we parted with Tibbets Creek and started to gain elevation as we headed towards the eastern peak boundary of the high country. The going was slow and all uphill sinking into the soil up to our ankles in gopher holes and dodging deadfall. We were both feeling pretty worked, it was getting near sunset, and the breeze had turned into cold wind. There were no stands of trees or boulders around for us to shelter behind so we did the next best thing and hunkered down in a lattice of huge downed trees. We set up our cowboy hideout and fired up our stoves. The campsite rested on the last level area along a spur just below the saddle junction we would cross the next day. We had a commanding view looking to the east and south. The sunset was a wild, ever changing show of pastels of clouds that words can do no justice towards. The wind died back down to a light steady breeze as we drifted off on our second night.
The next morning we shook the sand out of our ears and packed it up. We had mentally prepared for the rest of our trip to be a classic hike the way Native Americans or early explorers like John Muir, Clarence King, or Theodore Solomons must have experienced. Ant and I both grunted loudly as we shouldered our packs onto screaming backs. I led the way, stepping up and over the giant log that shielded us the night before. I took a few steps forward to adjust my pack and to let Ant climb over the log. As I was looking down adjusting my straps I noticed what looked like a trail with work boot prints no more than 10 feet from where our heads had been all night! We couldn't believe it! What were the chances that the trail, after not being apparent for almost two full days, suddenly appeared out of thin air after not seeing a trail for the past 15 miles? We laughed about it for the next 10 minutes as we continued to climb the draw.
Just a few miles past the start of the climb I saw something that brought a huge smile to my face. Sitting just off the side of the trail (by now we had found a part of the carved trail with a few diamond blazes) were about a half dozen Douglas Fir saplings and two mature trees. Why was I smiling? These trees were almost completely wiped out of the area in 2000. And even though it's just a few trees, that means there's hope for their return. Just past the clutch of trees, we crossed back over Tibbets Creek a few hundred feet below the headwaters and just past that joined the Woodpecker Trail (34E08) at the top of a saddle. Just before the saddle we found our first trail signs and they were truly in the middle of the entire wilderness area! Three signs all one after another in Woodpecker Meadow. This was great news for us because it helped to reassure us that we were in fact where we thought we were and confirmed the number of the trail.
This trail was clear all the way down to the north end of Manter Meadow and seemed to be maintained during the hiking season. The easy downhill cruised through more chaparral and huge boulders just off trail made for a pretty cool landscape. Just before the actual clearing at Manter Meadow we came to a trail junction with the trail we would be taking along the eat side of the meadow. This area allows for stock and cattle grazing during the warmer months. Following the trail south we came across a small corral with another one looking like it took some damage over the winter. Through the trees the meadow began to become more visible. A sprawling field of short, blonde grass blanketed the entire area. Small patches of snow no more than a few feet wide lay wedged in between the north facing trees on the northwest side of the meadow evading the sun at all times. The trail through here was perfect and clear for about another mile. It was nice staying just inside the treeline and being able to see the meadow without being directly in the sun. As we strolled through the tall pines, we stumbled onto Nelson's Camp, a makeshift Forest Service Trailshot camp bordered in by a barbed wire fence on all sides, and a gate on both ends. On one side the ridge climbed straight uphill, on the other was the meadow so we passed through the gate. There was no cabin or guard station here, this was purely a camp area. The barbed wire boxed the football pitch sized area in with enough space for the main tent pad, a cooking and eating area, and tent sites for crew. There was also a spring flowing in the southwest corner just outside the fence so Ant and I used the back gate and walked the fence to top off on water. Being outside the fence, sitting in the sun, sipping on fresh spring water just staring out into the meadow had to be one of the highlights of this trip for me. It was so peaceful and calm there, just a high blue sky and a light breeze with the smell of soil and pine. Augh! Take me back!
After about 45 minutes and a quick bite to eat, we walked back up the fence line to the back gate where the trail was supposed to continue to the next junction. Unfortunately the Trailshots just cut the trail to their camp from one direction and just stopped a few hundred feet south of the camp. Immediately we were back to looking at the map and terrain associating for the next half mile. We reached the junction and took one last long look into Manter Meadow before turning east onto the Manter Creek Trail (35E12). This was a nice shaded walk paralleling the creek for the next 2 miles or so. We walked through Little Manter Meadow which was tiny compared to Manter Meadow. There were a few spots of snow here and there but we mainly hiked on dirt most of the way.
