Tall trees, towering waterfalls, and fascinating geological formations provide a scenic backdrop on this winding five-day tour
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/120 kilometers north. Within the borders of Sequoia & Kings Canyon are Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet/4,417 meters, 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 neighbors, gawking at the big trees is the most popular activity here. The General Sherman Tree measures 103/31-meters around, and soars 275 feet/84 meters into the blue Sierra sky—and it’s still growing. Every year it adds enough wood to make another 60-foot/18-meter-tall tree. Still can’t grasp the size? One branch of the General Sherman is so big—almost 7 feet/2 meters in diameter—that it’s larger than most trees east of the Mississippi River.
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/3-km 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.
Winter snows significantly limit access in the parks; check the website in advance for details.
To return to Los Angeles, head south for roughly 3½ hours due south. San Francisco is roughly 4 hours northwest.
Spend the night in a Grant Grove Cabin in Kings Canyon National Park.
Coming from the east, Yosemite unfolds with high-country beauty, a land of granite crags and alpine meadows, the best known being Tuolumne Meadows, with well marked trails endless scenery. From its tranquil edges, hiking trails lead in all directions—to the alpine lakes set below the spires of Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks, to a series of roaring waterfalls on the Tuolumne River. The meadow’s small visitor center, housed in a historic cabin, features exhibits that focus on the area's geology, wildflowers, and wildlife. Continuing west you reach the park’s signature site, Yosemite Valley, where shuttle buses can take you to all the key sites.
California’s first national park and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, Yosemite attracts 4 million visitors each year—with good reason. Nearly the size of Rhode Island and covering more than 1,100 square miles/284,899 hectares, it features unforgettable natural beauty. Among Yosemite’s many bragging rights, its waterfalls rank high. In the list of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots for Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall. Yosemite Falls holds the undisputed title of the tallest waterfall in North America. It’s a challenging hike to the top of the 2,425-foot/729-meter falls, but fortunately it’s an impressive view from the base to—an easy and scenic 1-mile/1.6-km loop that should be on everyone’s bucket list. An easy walk to 620-foot/189-meter Bridalveil Falls takes you to an overlook point below its billowing cascade. A more demanding hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls ascends granite steps to the brink of two massive drops, where you can watch the entire Merced River plunge over the rocky ledge. (Adhere to all safety signs and stay behind all ropes and signs.)
From Yosemite, continue south on the west side of the Sierra, following roads that dip down to the fertile Central Valley, to your last stop at a twin park that protects the world’s largest living things and a wild and rugged alpine canyon.
Yosemite Valley Lodge has direct views of 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls. Be sure to make a reservation in advance.
One of the most photographed regions of Yosemite, Tuolumne Meadows is a wide, grassy expanse bounded by high granite domes and peaks. At elevation 8,600 feet, this pristine meadow extends for more than two miles along the Tuolumne River, making it the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada. From its tranquil edges, hiking trails lead in all directions—to the alpine lakes set below the spires of Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks and to a series of roaring waterfalls on the Tuolumne River. The meadow’s small visitor center, housed in a historic cabin, features exhibits that focus on the area's geology, wildflowers, and wildlife. (Note the access to Tuolumne is limited; roads generally close due to snow mid-November to June.)
At this high-desert preserve, on the eastern side of the towering Sierra, ghostlike tufa towers trim the edges of a one-million-year-old lake.
Get a picture of the natural and human history of the Mono Basin at the interpretive center, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains). Decks offer dramatic views—Sierra peaks to the west, chaparral-dotted desert to the east—as well as the lake itself and tiny Wizard Island, a nesting site for Western gulls and other sea birds. Bird walks are offered at 8 a.m. Fridays and Sundays, mid-May through Labor Day. The visitor center is closed December through March.
