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LOOKING TO EXPLORE TWO OF CALIFORNIANS EXCITING NATIONAL PARKS? THEN DEFINITELY CHECK OUT THIS IN-DEPTH ADVENTURE GUIDE ON KINGS CANYON & SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARKS.
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).
HISTORY OF SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS
People have inhabited the area for about 6,000–7,000 years. Specifically, the Owens Valley Paiute peoples visited the region from their homeland east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Paiute eventually created trade routes connecting the Owens Valley with the Central Valley west of the Sierra Nevadas.
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.
The fur trappers 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 eventually logged. The first of several sawmills in the area 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 luckily spared).
In1890, President 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.
Once the parks were created, U.S. Army Cavalry troops were sent from the Presidio in San Francisco to watch over the area. This unit included Colonel Charles Young, who would become the first African American national park superintendent.
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. Since WWII, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks have been administered jointly.
INTERESTING THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS
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, 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).
\\ Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks | Fast Facts
A combined size of 1,353 square miles or 3,500 square kilometers
NUMBER OF ANNUAL 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.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Both national parks are open 24 hours a day. The only time access might be hindered is during dangerous winter storms.
Hiking and backpacking
2 days minimum, more if planning a backpacking trip
\\ When to Visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
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° 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 Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
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.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the road out to Mineral King is extremely narrow and winding. It is unpaved in some areas. It is recommended that no large vehicles attempt to drive this route.
\\ The Top Adventures in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
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
This is quite a short hike, but one definitely worth doing when visiting Sequoia National Park, for where else can you say you visited the biggest tree in the world?!. The total hike measures 0.75 miles in length and is lined with placards discussing the ecology of sequoia trees. The hiking trail starts at the Giant Forest Museum.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: this massive tree was named after the American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman by naturalist James Wolverton. Wolverton came up with the name thanks to his background of serving as a lieutenant under Sherman in the 9th Indiana Cavalry during the American Civil War. You can learn more about the tree here (as well as why it was also named Karl Marx for a while).
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.
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).
💬 INSIDER TIP: the beginning of this hiking trail is actually known as the Don Cecil Trail - which was the first access point to the Cedar Grove before Highway 180 was completed.
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.
➳ You can find more information on the backpacking route here.
► And if you are curious to learn more about our own experience on the trail - as well as information on other awesome California backpacking trails, then check out this article.
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.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: most of the climbing routes in the two parks 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 in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
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).
You can make your reservations for the park lodges here.
CAMPING INSIDE SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS
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.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: it costs $22 per night to camp at any of the campgrounds in both national parks.
CAMPING OUTSIDE SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS
If you are looking to camp in the area, either because you don't want to pay for a campsite or because it is full, then your best bet is to explore nearby Sequoia National Forest, which surrounds the two parks. The US Forest Service maintains 52 campgrounds, all located within Sequoia National Forest (which measures 1.1 million acres in size).
The closest National Forest campgrounds to the parks are Princess, Hume Lake, Tenmile, Landslide, and Convict Flat. Another area to explore for camping is the Stony Creek and Big Meadows area, located along the Generals Highway.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: in the summer months there are often (very) strict fire restrictions in place, so definitely make sure to do your research ahead of time. Learn more here.
Also, if you are not wanting to camp in an actual campground, there are definitely spots in the national forest that are available for boondocking. A great way to find them (besides just wandering down dirt roads that head into the forest) is to check out the app iOverlander.
\\ Must-See Spots Near Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
There are a couple of really cool spots near the two national parks; including, Lake Isabella and Silver City Ghost Town (3 hours away), Death Valley National Park (5.5 hours away), Bishop, where you can find great climbing and stars (6 hours away) and Mono Lake, a crazy volcanic lake with very interesting rock formations - and hot springs (roughly 6 hours away).
Destinations a bit closer to the two parks include the town of Three Rivers and its neighbor Lake Kaweah and the towns of Fresno and Visalia.
If you are wanting an exciting, adventurous escape to the Sierras but don't want to deal with crazy crowds then making the trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks might just be the best option. While both parks are not necessarily "empty" - Sequoia can be especially busy - you are much more likely to not feel like you have stepped into a wilderness version of Disneyland. We especially loved exploring Kings Canyon because it somehow sees so little traffic compared to Yosemite and Sequoia - even though the landscape is just as stunning, and the hikes are just as fun. We don't get it - but we also are not complaining.