Eian sent in quite a large trail report and with photos. Check out the recent adventure into the Domeland Wilderness that began and ended in Kennedy Meadows. Photos are in slideshow form following the trail report.
Trip Date: 5/1/20 – 5/3/20
Suggested trip length: 2-3 nights
Total miles: ~38
USGS 7.5 minute topos needed for complete coverage (highly recommended): a) Bonita Meadows, b) Crag Peak, c) Rockhouse Basin, d) Sirretta Peak. Also recommend GPS overlay for quick trail finding; Avenza app recommended by Forest Service worked flawlessly and trail locations were generally spot on (with one exception as denoted below)
Snow conditions: Due to snowpack ~50% normal for 2019-2020 season in this area of the Sierras, current snow conditions are patchy snow on north facing slopes >8000 feet and more complete but thin coverage ~9000 feet. Highly recommend USFS webcam from Bald Peak to get estimate of snow conditions within Rockhouse basin. Their snow depth estimate map also seemed accurate: https://www.fs.fed.us/r5/webmaps/SierraSnowDepth/
River conditions: South Fork of Kern is running approximately 275 CFS at time of crossing described below.
This route is an approximately 40 miles loop that can be completed as a 2 or 3 night trip. Because it starts and ends at Kennedy Meadows and spends considerable time in the warmer Rockhouse Basin, it is a nice option for earlier season trips, when the Sherman Pass Road [22S05] is closed and access to higher meadows and trailheads difficult. The major obstacle, on the other hand, is crossing the South Fork of the Kern when water levels will be higher during Spring.
Day 1: Kennedy Meadows to Rockhouse trail via PCT: 9 miles, 826 feet climbing, and one river crossing
Start by parking in the large parking area just west of the bridge over the South Fork (Sf) of the Kern River in Kennedy Meadows on the Sherman Pass Road [22S05]. Walk east over the bridge 0.1 miles and turn right to head south on the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is the only well-marked and well-worn trail you will encounter for several days. It is also the only trail that you could get away with shorts because leg protection is not essential. It continues through sandy ranchland for the first mile, briefly climbs to overlook the river, then travels through Kennedy Meadows where you will pass by ‘700’ spelled out with rocks, designating the 700 mile mark from the trail’s southern terminus. Northbound hikers at this point are excitedly approaching the famous Kennedy Meadows General Store where they will likely have a resupply and a well-deserved burger before entering the high Sierras! The PCT then drops back to river’s edge at a pinch point around mile 4. It then heads uphill after a small creek crossing through an old burn area before re-entering a pine forest around mile 6. At approximately 6.7 miles, the PCT comes to a trail junction with Rockhouse spur trail [35E16A]. Go right (southwest), leaving the PCT, and down a small drainage to Rockhouse Basin on what appears to be an old Jeep trail. The trail is only a 0.5 miles long and merges with the Rockhouse Trail [35E16], which enters over your left shoulder as you walk downhill. One-quarter mile later (7.7 miles from parking area), the Rockhouse trail heads right (north) and the Domeland trail [35E10] continues straight for a crossing of the S.f of the Kern. We did not explore this crossing point, and it could be better than what was in store for us on the Rockhouse trail. Head north on Rockhouse trail 1 mile to its crossing point over the S.f of the Kern. There are a few marginal campsites in this area near the east bank of the river, but recommend getting wet first and then finding camp so you don’t start your Day 2 early morning off with a cold swim.
A note on the S.f of the Kern within the Rockhouse basin: We didn’t explore extensively, but our general impression is that this river tends to cut a fairly deep channel. Even in areas where water speed slowed and topography was flat, it appeared to be deep and strong. Complicating matters, this riparian ecosystem is dominated by thick willow that makes access to water’s edge very difficult in most locations. This is by far the most dangerous point of this trip. I would under no circumstances recommend crossing alone with flow anywhere near 275 CFU. Also must be strong swimmer and highly recommend at least one (preferably 2) strong nylon ropes at least 50 feet long each. It is possible that better crossing locations exist, but it would likely add considerable distance to this first day, since we surveyed the nearby areas.
At the Rockhouse crossing point, just upstream from Fish Creek confluence, the river channel was ~25 feet wide (not so wide so that you couldn’t throw a rope from bank-to-bank) and immediately >7 feet deep at 275 CFS, ie, you’ll swim the entire way. We crossed by sending a strong swimmer across without a pack, with rope looped around the waist. Then this person stayed crouched on opposite bank and we tied off the east bank rope to a tree trunk. One of our packs can double as a dry bag, so we then shuttled gear across with this pack attached by carabiner to the crossing rope.
The Rockhouse trail disappears on the western bank and we immediately started looking for camp as planned anyway. We found an animal trail through the willows, crossed Fish Creek and camped at a very large sandbar located at N35° 57.280′ W118° 09.847’. We did not see other good campsites in this area.
