Not long after glaciers and the Kings River carved out Kings Canyon, I made my first and only trip through Sequoia National Park on one of my many Navy cross-country trips. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t that long ago and not measured in glacial time, but definitely in the early 1980s.
The only distinct memory I have from that trip was a terrifying near head-on collision with a couple of guys on bicycles screaming down the mountainside. They took a hairpin turn a little too tight, coming well into the oncoming traffic lane—my lane—and all of us only had a fraction of a second to react. I missed hitting the lead guy by mere inches. And. I. Do. Mean. Inches.
After my last few vacations in places like Arizona, Utah, and Death Valley, it was time to see something other than rock formations and desert landscapes. It was time to make a return trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI) for a little late spring recreation on the greener western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
I planned on staying four nights in the park and would have three full days to explore both. Three days will give you a good overview of both parks, but you could certainly spend three days in each park and still have things left to see and do. I decided to spend my first day in Kings Canyon—someplace I’d never been before—and my second day in Sequoia. I’d let what I discovered in each dictate how I’d spend the third day. For me, Kings Canyon held far more appeal, so I returned to the canyon on the third day.
Sequoia National Park
Of course, Sequoia National Park is home to some of the largest trees on the planet, the giant Sequoia. While they’re not the tallest trees—coastal Redwoods claim that title—they’re the largest in volume of wood contained in a single tree. They seem to thrive at elevations between 5,000 feet and 7,000 feet (1,524 m – 2,133 m). The largest tree, General Sherman, is 275 feet / 84 m tall and has a circumference of 103 feet / 31 m at its base.
Getting to the General Sherman tree is a relatively easy 0.4 mile /650 m walk on a paved surface with multiple sets of steps along the way, and it runs downhill the entire distance with an elevation change nearly as much as the tree itself. Of course, that means that you’ll be going uphill the entire way back at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet. Let’s just say that I paused multiple times to catch my breath on the way back up the hill.
One of the first things that I like to do when visiting someplace unfamiliar, is to drive through as much of the park as I can to get a sense of where I can come back to and explore or photograph more seriously later. Keeping with that tradition, I drove the entire length of CA 198 all the way to the south entrance of the park, not far from Three Rivers, California.
Driving down the mountains to Three Rivers brought back the memory of nearly hitting the bicyclists almost four decades ago. The road is quite twisting with multiple blind turns where you can’t see what’s coming around the corner, so you have to be very alert because far too many drivers in cars also liked cutting the corners to tight and coming into my lane. If you’re thinking about entering from the south in a vehicle that’s over 22-feet long, you can forget about it. The rangers will turn you away at the entrance station for exceeding the maximum allowable length.
During my visit, there were no open gas stations in the park, so one of the reasons I went to Three Rivers was to top off on fuel, and another was because of a recommendation of a friend at work. He knows the owners of Sierra Subs and Salads and recommended them to me because of their great sandwiches. He wasn’t wrong.
As you leave Three Rivers (at 800 feet / 240 m elevation), you enter the park through the Foothills Entrance Station and begin your climb to 7,000+ feet elevation. You’ll see the landscape turn from the more brown and scrub type environment of Southern California to a more lush and green forest the higher you climb.
Of course, not all of the trees in the forest are Sequoias. In fact, the vast majority are other types of coniferous trees: White fir, Sugar Pine, Incense Cedar, and Ponderosa Pine. Between all of them, the scent of pine fills the air, even with the stiffest of breezes. In late May, the trees were giving off their pollen and yellow specks of pollen covered everything.
Driving through the forest with the early morning sunlight creating a dappled patterns on the forest floor was amazing. The unfortunate thing was that there are very few places to pull off the road and park your car so you can get out and wander through the forest. Sure, there are the designated turnouts, but those are meant for slower cars to use to allow others to pass them; they’re not really intended to park in.
One of the things that surprised me among all of these pine trees and sequoias were dogwood trees in bloom. For some reason, I’ve always had an affinity for dogwood trees, and I was able to stop on a little dirt patch beside the road (not a designated turnout) and snap a few photos.
I’ll have to admit that I was a little disappointed by the lack of wildlife sightings in either park while I was there. Of course, squirrels and chipmunks were in abundance, and I did see two deer grazing by the roadside in Sequoia National Park, and that was it. There were signs all over both parks alerting us to high activity by black bears, but I didn’t see a single one.
I didn’t stop by the Giant Forest Museum, mainly because of the COVID restrictions and the long line of people standing outside waiting to get in. I figured I could make better use of my time exploring other things. I also passed on climbing the 300+ steps to the top of Morro Rock, a granite dome that’s at 6,725 feet / 2,050 m high. If hiking the General Sherman Trail nearly did me in, hiking to the top of Morro Rock would have had me MEDEVACed out of the park. I know my limitations.
I know there are plenty of other things that I missed out on in Sequoia National Park, and I can return again and check those out at a later date. Again, that’s the purpose of reconnaissance trips in the first place. Get a feel for what’s there, and then explore in more detail later.
On the whole, Sequoia National Park is a wonderfully beautiful place, and to be able to stand beside some of these immense trees is a mind-blowing experience.
Kings Canyon National Park
In 1891, John Muir wrote of Kings Canyon:
In the vast Sierra wilderness far to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the same kind. It is situated on the south fork of the Kings River, above the most extensive groves and forests of the giant sequoia, and beneath the shadows of the highest mountains in the range, where the cañons are deepest and the snow-laden peaks are crowded most closely together. It is called the Big King’s River Cañon, or King’s River Yosemite … The stupendous rocks of purplish gray granite that form the walls are from 2500 to 5000 feet in height, while the depth of the valley is considerably more than a mile.“A Rival of the Yosemite” The Century Illustrated Magazine
He wasn’t wrong. Like Yosemite, the canyon is only a fraction of the park with the remainder being wilderness area that extends east and includes several peaks in the Sierra Nevada over 14,000 feet / 4,267 m in elevation.
