Most of the land in these parks is wilderness, best explored on foot. There are few roads. The three main access points enter the park from the southwest, and much of Sequoia & Kings Canyon remains undeveloped. The National Park Service prefers it that way, as do many visitors. If you visit here after staying in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or other big-name national parks, be prepared for a shock. The crowds are thinner, there are few scheduled events, and the prime attraction -- and the real reason for the existence of these parks -- is the beauty and majesty of the mountains and the trees, some of the largest living things on earth. This is nature, and none of it is likely to change anytime soon. You can expect fewer people, less prepackaged entertainment, and plenty of terrain to explore at your leisure.
Introducing Sequoia National Park
The best-known stand of sequoias in the world can be found in Giant Forest, part of Sequoia National Park. Named in 1875 by explorer and environmentalist John Muir, this area consists mostly of huge meadows and a large grove of trees. At the northern edge of the grove, you can't miss the General Sherman Tree, considered the largest living tree on the planet, although it is neither the tallest nor the widest. Its size is noteworthy because of the tree's mass -- experts estimate the weight of its trunk at about 1,385 tons. The General Sherman Tree is 275 feet tall, it measures 102 1/2 feet around at its base, and its largest branch is 6 3/4 feet in diameter. It is believed to be about 2,100 years old -- and it's still growing. Every year, it adds enough new wood to make another 60-foot-tall tree. The tree is part of the 2-mile Congress Trail, a foot trail that includes groups of trees with names such as the Senate and the House. Also in the area is the Beetle Rock Education Center, a fun place for kids to investigate science and nature.
Another interesting stop in Giant Forest is Tharp's Log, a cabin named after the first non-Native American settler in the area, Hale Tharp, who grazed cattle among the giant sequoias and built a summer cabin in the 1860s from a fallen sequoia hollowed by fire. It is the oldest cabin remaining in the park.
Pretty Crescent Meadow is a pristine clearing dotted with wildflowers and tall grasses. A trail (described in "The Highlights" section) wraps around the meadow. This is also the trail head for several backcountry hikes.
Also in the area is Moro Rock, a large granite dome well worth the half-hour climb up and back. From the top, Moro Rock offers one of the most spectacular views of the dark and barren Great Western Divide, which includes the Kaweah Range. The divide is one of two crests in the southern Sierra Nevada but is not officially the main crest, which lies to the east and is obscured from view.
Lodgepole Village, the most developed area in both parks, lies just northeast of Giant Forest on the Generals Highway. Here you'll find the largest visitor center in the parks, plus a large market, several places to eat, a laundry, a post office, and showers.
Nearby, the Wuksachi Village has replaced the old facilities that were damaging to the Giant Forest sequoia grove. A dining room, gift shop, and lodge have all recently opened.
About 16 miles south of Giant Forest are the Foothills. Located near the Ash Mountain Entrance, the Foothills area offers a visitor center, several campgrounds, a picnic area, and Hospital Rock, a large boulder with ancient pictographs believed to have been painted by the Monache Indians who once lived here. Nearby are about 50 grinding spots probably used to smash acorns into flour. A short trail leads down to a serene place along the Kaweah River where the water gushes over rapids into deep, clear pools.
Located in the southern part of the park, Mineral King is a pristine high-mountain valley carved by glaciers and bordered by the tall peaks of the Great Western Divide. Red and orange shale mix with white marble, black metamorphic shale, and granite to give the rocky landscape a rainbow of hues. This area resembles the Rocky Mountains more than the rest of the Sierra Nevada because the peaks are formed of metamorphic rock. A silver prospector gave Mineral King its name in the 1800s, and the region was annexed to the park in 1978. The trails in Mineral King begin at 7,500 feet and climb. To reach the area, head west from the Ash Mountain Entrance 3 miles on CA 198 to the turnoff -- watch for the sign. Then it's a 28-mile trip that makes around 700 tight turns and takes 1 1/2 hours. Trailers, RVs, and buses are not allowed. The road is closed in winter, when the area is prone to avalanches.
