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August 2007

Perfect Substitutes: Crowd-Free Destinations

You know that the big-name parks draw big-time crowds. But each of those outdoor icons has a lesser-known replacement that offers some of the same classic features and epic scenery–and you get it all to yourself.

Swap out: Yosemite National Park
Swap in: Dome Land Wilderness, CA

From a vast High Sierra meadow, a lush carpet of grasses and wildflowers unfurls toward pine and fir forest. Above the trees, granite domes and spires climb more than 1,000 feet into the cloud-free sky. Trails follow the many streams entering and exiting the meadow. Sounds like Yosemite’s Tuolumne, doesn’t it? Guess again. It’s Manter Meadow, some 250 miles to the south along the Pacific Crest Trail, in Sequoia National Forest’s Dome Land Wilderness.

Here you’ll find reasonable facsimiles of Yosemite’s legendary landmarks. Acres of exposed granite slab abound. Bart Dome and Stegosaurus Fin may not be as big or as dramatic as their Yosemite counterparts Half Dome and Cathedral Peak, but neither do thay attract the kind of traffic seen in Curry Village.

Dome Land, with 94,695 acres at the southern tail of the Sierra Nevada, is markedly drier than Yosemite. This, plus the lower elevations (3,000 to 9,400 feet), makes it a good choice for spring and fall, when snow still clings to high-mountain locales. The wilderness has long been a favorite among rock climbers, who tramp half a day to access bolted sport routes on Bart Dome and Church Dome. "There’s fantastic, heavily featured granite everywhere in Dome Land that was never polished by glaciers," says Mike Merg, owner of the adventure company Untamed Path.

Take all that granite, add forests of widely spaced piñon, lodgepole, and Jeffrey pine (and a notable absence of poison oak), and you have in Dome Land a recipe for serious off-trail exploration.

2 Days
The South Fork Kern River can run big in spring, blocking some routes. If that’s the case, backpack a 22-mile route linking three monstrous meadows on the wilderness’s west side. From Big Meadow, make a counterclockwise loop utilizing the Manter, Woodpecker, Machine Creek, and Sirretta Peak Trails. In recent burn areas, the blooms of penstemon, ceanothus, and other wildflowers are especially profuse. Tack on a few extra miles by detouring down Dome Land Trail to scamper to Bart Dome’s base for killer views.

4 Days
Circle Dome Land’s stony core on a 30-mile loop that originates at either Big Meadow, on the wilderness’s west side, or Rockhouse Basin on the east, depending on snow. (Big Meadow is 2,000 feet higher, and the approach road opens later in spring.) The route skirts Manter Meadow and follows the Manter, Rockhouse, and Woodpecker Trails. Sticking exclusively to trails would take the fortitude of Odysseus, given the lure of easily climbed nearby formations like Stegosaurus Fin and Dome 8300. The scramble up 8,360-foot Rockhouse Peak’s 3rd-class east face rewards with sweeping views of granite domes, spires, and fins rising like whitecaps above a green sea of pine. Access the top from the saddle between White Dome and Rockhouse Peak. Take Merg’s advice and build in a layover day for scrambling to the tops of the area’s many granite heights. For a prime basecamp on a sand bank, scout off-trail along perennial Trout Creek. Trails are unmaintained and can grow faint. Watch your timing; from May into June, snowmelt can make the route’s two South Fork Kern River crossings untenable.

Plan It
Pair the map Dome Land Wilderness ($11; with Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side, by J.C. Jenkins ($18).

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