Spotlight: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Famous for their giant sequoias, soaring mountains, deep canyons and roaring rivers, this tandem set of parks have plenty to see, even though they are less well known than Yosemite, roughly 75 miles north. Within the borders of Sequoia/Kings Canyon are 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. Still, the parks—as well as adjacent Giant Sequoia National Monument and national forest lands—are most revered for their super-size sequoias. Thanks to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living thing and its gargantuan neighbours, gawking at the big trees is the most popular activity here.
The General Sherman Tree
How many ways can you say, “Wow, that’s big”? Probably not enough to adequately express your reaction when you see this monster of all monsters, the world’s largest living tree. Other trees are taller or wider, but none has the combined weight and width of this leviathan. The General Sherman Tree has a circumference of 103 feet and soars 275 feet into the blue Sierra sky—and it’s still growing. Every year it adds enough wood to make another 60-foot-tall tree. Still can’t grasp the size? One branch of the General Sherman is so big—almost 7 feet in diameter—that it’s larger than most trees east of the Mississippi River. Considering the giant sequoia’s size, you might think it’s the world’s oldest tree, but it’s not. Admittedly, at roughly 2,200 years old (no one knows for sure), the General Sherman is no spring chicken. But giant sequoias are only the second oldest living trees: ancient bristlecone pines, found in the White Mountains to the east, live even longer (some nearly 5,000 years old).
Not surprisingly, General Sherman attracts a crowd, which is why the park runs free summer shuttle buses to two separate stops, one above and one below this amazing tree. Many visitors get off at the upper stop and walk one-way downhill to the lower stop, passing the General Sherman along the way. That’s fine for a quick trip, but there’s much more to do here. Get an even bigger dose of sequoia awesomeness by hiking the adjacent Congress Trail, a 2-mile loop that travels through dozens of sequoias with diameters the size of your living room. The House and Senate groves, two more sequoia clusters near the end of the loop trail, are the most impressive, but another standout is the Washington Tree, which was long considered the world’s second largest tree. It used to be just 20 feet shorter than the General Sherman, but after a lightning fire burned its upper reaches in the late 1990s, it no longer makes the top 30.
Many visitors get their first glimpse of the parks at this signature grove. If you’re arriving from Fresno via Highway 180, the parks’ north-west entrance is just a couple miles from Grant Grove’s large visitor service area, which includes cabins, a lodge, a restaurant, a gift shop/green grocers, a post office and several campsites. Almost anything you might need or want for your park visit is available here, including maps and guidebooks, plus at Kings Canyon Visitor Center, where you can also chat with helpful park rangers. Several hiking trails begin near Grant Grove, including the short walk to Panoramic Point, which overlooks a maze of canyons and saw-toothed Sierra peaks (particularly spectacular at sunrise).
Busiest trails are near the General Grant Tree, also known as ‘the nation’s Christmas tree’, so dubbed by President Calvin Coolidge. Every year since 1926, the park has held a Yuletide celebration around the tree’s base. And there’s a lot of room to celebrate: the goliath measures 107 feet in circumference. If it’s hard to get your mind around the numbers, imagine this: If the General Grant Tree were transplanted to the middle of a motorway, its immense trunk would block more than three lanes of traffic. A paved .3-mile trail loops around the tree and visits neighbouring giants, including the Fallen Monarch, a hollow, downed sequoia. Because of its immense size, it was once used as a stable for the US Calvary’s horses.
Giant Forest, named by famed naturalist John Muir in 1875, has the most impressive collection of giant sequoias of anywhere in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Among its 8,000 giant sequoias is the General Sherman, the largest living thing on earth by volume, and a host of less famous, but equally impressive trees.
To fully appreciate their cathedral-like majesty, walk among them. But first, get oriented at the Giant Forest Museum, designed by the same architect behind the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee) in Yosemite Valley. From here, stroll on easy paths (suitable for wheelchairs), including the Big Trees Trail and the General Sherman Tree Trail. Ask for directions to Moro Rock and lovely Crescent Meadow, where you’ll find Tharp’s Log, the summer abode of rancher Hale Tharp. Believed to be the first white man to enter Giant Forest, Tharp built his home inside a hollowed, fire-scarred sequoia log and lived in it for many summers. On the road to Crescent Meadow is another popular photo op: Tunnel Log, a fallen sequoia hollowed out so that cars could drive through.