Introducing Kings Canyon National Park
With its rugged canyon, huge river, and desolate backcountry, Kings Canyon is considered a hiker's dream. The park comprises Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, as well as portions of the Monarch Wilderness and Jennie Lakes Wilderness. Note: Between Grant Grove and Cedar Grove is Giant Sequoia National Monument, which is managed as part of Sequoia National Forest. This region includes Hume Lake, Boyden Cavern, and several campgrounds.
Grant Grove is the most crowded region in either Sequoia or Kings Canyon. Here you'll find the towering General Grant Tree amid a grove of spectacular giant sequoias. The tree was discovered by Joseph Hardin Tomas in 1862 and named 5 years later by Lucretia P. Baker to honor Ulysses S. Grant. The tree measures 267 1/2 feet tall and 107 1/2 feet around, and is thought to be the world's third-largest living tree, possibly 2,000 years old (just a youngster in this neighborhood!). It was officially declared the "Nation's Christmas Tree" by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 and remains the centerpiece of an annual Christmas tree ceremony.
Two and a half miles southwest of the grove is Big Stump Trail, an instructive hike that can be slightly depressing as it winds among the remains of logged sequoias. Since sequoia wood decays slowly, you'll see century-old piles of leftover sawdust that remain from the logging days. In summer, visitors can drive a short distance to Panoramic Point, stand atop this 7,520-foot ledge, and look across a long stretch of the Sierra Nevada for a glimpse of Kings Canyon.
Although in the same park, Cedar Grove seems a world away. That this region is even around today is sheer luck. There were once plans to flood Kings Canyon by damming the Kings River, a decision that would have buried Cedar Grove beneath a deep lake. Today that's considered an inconceivable move. With the flood threat abated, the region stood to become another Yosemite, but people fought hard to avoid the overcrowding and development that had occurred in Yosemite, and eventually everyone agreed it was better to keep development to a minimum. It was finally annexed in 1965 and, under a master plan for the area, will remain as it is today.
Cedar Grove is abundant with lush foliage, crashing waterfalls, and miles upon miles of solitude. Half the fun of driving through Kings Canyon is seeing its sheer granite walls close around you and the wild South Fork of the Kings River tumble by. The small Cedar Grove Village contains a store and gift shop, restaurant, laundry, showers, lodge, and campgrounds. This region of the park is often less crowded than others. Remember that it is also closed from mid-November to mid-April.
One mile east of the Cedar Grove Village turnoff is Canyon View, where visitors can see the glacially carved U-shape of Kings Canyon.
Easily accessible nature trails in Cedar Grove include Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls, and Knapp's Cabin. Zumwalt Meadow is dotted with ponderosa pine and has good views of two rock formations: Grand Sentinel and North Dome. The top of Grand Sentinel is 8,504 feet above sea level, while North Dome, which some say resembles Half Dome in Yosemite, tops out at 8,717 feet. The mile-long trail around the meadow is one of the prettiest in the park. The best place to access this walk is at a parking lot 4 1/2 miles east of the turnoff for Cedar Grove Village.
Roaring River Falls is a 5-minute walk from the parking area, 3 miles east of the turnoff to Cedar Grove Village. Even during summers and dry years, the water here crashes through a narrow granite chute into a cold green pool below. During a wet spring, these falls are powerful enough to drench visitors who venture too close. Knapp's Cabin can be reached via a short walk from a turnoff 2 miles east of the road to Cedar Grove Village. Here, during the 1920s, Santa Barbara businessman George Knapp commissioned lavish fishing expeditions and used this tiny cabin to store his expensive gear.
The Monarch Wilderness is a 45,000-acre region protected under the 1984 California Wilderness Act. Part of it lies on the grounds of Sequoia National Forest, adjoining the wilderness in Kings Canyon National Park. It's tough to reach and so steep that hikers practically need to be roped in to climb. You're close to the wilderness area when you pass Kings Canyon Lodge and Boyden Cavern.
The Jennie Lakes Wilderness is smaller, at 10,500 acres. Although it's possible to hike through in a day, it exhibits a variety of wilderness features, including the 10,365-foot Mitchell Peak and several wide lowland meadows. This region lies between the Generals Highway and CA 180, east of Grant Grove. About 7 miles southeast of Grant Grove, Big Meadows Road (closed in winter) takes off from Generals Highway and heads east into Sequoia National Forest. From this road, you can access several trails that lead into Jennie Lakes Wilderness.