36.5647° N, 118.7727° W
These two parks’ dramatic landscape testifies to nature's size, beauty, and diversity. Think huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and of course, the world's largest trees. The parks lie side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, just east of the San Joaquin Valley, and together they contain five unique areas: Foothills, Mineral King, Giant Forest & Lodgepole, Grant Grove, and Cedar Grove. Each area has its own climate, features, and highlights. Grant Grove and Giant Forest are home to the largest sequoia groves.
Due to its location between two popular national parks (Yosemite and Sequoia) and its overall lack of road access to most of the park, Kings Canyon National Park has remained one of the least visited parks in California (roughly 700,000 visitors entered in 2017 compared to 1.3 million visitors at Sequoia and over 4 million at Yosemite).
| Fast Facts for Both Parks
\\ Year Established: 1943
\\ State: California
\\ Size: combined size of 1,353 square miles (3,500 km2)
\\ # of Visitors: a combined 1.2 million visitors in 2020
\\ Cost to Enter: $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, $20 per individual (on foot or bicycle) all valid for 7 days. You also have the option to pay $70 for an annual pass for the two parks.
| History of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks
People have inhabited the area for about 6,000–7,000 years. The Owens Valley Paiute peoples (also known as the Eastern Monos) visited the region from their homeland east of the Sierra Nevada, around Mono Lake. The Paiute mainly used acorns, found in lower elevations of the park, for food, as well as deer and other small animals. They created trade routes connecting the Owens Valley with the Central Valley west of the Sierra Nevada.
The early Spanish exploration of California largely bypassed what is now Kings Canyon National Park. In 1805 Gabriel Moraga led an expedition through the Central Valley and crossed what is now the Kings River, bestowing the name Rio de los Santo Reyes (River of the Holy Kings) on the stream. Fur trappers also visited the areas in the 1820s, but most likely did not venture into the high country since beaver were only present at lower elevations. They were followed by prospectors during the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848. During the 1860s, a road was built to Grant Grove and many of the sequoias there were logged. The first of several sawmills opened in 1862, and logging operations expanded north and almost entirely leveled Converse Basin, then one of the largest sequoia groves in the world (although the Boole Tree, the grove's biggest, was spared).
On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing America's second national park: Sequoia National Park. The plan was to protect the giant sequoia trees from logging, and because of this, Sequoia was the first national park formed to protect a living organism: Sequoiadendron giganteum aka giant sequoia trees.
One week later, General Grant National Park was created. Tasked with protecting these new parks, U.S. Army Cavalry troops were sent from the Presidio of San Francisco. This unit also included the first African American military superintendent, Colonel Charles Young.
Fast forward to 1940 when Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new national park to include the glacially-formed splendor of Kings Canyon. The newly established Kings Canyon National Park also engulfed and included General Grant National Park. And since WWII, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks have been administered jointly.
| One Park or Two?
While they are technically two parks, Kings Canyon and Sequoia, since 1943 they have been administered as one park - mostly due to their proximity and similarities overall. In fact, before being known as Kings Canyon National Park, the area was put aside and conserved under the name General Grant National Park (see above). But President Roosevelt abolished that park and instead created Kings Canyon National Park on the same land.
| When to Visit
While the two parks stay open year-round, if you are hoping to partake in activities such as hiking, backpacking and climbing (as well as many more adventures) we suggest visiting in late spring up to early fall. This is when the weather is nicest (on average 74 F or 23.3 C) and the expectation of rain is quite low.
The busiest time is during the peak summer months (late June to August), but if you are wanting to explore the park and not have to deal with too many other people, consider going during more of the shoulder seasons (May and September). Or if you really want to avoid crowds and are okay with the cold, the winter months are absolutely beautiful - just know that some of the amenities will not be open (make sure to check ahead for lodging and camping).
We visited in late July and backpacked the Rae Lakes Loop (see more below). While we saw plenty of people on the trail, it was never too busy. Also, a couple of things to note about visiting during that time of the year: there was still snow up on the pass and the mosquitos were absolutely terrible - though that might always be the case.
| How to Get There
The parks are located on the far eastern side of the state of California. The largest cities nearby are Los Angeles (4.5 hours away), San Francisco (just under 5 hours away), Bakersfield (2.5 hours away) and finally, Las Vegas at just under 7 hours away.