Day 2: South Fork of Kern to vicinity of Woodpecker ‘Meadow;” 8.7 miles, 1617 feet climbing
To save a stream crossing, we hiked cross-county 0.75 miles along the southern aspect of Fish Creek and met Rockhouse trail where it crosses Fish Creek from the Northeast. Rockhouse trail also appears to be an old Jeep road and is in severe need of maintenance. Because it is graded like a road, we were able to stay on route with using a combination of USGS Topo with GPS overlay and discerning the contours of a graded road, despite dense bushes and downed trees overlaying the trail. From its Fish creek crossing, Rockhouse trail climbs to the high open land between Trout and Fish Creeks. The trail is undulating, tiring, without shade and very hot, but does have nice views of the domed peaks of the Wilderness’ namesake. Emergency water would never be too far away, as Trout Creek and possibly the smaller Fish Creek are likely perennial. At around the 8 mile mark from S.f Kern, Rockhouse trail terminates at the intersection with Woodpecker trail [34E08] heading north/south and Sirretta trail [34E12], which continues west. Our map was labeled “Woodpecker Meadow” in the area close to Trout Creek’s confluence with the unnamed creek running out of Dark Canyon. Thinking this would be a good camping spot, we headed down off trail, following the very small creek that comes out of Dark Canyon. Unfortunately, no meadow exists in this area, which has steep slopes on both sides and a thicket of willows and deciduous trees near Trout Creek; ‘Woodpecker Meadow’ was likely misplaced and this name probably refers to the meadow system around 1 mile north from this point, near the Woodpecker trail. We did eventually find several nice campsites on Trout Creek, however. Recommend descending ~250 yards east of the “Dark Canyon Creek” to approximately N35° 58.686′ W118° 15.597’ where 3 good campsites on north side of Trout Creek can be found. Alternatively, do not camp here, and read below for a campsite a short distance up Woodpecker trail which is very easily accessed, but it is unclear whether it has perennial water.
Day 3 +/- 4: Trout Creek to Kennedy Meadows (19 miles, 2340+ feet of climbing to Kennedy Meadows).
Return to Woodpecker Trail [34E08] and head north. This portion of Woodpecker Trail was our favorite hiking of the trip. It ascends gently for the first 2.5 miles or so through a pine forest and multiple small meadows with several seeps that are likely springs. It then parallels a small creek that is likely seasonal given the trickle of water we experienced in May. Approximately 0.75 miles north from the intersection with Rockhouse trail is an excellent flat campsite near one of these seeps with a well-established fire ring. It is unclear if this water is seasonal or not. Woodpecker Trail also needs maintenance but is easy to follow except for a few instances where it crosses creeks with dense willows. For the last 0.75 miles, the trail climbs more sharply through an area that experienced a ground fire recently. The USGS map does not have Woodpecker Trail in the correct location for upper Woodpecker, but the current trail is fairly well-marked. It then breaks out of trees around 0.25 miles from Sherman Pass Road at 8300 feet elevation with Bald Mountain directly in front of the hiker, with good views of the entire Rockhouse Basin to your right. Unfortunately, this portion of the trail is densely covered in thorns and is tedious and painful going.
From Sherman Pass Road, the hiker has many options for finishing their trip. If Sherman Pass Road is open, you could hitchhike back to your car like we ended up doing from Troy Meadows (since upper portion of road was closed). You could also plant a bicycle before starting and ride downhill to your car. If you decide to walk, you can walk on the road, or stay almost mostly on trails all the way back to Kennedy Meadows. Walking all the way back in a single day makes for a very long Day 3 of around 20 miles.
Where Woodpecker trail intersects Sherman Pass Road, pick up Mahogany Creek Trail [34E25] which is a dual use trail with dirt bikes that parallels the road for 1.5 miles. Follow this up to the intersection with the road to Bald Mountain summit [22S77] and then continue straight on Mahogany Creek Trail to avoid a large hairpin in Sherman Pass Rd that would otherwise add many miles to your route. Mahogany Creek Trail will climb briefly from here before descending steadily above Mahogany Creek. After 1.5 additional miles on this well-maintained trail, it will terminate at forest road 21S97, which is then followed to Little Troy Meadow and Sherman Pass Road. A dual-use trail parallels Sherman Pass Road here too. Established camping at Troy Meadows or Fish Creek campgrounds would be one option when current pandemic is improved and campgrounds open. At Rodeo Flat you can pick up Bitter Creek Trail for final 4.5 miles (incorrectly labeled 34E03 on USGS topo), and possibly find camping in this drainage for night #3 (can’t speak to camping options here), before returning the next morning to Kennedy Meadows.
Domeland felt like true wilderness and is a treasure. Based on my limited experience, I am concerned that the Forest Service does not have the resources to maintain its trail system, so hope that more visitors to Domeland may help keep trails passable.