Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

With the same spectacular scenery and mighty Sequoias as Yosemite, these parks get only a quarter of the visitors.

Sierra Nevada peaks scraping the sky. Mossy groves of giant sequoias—the largest living trees on Earth—standing tall. Limestone and marble caves ornamented with hanging curtains and eerie flowstone. The USA’s deepest canyon, plunging alongside the Kings River with its cascading waterfalls. Given natural bounty like this, you can easily forget all about Yosemite.

Rising along the spine of the Sierra Nevada, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are often overlooked in a headlong rush to get to Yosemite Valley. Yet these neighboring parks harbor some of the same spectacular mountain scenery, but with only 25% of the visitors of their more popular neighbor each year. Even during the busy summer season, you can still enjoy a heaping measure of solitude here.

Around the Giant Forest

When late 19th-century conservationist John Muir wrote that “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees,” he must have been inspired by giant sequoias, which only grow in the western Sierra Nevada. Today, the biggest groves of giant sequoias are protected inside Sequoia National Park. To get there, drive the winding Generals Highway, with its eagle-eyed viewpoints and thrillingly steep drop-offs, up from the foothills town of Three Rivers.

A network of hiking trails traipse through the park’s Giant Forest, passing by the General Sherman Tree, estimated to be over 2,000 years old and today standing over 275 feet tall—and it’s still growing. Nearby at Crescent Meadow, black bears forage for nuts and berries. Meanwhile at Moro Rock, a short but steep and pulse-pounding climb up a stairway of hewn granite steps ends at a lookout over the Great Western Divide, with its jagged peaks beckoning to backpackers.

Don’t miss a guided tour of Crystal Cave, one of the nation’s biodiversity hot spots for cave-dwelling wildlife. With an extra day in your itinerary, detour to the Mineral King Valley, reached via a 25-mile rugged road that makes nearly 700 turns on its twisting way up to the historic mining settlement, ringed by craggy peaks and glistening alpine lakes.

Down Into the Canyon

In 1891 John Muir declared the Kings Canyon “a rival of the Yosemite.” The rock where Muir once extolled conservation ethics still sits beside a swimming hole on the Kings River. Road’s End is literally where the canyon’s dramatic scenic byway ends and the meditative lands of towering granite domes and mountains and wildflower meadows begin.

Start your journey atop the canyon among the giant sequoia trees of Grant Grove. From there, the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Highway 180) motors past Hume Lake, a four-seasons family recreational camp, then plunges down toward the Kings River, with hairpin turns and incredible canyon vistas all along the way.

After passing Boyden Cavern and petite Grizzly Falls, the road arrives at Cedar Grove, the most remote area of Kings Canyon National Park. It’s a launchpad for waterfall hikes, bird watching at Zumwalt Meadow or backcountry trips into the high Sierra Nevada, including the Rae Lakes Loop and the John Muir Trail. Not up for a wilderness experience? Cedar Grove has four drive-up campgrounds featuring campsites within earshot of the bubbling river. Nearby at the old-fashioned wooden amphitheater, rangers still give campfire talks on summer evenings.

If You Go

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (7-day entry pass $20 per vehicle) are open year-round. Roads into the Mineral King Valley and Cedar Grove areas of the parks are only open from late April or May through late October or early November, depending on the weather; check current conditions. Proper storage of food, trash and all scented items is essential at all times in both parks in order to keep resident black bear populations wild and healthy; make sure to read for more travel tips and advice prior to leaving.

The parks are just over a four-hour drive from Los Angeles or San Francisco. There is no public transportation into Kings Canyon. However, a free shuttle connects points of interest in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park. The Sequoia Shuttle connects the park with Visalia several times daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Round-trip tickets cost $10 to $15; reservations are required—make them online or by calling 877-287-4453.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks offer more than a dozen developed campgrounds with over 800 total campsites, each costing $10-$12 per night. Most sites are first-come, first-served; on holiday weekends, every campsite may fill before noon. In the Giant Forest area, Lodgepole and Dorst Campgrounds accept reservations during summer; visit the website or call 877-444-6677. The USDA Forest Service manages additional campgrounds in the Giant Sequoia National Monument just outside the parks.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks will be fee-free June 20-21, July 18-19 and August 15-16, 2009.

Photo by Michael Connolly, Jr.

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