Almost equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco (each about five hours by car), Sequoia National Park is closely linked to Kings Canyon National Park, on its northern border, and to Yosemite National Park, which in turn is about 40 miles north of Kings Canyon and just 3.5 hours from San Francisco. If you have time, a visit to all three provides a spectacular variety of natural beauty, each park differing strongly from the others in types of scenery, activities and facilities. Some of the most beautiful scenery around here is not in the park itself, but in neighboring Giant Sequoia National Monument, another 328,000 acres created a monument as recently as 2000 by President Clinton. (When opened originally in 1890, the area of the park itself was less than 11% of what it is today, Congress having expanded it seven times, the last in 1978.)
The two parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, together cover 865,258 acres, measuring about 66 miles from north to south and 36 miles across their widest point. It is home to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 states (at 14,505 feet). Because of their location and frequent natural fires, the two parks experience some of the worst air quality in the National Park system. The two parks protect some 265 Native American archeological sites and 69 historic sites.
Before setting out to any point in the park, it's a good idea to visit one of its two Visitors Centers. The Foothills Visitor Center is just inside the main entrance at Ash Mountain Entrance on CA 198 (tel. 559/565-3135). The second and largest is the Lodgepole Visitor Center, 4.5 miles north of Giant Forest Village (tel. 559/565-4436).
The most famous drive is between two giant sequoias named for Civil War generals -- Grant and Sherman -- running from Sequoia into Kings Canyon Park. Before or after this 25-mile drive, check out Sequoia's most important target, the Giant Forest. The Sherman Tree, still growing, is believed to be the largest living tree on the planet because of the size of its trunk, though it is neither the tallest nor widest tree. It's estimated to be about 2,100 years old, is 275 feet tall and measures more than 102 feet around the base. Another fun route is through the Tunnel Log, a fallen sequoia through which you can drive your car (sideways, not lengthwise).
Before you set out inside the park, remember that this is bear country, and rattlesnakes and poison ivy are also hazards to be aware of at all times. Come dressed for differing temperatures, as elevations here run from 1,400 ft to more than 14,000 feet above sea level, so you will need layering of clothes.
Among the things you can do in the park are hiking, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, fishing, horseback riding, and whitewater boating. All overnight backpacking trips require a permit.
As to hiking, perhaps the best view in all of the Sierra Nevada is that from the Moro Rock, as beautiful by moonlight as by day, a quarter-mile, 30-minute climb up some 400 steps and back. Longer and equally scenic is the popular High Sierra Trail, 9 miles, 6 hours, moderate difficulty. If you are really ambitious, you can use this as the route to Mount Whitney, if you are prepared to the really long trek.
Bird watching and animal spotting are popular here. Among the fauna to be seen are the great horned owl, the peregrine falcon, the California condor (the largest land bird in North America), the Steller's jay, and the northern flicker. Larger mammals include the black bear, the mule deer and the coyote, as well as the bobcat, mountain lion, and the gray fox.
There are special Junior Rangers programs for children of most ages, especially in summer.
New in 2008/2009
Another highlight is Crystal Cave, easily accessible, with 45-minute guided tours. You need to buy tickets at one of the Visitor Centers, as tickets are not sold at the cave entrance. Note that the cave is closed for the winter, following a lightning fire in the area in September, and when it will reopen is not yet known for sure. So check ahead.
There were 954,207 visitors in 2006, the last year for which I could find reliable figures, making Sequoia the 71st most-visited park in the system.
It will cost you $20 per vehicle to enter the park for up to 7 days, half that if you walk, bike, or motorbike in. Camping fees are extra. You don't need a permit for day hiking, unless you're bound for Mount Whitney. There's an annual pass for $30, too, and if you have one of the national passes (National Parks Pass, Golden Eagle Pass, Golden Access Passport, Golden Age Passport, etc.), they are good, too. Since 2007, the various passes and passports have been supplanted by an America the Beautiful-National Parks & Federal Recreation Lands Pass ($80, less for seniors or disabled), but the older names are easier to remember.
The official website of the park is www.nps.gov/seki.
A good commercial site is www.sequoia.national-park.com.