Famous for their giant sequoias, soaring mountains, deep canyons, and roaring rivers, this tandem set of parks abound with astounding sights, but they see far fewer visitors than famous Yosemite National Park, roughly 75 miles/120 kilometers north. Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s long list of superlatives includes Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet, and the Kings River Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in North America.
But the parks—as well as adjacent Giant Sequoia National Monument and national forest lands—are most revered for their super-size sequoias. In Sequoia National Park, head to the aptly named Giant Forest to see the most impressive collection. Get oriented at the Giant Forest Museum (or one of the parks’ other visitors centers) and stock up on maps and guidebooks before taking a paved path to access the cathedral-like majesty of towering trees like the General Sherman, the largest living thing on earth by volume.
You can admire the giants year-round, too. Sequoias become even more regal crowned in fresh snow, their cinnamon-colored trunks dusted in white. From December to April, cross-country skis, snowshoes, and other snow-play gear can be rented at Grant Grove, Wuksachi Lodge, and Montecito Sequoia Resort. Ranger-led snowshoe treks are offered on most winter weekends.Other must-see, tree-peeping spots include Tharp’s Log, the summer abode of rancher Hale Tharp who built his home inside a fire-scarred sequoia, and Tunnel Log, a fallen redwood cut in 1938 so that cars could drive through.
It’s hard to tear yourself away from the amazing sequoias, but there’s more to explore. Climb 390 stairs to the top of Moro Rock for a head-swiveling view of the Great Western Divide, a sawtoothed skyline of alpine cirques and glacier-carved peaks. Take a winding drive on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway—the road is usually open from late spring through October—which skirts the banks of the roaring Kings River. Follow the flowing water all the way to Road’s End and take a walk through lush Zumwalt Meadow, framed by dramatic granite cliffs carved by glaciers.
Make advance plans to visit the secret underground world of Crystal Cave, a landscape of glittering mineralogical features (buy tickets at Lodgepole or Foothills visitor centers in Sequoia National Park). The standard 50-minute tour is a great first-time choice, but for more excitement, sign up for the summer evening “Explorer’s Lantern Tour,” when the lights are turned off and visitors carry candle lanterns; or the Saturday-only “Adventure Tour,” a 4- to 6-hour belly-crawling trek. Headlamps, kneepads, and elbow pads are provided—and expect to get dirty.
There are several campgrounds in the parks, and four lodges, including the Grant Grove Cabins, John Muir Lodge, and the Cedar Grove Lodge in Kings Canyon, and the Wuksachi Lodge in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park (John Muir and Wuksachi are open year-round).
Add an extra day or two to your itinerary so you can visit the southernmost section of Sequoia National Park. A circuitous drive—398 turns and curves in just 25 miles/40 kilometers—leads to Mineral King, a glacial valley bounded by a cirque of peaks towering higher than 11,000 feet in elevation. Day-hike to Eagle Lake, Monarch Lake, or the White Chief Mine, where 1870s miners once searched for silver. Afterward, be sure to stop in at the Silver City Resort for a slice of homemade pie.