Behind Crystal Cave’s spider-web-like gate lies Sequoia National Park’s secret underground world, a landscape of glittering mineralogical features. It’s one of more than 200 marble caverns found within Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. The parks contain half of California’s caves that are more than 1 mile long, as well as the state’s longest cave. Most of the caves have limited access for research purposes, or require experience and equipment. But not Crystal Cave, which is open for guided walking tours between mid-May and November. (Note: no buggies or wheelchairs.)
Crystal Cave, first discovered in 1918, is hardly a secret: thousands of people explore it every year, and the underground route has paved paths and solar-powered electric lights. The standard 50-minute tour is a great choice for the mildly curious and families with young children, but it doesn’t rate high on the adventure scale. For a more exciting experience, sign up for the summer evening ‘Explorer’s Lantern Tour’, when the lights are turned off and visitors carry candle lanterns. The biggest thrill is found on the Saturday-only ‘Adventure Tour’, a 4- to 6-hour belly-crawling trek. Headlamps, kneepads and elbow pads are provided and participants should be prepared to get dirty as they stoop-walk, crawl and climb through off-trail passageways. Only in caves like this can you experience the eeriness of total ‘I can’t see my hand in front of my face’ darkness.
The cave is located at the end of a winding 7-mile road off the Generals Highway near Giant Forest. For all tours, advance planning is required. Buy tickets at Lodgepole or Foothills visitor centres (tickets are not sold at the cave). Driving to the cave from either visitor centre takes about an hour, plus you need additional time to hike the steep half-mile to the cave entrance. And don’t forget a jacket: It’s about 10 degrees inside Crystal Cave no matter what the temperature is outside.
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
There’s an undeniable allure about a place called Road’s End. That enticing moniker designates the eastern terminus of Highway 180, the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, open usually from late spring to October. Its snaking, winding pavement reaches an end 6 miles past Cedar Grove Village, where the wilderness begins. If you want to continue further into Kings Canyon, you have to walk.
"Junction View and other highway pull-offs offer overlooks into Kings Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in North America, reaching up to 8,200 feet deep."
The drive to reach Road’s End is half the fun: From Grant Grove, the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway zigzags east for 30 miles, skirting the banks of the roaring Kings River, especially booming during late spring snow melt. Junction View and other highway pull-offs offer overlooks into Kings Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in North America, reaching up to 8,200 feet deep. Consider a stop at Boyden Cavern (45-minute guided walking tours), and, in spring and summer, 80-foot Grizzly Falls.
Cedar Grove Village is modest—some campsites, a small lodge, ranger station and a little café (open late May to early October) but hiking trails abound. One standout near Road’s End is the 1.5-mile loop trail to lush Zumwalt Meadows, framed by dramatic granite cliffs carved by glaciers.
Giant sequoias become even more regal crowned in fresh snow, their cinnamon-coloured trunks and deep-green needles dusted in white. While a winter visit takes a little extra planning and gear, it can provide an unforgettable alpine experience.
"Giant sequoias become even more regal crowned in fresh snow, their cinnamon-coloured trunks and deep-green needles dusted in white."
From December to April, cross-country skis, snowshoes and other snow-play gear can be rented or purchased at Grant Grove, Wuksachi Lodge and Montecito Sequoia Resort. Ambitious cross-country skiers and snowshoers can reserve an overnight stay (in bunk beds) at rustic Pear Lake Ski Hut, a challenging, 6-mile trek from the Wolverton trailhead (winter back-country experience advised). For a milder alternative, join ranger-led snowshoe treks (offered on most winter weekends), or set off on your own. The most popular trail is the 2-mile return-trip on Congress Trail, with a side-trip to see the General Sherman tree. If you’d rather not fiddle with any snow sport gear, simply drive to the Big Stump or Wolverton snow play areas and build a snowman with the kids.
Note that most roads except Kings Canyon Scenic Byway are open and ploughed in winter, but you must carry snow chains at all times.
Accommodation & Camping in Sequoia & Kings Canyon
Rustic log cabins, idyllic glamping, motels, snug cottages—this parkland has plenty of accommodation options. Grant Grove, at the park’s northwestern entrance, has the most options in one concentrated area. Its historic log cabins look and feel like a throwback to the 1920s. There are also budget-conscious tent cabins, and the comfortable 34-room John Muir Lodge, where you can curl up next to the stone fireplace in the inviting great room. Three campsites (Sunset, Crystal Springs and Azalea) provide more options.
Heading out via the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to Cedar Grove, consider the 21-room Cedar Grove Lodge, where patios and balconies overlook the Kings River (open May to mid-October only). Or pitch a tent in one of four riverside campsites: Sheep Creek, Sentinel, Canyon View and Moraine.