There are two entrances to the parks: Ash Mountain for Sequoia National Park, near the town of Three Rivers, and Big Stump for Kings Canyon National Park. There is also the entrance to the Mineral King area, which is a more remote area of Sequoia National Park. To reach that entrance look for the junction of Mineral King Road with Highway 198 in the town of Three Rivers, roughly two miles before the Ash Mountain Entrance. Note that this road is extremely narrow and winding and is unpaved in some areas.
| What to Not Miss
There is a tremendous diversity of habitats in the parks, owing largely to an elevation gradient that ranges from 1,370 feet below park headquarters to 14,494 feet at the top of Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the continental United States). In fact, there are over 70 different types of mammals in the parks, including the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, which is listed as federally endangered.
There are also over 200 species of birds - though not all live there year-round (some only use the parks for breeding or as a stopover during migration). Due to the park’s high diversity of birds and its numerous critical habitats for breeding, stopover, and wintering, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are both designated as Globally Important Bird Areas.
There are also various reptiles and amphibians that call the parks home, including Western pond turtles, which is the only widespread native turtle in the state, alligator lizards, and rattlesnakes. Note: when we did the Rae Lakes Loop we were promised a high chance of seeing black bears, but instead we just saw one (large) rattlesnake. Be aware when hiking and give them plenty of space.
Extreme topographic differences and a striking elevation gradient have created a high diversity of plants. The richness of the two parks’ flora really mirrors that of the state of California as a whole: of the nearly 6,000 species of plants known to occur in the state, over 20% of them can be found within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks!
Some of the most important plants within the two parks are of course the Giant Sequoias, the largest trees in the world. Other interesting plants include blue oaks, which primarily grow in the grasslands near the foothills of the parks. One interesting thing about the blue oaks is that, unlike most other plants in the parks, these are non-native. In fact, they were introduced to California during the mid-19th century and have subsequently become naturalized. Some blue oaks live to be over 100 years old.
Points of Interest
By far one of the most interesting things to see in the parks is the General Grant Tree, the second largest tree in the world and the largest sequoia tree in the entire Grants Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park. Scientists once thought the tree was well over 2,000 years old, but recent estimates suggest it is closer to 1,650. General Grant also features the third largest footprint of any living giant sequoia, measuring 107.6 feet or 32.8 meters in circumference at ground level. The tree was named after Ulysses S. Grant in 1867 (Grant was a Union Army general during the American Civil War and also the 18th President of the United States). Another interesting fact is that President Coolidge proclaimed it the "Nation's Christmas Tree" in 1926.
Now if that wasn’t cool enough, you also have the opportunity to not only visit the second largest tree in the world, but also the largest. Just next door is the General Sherman Tree, another massive sequoia located in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park. By volume, this tree is the largest known living single-stem tree on Earth and is estimated to be around 2,300 to 2,700 years old. The tree is named after the American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. Per the “official” story: in 1879 naturalist James Wolverton named the tree because of his background of serving as a lieutenant under Sherman in the 9th Indiana Cavalry during the Civil War. Learn more about the tree here (and why it was also named Karl Marx for a while).
Now, what about that famous tree you can drive through? Well… in truth, that tree is actually quite a ways away - roughly, 100 miles away in the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. Though before you get excited and start changing your plans, know that that tree - the Wawona Tree - actually fell over in early 1969.
If you want to drive “through” a tree you can still check out the fallen "Tunnel Log," which is located along the Crescent Meadow Road in Giant Forest. When the tree fell in 1937 it measured 275 feet high (83.8 meters) and 21 feet in diameter at the base (6.4 meters).
| Top Adventures
There are a ton of trails to explore in both national parks, from long full-day excursions to shorter jaunts through the forest (especially sequoia groves). Here are some trails that we definitely think you should explore:
\\ General Sherman Tree: a short hike but one definitely worth doing when visiting Sequoia National Park (where else can you say you visited the biggest tree in the world?!). The hike measures 0.75 miles and is lined with placards discussing the ecology of sequoia trees. The trail starts at the Giant Forest Museum.