Driving up from San Diego, it was a more direct route to enter Kings Canyon from the west using CA 180. It, too, starts in the foothills and climbs to Grant Grove Village at about 6,500 feet 1,980 m in elevation, but that drive is nowhere as near as challenging as the drive in from the south. I had reservations to stay at the John Muir Lodge in the village and paid the price for the convenience of being centrally located between both parks.
On my first full day in the park, I did a reconnaissance run all the way to the end of the road at an area called Kanawyers, about 35 miles / 56 km from the lodge. It’s a breathtaking drive as you descend from the mountain deeper and deeper into the canyon. Eventually, you’re driving beside the roaring South Fork of the Kings River.
All along the drive, there are places to pull over where you can get out and enjoy the expansive view before you at higher elevations, and become mesmerized by the whitewater on the swift-flowing river at lower elevations. Here are a few views along the way:
Grizzly Falls are along the route and it’s a brief and easy three-minute hike from the parking lot to the falls.
My favorite part of the park was around the Zumwalt Meadow area. Like Yosemite Valley, there is a wonderous meadow nestled between huge walls of granite on the north and south sides of the valley. North Dome is slightly taller than Yosemite’s famous El Capitan but, because it’s not a true monolith like El Capitan, you’re deceived by its size.
Around the meadow are a number of easy, relatively flat hiking trails. One used to go through the meadow itself, but a flood took out the boardwalk that was installed to protect the meadow and it hasn’t been replaced yet. Visitors are discouraged from walking on the meadow’s fragile grasses and plants.
Just past the pedestrian suspension bridge that takes you from the north side of the river to the south side, there’s a little beach area in the shade right beside the river. On my third day in the parks, I returned to this spot, pulled up a boulder, and just sat there for well over an hour listening to the water flowing by and the birds chirping. Paradise.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and I left the canyon and headed back to Grant Grove Village. I wanted to get back in time to get a quick dinner before sunset, and then head up to Panorama Point to check it out. On the way to dinner, I snapped a couple of photos of some backlit plants and grass along the way.
And then I made it to Panorama Point to catch the last of the day’s sun hitting the tops of the mountains below.
And that was a fitting end to a wonderful trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in May 2021.
Getting There & Getting Around
There really are only two ways into the parks from the west: Taking CA 180 east out of Fresno or taking CA 198 to the northeast out of Visalia, with CA 198 being the more challenging to drive and restricted to vehicles less than 22-feet in length. The speed limit in most areas that you’ll visit is 35 miles per hour but you’ll easily average less than that given all the twists and turns you’ll be doing on the two-lane mountain roads.
Obtaining gasoline in the parks is an issue. Perhaps it was because it was early in the season, there were no gas stations in the parks that were open, so I made sure my tank was topped off at the last possible gas station before heading into the park. You’ll want to check the park’s website before going to see the current status of getting fuel.
Starting in late May, there’s a shuttle bus that will run between key attractions only in Sequoia National Park so you don’t have to drive. It runs every 7 minutes from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Parking along the roads can be a challenge, as well as at some of the more popular trailheads if you don’t arrive early enough. Parking around Grant Grove Village wasn’t a problem in the early season, but I suspect it could be during the high season.
Lodging & Dining
There are a number of different lodging options within the park, but you’ll pay for the convenience of being there. Reservations are strongly encouraged, as the number of rooms available is limited and you can check out this site for all the different options: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks | In-Park Lodging (visitsequoia.com)
I opted to stay at the John Muir Lodge in Grant Grove Village because it was centrally located to everything I wanted to see and do. It was about 30 miles from most of the attractions in Sequoia, and about 35 miles to the end of the road in Kings Canyon. You may be able to find lodging outside of the park for less cost, but you’ll be spending close to two hours commuting to and from your hotel each way, and that just sucks up time you could be visiting the parks.
In Grant Grove Village, you’ll find the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, a general market to get basic snacks, drinks, and other items, a gift shop, a post office, and a restaurant. During COVID, the Grant Grove Restaurant was all outdoor patio seating and you placed your order at a kiosk and they called your name when it was ready. The food was better than your typical park concessionaire, and it wasn’t outrageously priced. Time between placing your order and getting your food, however, was in the 15 to 20 minutes range.
The other dining option is to go to the market and purchase a pre-made sandwich or salad and a drink and take it with you to eat in your room, the car, or one of the tables outside the market.
The weather threw me for a little bit of a loop. I checked the forecast and temperatures were supposed to be in the 60s during the day and 40s (or lower) during the night. However, as in any mountain setting, temperatures ranged from the mid 20s early on my last morning to near 80° F in the Zumwalt Meadow the first day I was there. Layers. Dress in layers.
This was a great trip of exploration, and I now have a better foundational knowledge of both parks where I can come back and be more productive from a photography standpoint. I also know where I can go to just hang out and relax in the crisp, pine-scented mountain air.
I also learned that I need to follow my packing checklist to the last detail.
As I got ready to leave Monday morning, I put on a pair of jeans fresh out of the drier that, as we all know, were tight when they first come out of the wash. They were staying exactly where they should, and I left without putting a belt on. The rest of the week, I kept tugging on my jeans to ensure that when I bent over or that those hiking behind me didn’t see a different Kings Canyon. 🤢🤮 I’m not sure I succeeded at all times. Oh well.
I’ll definitely return (with a belt and suspenders next time!).