This is where we started to have the real fun. On the Forest Service map, of which we were using to navigate, the Manter Creek Trail continued east, up and over a saddle and back down to Rockhouse Meadow, splitting from Manter Creek on the west side of the divide. Once we crossed the creek to the west it was clear that this section was in disarray like the section we hiked on Day 1, only this time we would be on the north facing slope for the rest of the way. During the summer months this might not be an issue, however, we weren't hiking during the summer. Snow had drifted and backed the entire route all the way to Rockhouse Meadow. On the climb up we wound up postholing most of the way up. Once we were clear of the snow we were both extremely happy to be back on solid ground. The saddle was gorgeous and had a great view in both direction and would make a great dry camp. We decided to not repeat the climb and to stay out of the snow as it was the back half of the day and wanted to dry out as best as possible. This turned into a Class 3 section for us where we climbed down granite boulders and dry waterfalls for the next mile and a half before we were able to get onto less steep ground on the north slope of the draw. This side would more than likely not have a trail at all, but it was dry and gently sloping and shaved a half mile off to save us some time after our scramble.
Going downhill we could see the bend of the Kern and the meadow south of us. We decided to bypass the meadow to the north and shoot for the trail as it followed the river north. The open faced wall of granite greeted us as we made our way down to where we would camp for the night. Once we got off the spur the trail was easy to find. We were so happy to not be postholing gopher holes and snow. A short distance after meeting back up with the trail we found a nice pile of boulders to camp behind nested on a foot and a half of pine straw. We grabbed some water from the river, cooked our dinner, and sacked out. Only one more day and we can get a nice meal.
Sleeping down by the river was colder than any night we had spent out so far. I forgot just how much cold air sinks, especially down to the lowest points. After some coffee, I took off ahead of Ant to prepare for my last crossing of the Kern of the trip. The sun had not breached the valley wall yet, but it was light out. This was nice because I could see the bottom of the river without a glare blinding me. I took off my shoes and socks, slung them around my shoulders, and prepared to enter the water. As soon as my foot went into the water I knew I had to haul ass. In 6 quick steps I had crossed the river, done a pirouette, and flopped butt first onto the bank rocking onto my pack and launching my feet into the air. I quickly dried my feet and put my shoes and socks back on. Standing up was awful but necessary. In that short amount of time my feet were already icicles so getting the blood flowing was a must. Ant made the crossing just as I was stepping back off. We agreed that we would break at the first sunny spot.
For the first half of the day we travelled along an old two-track trail used to get to the old house in Rockhouse Meadow before it burned down and the land was absorbed back into the wilderness area. The way was easy going and stayed close to the Kern. There were also a few scattered trees and rock piles to take breaks in the shade. About 4 miles up trail we entered into Rockhouse Basin, which is about 5 times the size of Manter Meadow, and came across a signed junction showing the PCT was just east of us. Since Ant hadn't hiked that section of the PCT yet, the trail we were on wasn't well maintained, and we knew the PCT would be we headed east for a mile. Along the way we accidently spooked four coyote that were wandering the area. They were health and big which was a good sign. We found the PCT and headed north. With the sun to our backs and the thought of town food floating in our brains, we pushed on another 4 miles until we found our fording point from the first day and took a short break. And yes, we were still playing the wallet game!
A couple more miles further north and we found our first break spot of the trip. Sitting right where I left it no more than ten feet from the trail was my little wallet. We had a good long laugh about it for the next few minutes as we decided to take our last break of the trip. A quick snack and some water and we were off to finish the last 3 miles back to Sherman Pass Road. And then we remembered it was still another 3 mile road walk back to Grumpy Bear's Resort. A small price to pay for such a fun trip.
If you're interested in learning more about this route send me a message from the bottom of the page. Thanks for reading!
Official Forest Service - Sequoia National Forest Website:
South Fork San Joaquin River south of Kennedy Meadows along the Pacific Crest Trail, February 2020. We would wind up cross this river twice during the trip. While it was not running strong or deep, it was bone chilling cold.
There is a ton of geology in this wilderness. This area is a unique part of the southern end of the Sierra Nevada batholith. This one looks like a giant golf ball on a tee.
Ant contemplating life before coffee at our first campsite. The weather was nice enough to cowboy camp the entire trip.
Much of the low country was ravaged by the Manter Fire in 2000. Very little of the soil nutrients are left so the land has not bounced back to its old self.
The whole region is littered with huge boulders, some of which are larger than two-story condos. Plenty of them present awesome bouldering problems if you are into rock climbing as well.
The portion of this wilderness that is the most spectacular is the high country granite domes. Following Tibbits Creek drainage uphill, the granite outcrops are there to great you on both flanks.
Tucked behind our logs on the second night, we enjoyed one of the most memorable sunsets of my life.
The boulders were everywhere and so were all the domes. Quartzy shine of white crystals.
Manter Meadow from Nelson's Camp looking southwest from the spring. Not a bad place for a lunch break.
Here's a general overview of the route oriented looking north. If you would like more information or navigational aids contact me at the bottom of the page. Happy Trails!