\\ Moro Rock: if you are looking for stunning views of the surrounding area, then definitely seek out this short but steep trail. To reach the top of this granite dome, follow a stairway that climbs 300 feet (0.09 km) to the summit. The parking area for the trail is two miles (3.2 km) from the Generals Highway.
\\ Lookout Peak: this trail measures 13 miles (round-trip) and provides an incredible panorama of the park's backcountry areas. While the whole trail is 13 miles (6.5 miles out) you don’t have to go the whole way (though we highly suggest you do for the views and mountain solitude). A great stop along the way is Sheep Creek (1 mile out). Note: the beginning of the trail is known as the Don Cecil Trail - which was the first access point to the Cedar Grove before Highway 180 was completed.
\\ Mist Falls: a great hike if you are wanting to get a taste of what the Rae Lakes Loop is like is to head out to Mist Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. It is 8 miles roundtrip, with only the last mile or so being steep. From Mist Falls you can keep heading farther out on the trail (it is now called the Sierra High Route), which pretty much follows a creek the whole way.
Backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop
If you want to explore even more of Kings Canyon National Park, consider backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop. Measuring 41.4 miles, this hike usually takes between 3-4 days (we did it in 4), depending on how many miles you want to do a day, how fit you are, and really how much time you actually want to spend out in the beautiful backcountry.
This loop is one of the most popular hikes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks - if not in the entire Sierra Mountains (which includes Yosemite!). In total, you will climb from 5035 feet (1535m) at the trailhead to 11,978 feet (3651m) at Glen Pass, which is usually covered in snow (and can be impassible if you go too early in the season).
A couple of things to know about this trail: you need to get a permit ahead of time, or if you are feeling lucky, you can get a permit day of at the permit station at the trailhead located at the aptly named Road’s End area. We suggest getting a permit beforehand just for peace of mind (even though we didn’t when we did it, whoops). Also, bears are very active in the area - our friend supposedly saw four when he did it, though we saw only a rattlesnake. Either way, make sure to know what to do in case you see a bear and definitely bring an approved bear box (the ranger will ask you about it before you start the hike). Thirdly, there is plenty of water along the way so if you have a water filter then just bring that and a couple of bladders/water bottles. Finally, know what fire regulations are in place and FOLLOW THEM. No one likes forest fires.
If you are looking to get out on the famous granite rock of the Sierras but don’t want to deal with crowds then definitely consider heading out on the rock in both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Outstanding routes in the parks include the Obelisk and Grand Sentinel. Note: most climbs do require at least a day's hike in.
In Kings Canyon, a popular spot is Bubbs Creek - where the top climbing spots are Charlito Dome and Charlotte Dome (note that it is an 8-mile hike in). In Sequoia, a popular spot is Moro Rock (see hiking info above) and Angel Wings, which is roughly 2,000 feet high - making it one of Sequoia’s biggest walls (note that this spot requires an 18-mile hike in from Crescent Meadow).
Other activities you can partake in are fishing, going on a tour of Crystal Cave, which is an excellent example of a marble cavern, and horseback riding - either with your own horse (or stock animal) or on a guided tour.
| Where to Stay
If you are hoping to stay in the parks but don’t want to rough it at a campground then consider staying at one of the four lodges located within the park boundaries. This includes Wuksachi Lodge, which is located in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park and has a full-service restaurant, cocktail lounge, and a gift shop; John Muir Lodge, located in Grant Grove Village in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park; Cedar Grove Lodge, located deep in Kings Canyon and only open during the warmer months; and finally, the Grant Grove Cabins, located in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park (besides the cabins there is also a market, restaurant, gift shop, and post office).
Make your reservations here.
\\ Inside the Park: There are fourteen campgrounds in the two parks, including three that are open year-round. Campgrounds require reservations in advance, and sites are usually full (aka plan well ahead). Each campsite has a picnic table, fire ring with grill, and a metal food-storage box and can hold up to six people. The main campground areas are Lodgepole, Grant Grove, Cedar Grove, Mineral King, and Foothills. Grant Grove and Cedar Grove are both located in Kings Canyon National Park. Make your reservations here.