In the Lodgepole/Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park, the place to stay is Wuksachi Lodge, a complex of three buildings with a total of 102 guest rooms. Its casually elegant 90-seat restaurant is housed in a separate structure that has soaring ceilings and huge windows overlooking the forest. Two hotels are also found nearby in Giant Sequoia National Monument: Montecito-Sequoia Resort and Stony Creek Lodge. Montecito-Sequoia is a High Sierra version of we-take-care-of-everything Club Med, with an emphasis on organised activities for children. Guests stay in private cabins (some with private bath) or motel-style rooms. Stony Creek Lodge is much smaller, with only 11 rooms. Campers can choose between two family-favourite campsites: Lodgepole and Dorst Creek.
For a splurge, book a stay at Sequoia High Sierra Camp, in Giant Sequoia National Monument. Luxury tent cabins feature comfy beds, colourful rugs and modern furniture. A restaurant serves three meals a day, and packed lunches for the trail. Alpenglow on the side is free.
At least once in your life, you’ve got to do it, even if you don’t buy the t-shirt afterwards. Climb Moro Rock. Unlike most once-in-a-lifetime achievements, this one is not overrated. The 6,725-foot precipice, a bald granite dome that protrudes from a forested ridge, is accessed via a series of ramps and staircases. The trip doesn’t take very long—it’s only 300 feet to the top—but it includes 400 steps that will have even the hardiest hikers huffing and puffing.
"At least once in your life, you’ve got to do it, even if you don’t buy the t-shirt afterwards. Climb Moro Rock."
To catch your breath, stop to admire the view of the Kaweah River gorge far below, or the zigzagging switchbacks of the Generals Highway as it heads south toward Three Rivers. Once you’ve conquered Moro Rock’s flat summit, admire the view of the Great Western Divide. This saw-toothed skyline of alpine cirques and glacier-carved peaks scraping the sky at over 13,000 feet will knock your socks off. For best visibility, hike early in the day in summer, and on cooler days in autumn and spring.
Giant Sequoia National Monument
The national parks aren’t the only places to find giant sequoias; more than 30 lesser known groves are protected within the neighbouring lands of Giant Sequoia National Monument. Managed by the US Forest Service, rather than the National Park Service, rules are slightly different here—it’s okay to hike with your dog here (it’s not okay in the parks). Camping is also less restricted, so you can pitch your tent just about anywhere (as long as it is set back from any water sources), but you’ll need to bring everything you need, and leave no trace behind.
Two areas of Giant Sequoia National Monument offer some fascinating highlights--the lands northeast of Grant Grove and the Big Meadows/Jennie Lakes area. As you drive east from Grant Grove on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, you pass the Converse Basin Grove, once reputed to be the largest sequoia grove in the Sierra. Walk the 2.5-mile Boole Tree Loop through the grove’s sad remains—a maze of immense stumps amid a second-growth mixed forest and the solitary Boole Tree, which was named for the lumber foreman who cut down all the other sequoia trees in this grove. Nearby is the wheelchair-accessible Chicago Stump Trail.
A 20-foot stump is all that remains of a sequoia named the General Noble Tree, which, in 1897, was sawed into numbered sections, then transported and reassembled for the Chicago World’s Fair.
Further south and a short drive off Generals Highway, climb the 172-step steel stairway to visit Buck Rock Lookout, a fire lookout tower perched on top of a bald granite dome. Also in this vicinity are several Forest Service campsites, plus hiking trails that lead into the 10,500-acre Jennie Lakes Wilderness.
Part of the beauty of this natural park is its remoteness. But that doesn’t have to mean a long drive. Public shuttles run daily between Memorial Day and US Labour Day (May to first Monday in September). Please note that hazardous road conditions can change scheduling, so check in advance. For a reasonable fee, the Sequoia Shuttle picks up passengers in Visalia (35 miles) west for the 45-minute drive to the park, passing through the hamlet of Three Rivers then continuing to the Giant Forest Museum. From there you can catch the park’s free shuttle, which stops at key destinations such as the General Sherman Tree and Moro Rock. In-park shuttles are in service at roughly the same time as the Sequoia Shuttle, though some days can be added during the winter holidays.
If you want to go even further with your public transport options, consider using the Amtrak system. Trains stop in the Central Valley town of Hanford, then Amtrak buses continue the 35 miles east to Visalia, where you can catch the Sequoia Shuttle to get to the park.