Explore Lee Vining Creek riparian habitat, blanketed with obsidian and pumice, or walk the South Tufa Area for close-up views of the tufa towers formed by the interaction of freshwater springs flowing into the ultra-alkaline lake that’s 2½ times as salty as the ocean. Naturalists lead free walks at the South Tufa Area three times daily from late June through Labor Day. Guided paddles are also offered through Caldera Kayak.
Look down on the astounding Emerald Bay and you can see why Mark Twain dubbed Lake Tahoe "the fairest picture the whole earth affords." While the main lake is as blue as a topaz, a color created by Tahoe’s remarkable clarity and depth, this somewhat shallower bay on the lake’s west shore takes on a startling and beautiful blue-green, made all the more striking by the perfect dot of tiny Fannette Island—the only islet in Lake Tahoe—right in the middle of the bay. Pull off Highway 89 and park near Inspiration Point to get one of the best views of the inlet, 600 feet above Lake Tahoe. See if you can spot the ruins of a tiny stone teahouse perched on the top of the island. The teahouse, and the 38-room Scandinavian-style stone castle known as Vikingsholm that’s built on the nearby shore, were constructed by Lora Knight, an extraordinary woman who married into extreme wealth, then used her money to educate young people who could otherwise not afford it. Learn about her and tour her richly detailed, hand-built home, a replica of a 9th-century Scandinavian castle, on tours offered throughout the summer—it’s definitely worth the walk down from the parking lot.
Steaming sulphur vents, splattering mud pots, boiling springs—these lively features at Lassen Volcanic National Park prove that our planet is a living entity. Start at the outstanding Kohm Ya-mah-nee Visitor Center, then head out to explore some of the park’s remarkable and safely accessible features, such as the geothermal site Bumpass Hell (open seasonally, check website for details). An easy, well-marked trail travels past roaring fumaroles and hissing vents (3 miles round-trip and worth the effort). Along the way, a short spur trail leads to a stunning panorama of peaks—actually the remnants of a massive volcano called Mount Tehama, which exploded some 500,000 years ago. The park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in May 1914. Today, things have settled down, and trails and overlooks let you safely see and learn about volcanic activity. In the park’s southern reaches, you’ll find two easy-to-reach waterfalls: 50-foot-high Kings Creek Falls is accessed by a downhill tromp through a verdant meadow, then a descent on a rocky staircase alongside Kings Creek. Mill Creek Falls plunges 75 feet over a moss-covered cliff (to see it, hike 1.5 miles from Southwest Campground).
If skies are clear, this perennially snow-capped peak will dominate your view, a behemoth rising from the flat valley floor, topping out at a staggering 14,179 feet/4,322 meters high. While some mountains climb gradually, this one rises from surrounding flatlands in such perfect, cone-shaped majesty that it seems unreal. (Famed naturalist John Muir wrote his “blood turned to wine” when he first caught sight of the Fuji-esque peak.) Summiting the mountain is for the hardiest of climbers; ask about guide services at The Fifth Season outdoor store in the town of Mt. Shasta, on the mountain’s west side.
You don’t have to bag the peak to enjoy this alpine paradise. Easy paths loop through wildflower-filled meadows and into cool forests. A mellow two-mile path, along the McCloud River on the mountain’s south side, leads to a trio of beautiful waterfalls—though Middle Falls stands out. There’s camping, caverns, and world-class fly-fishing too. Most winters, there’s skiing at local Mt. Shasta Ski Park, on the mountain’s western slope.
A drive down the 31-mile-long Avenue of the Giants is a guaranteed jaw-dropper. The narrow road snakes along one of California’s most beautiful greenbelts, a prehistoric forest featuring 2,000-plus-year-old trees. Kids love a squeeze through the privately-operated Shrine Drive-Thru Tree, and there are plenty of short hikes that are perfect for little legs. Stop in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center for a map and a ranger will help you choose a few groves to explore along the way. Favorites include the Immortal Tree, which has weathered floods and a lightning strike, and Founders Grove Nature Trail, where you can wrap your arms around a 325-foot-tall giant.