The view atop Moro Rock is one of the most spectacular in the Sierra -- the Great Western Divide dominates the eastern horizon. These high-elevation barren mountains can seem dark and ominous, even though snow caps the ridgeline throughout the year. The cliffs appear towering and steep, and with some peaks over 13,000 feet, they are only slightly below the summit of Mount Whitney (14,505 ft.), which is obscured from view. The climb to the top of the Rock takes you up hundreds of stairs, so pace yourself. The summit offers a narrow, fenced plateau with endless views. During a full moon, the mountain peaks shimmer like silver.

Mist Falls is a wide, powerful waterfall accessible only on foot, but the trek is well worth the effort. The waterfall is especially impressive during spring and early summer, when it's fed by snowmelt, and the cascading water crashing onto the rocks below drowns out most other sounds. This is also when you're likely to see rainbows galore.

Crescent Meadow is a large, picturesque clearing dotted with high grass and wildflowers, and encircled by a forest of firs and sequoias. The park's oldest cabin is along this route as well. This is a particularly nice hike in early morning and at dusk, when the indirect sunlight allows for the best photography.

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A Nearby National Monument

Some of the most beautiful scenery in the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks area is not actually in either of these national parks, but in an adjacent section of the Sequoia National Forest that was recently designated a national monument.

Now covering 353,000 acres, Giant Sequoia National Monument was created by President Bill Clinton in 2000. The monument contains 38 groves of sequoias, including some of the most magnificent giant trees to be seen anywhere. In addition, it has towering domes of granite; scenic Hume Lake, a popular destination for boaters and anglers; and the spectacular Kings Canyon -- the deepest canyon in North America, with elevations ranging from 1,000 to 11,000 feet.

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Among the hiking trails in the monument is the Boole Tree Trail, a moderate 2.5-mile loop trail that leads to Boole Tree, the largest sequoia in the 1.1-million-acre Sequoia National Forest and the eighth-largest tree in the world. This trail, located off Forest Road 13S55, off Kings Canyon Highway, includes forest and open country, where you'll see sequoias, scenic vistas of the Kings River, and wildflowers in summer.

An easy walk on the quarter-mile (one-way) Chicago Stump Trail leads to the stump of the General Noble Tree, which was cut down, chopped into pieces, and then reassembled and displayed at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Some fairgoers refused to believe that a tree could grow so big and dubbed it "the California hoax."

Information about other attractions and facilities within the monument, such as the beautiful drive through Kings Canyon and the underground world of Boyden Cavern, are discussed elsewhere in this guide.

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Primitive camping is allowed and there is no fee. For additional information on Giant Sequoia National Monument, contact the Hume Lake Ranger District, Sequoia National Forest, 35860 E. Kings Canyon Rd. (CA 180), Dunlap, CA 93621 (tel. 559/338-2251; www.r5.fs.fed.us/sequoia).

Exploring the Inside of the Earth

There are more than 200 caves in the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks area, but only two are open for tours by the general public -- one in Sequoia National Park and the other in Giant Sequoia National Monument, just outside Kings Canyon National Park.

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South of the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park is the turnoff from the Generals Highway for Crystal Cave, a beautiful underground world that was formed from limestone that turned to marble. The cave contains an array of cave formations, many still growing, that range from sharply pointed stalactites and towering stalagmites to elaborate flowing draperies. To reach the entrance, drive 7 miles down the narrow winding road (RVs, trailers, and buses are prohibited), and walk 0.5 miles down a steep path to the cave. Note: To take a tour, you need to get advance tickets, available at both the Lodgepole and the Foothills visitor centers. Tickets are not sold at the cave.

The Sequoia Natural History Association conducts 45-minute guided tours along paved, lighted pathways. The tours are offered from mid-June to Labor Day daily every half-hour from 10:30am to 4:30pm, from mid-May to mid-June and after Labor Day to late October daily every hour from 11am to 3pm (with slightly longer weekend hours). The cost is $13 for adults, $10 for seniors 62 and older, and $7 for children 5 to 12 (free for children under 5). A special discovery tour is offered in summer only, Monday through Friday at 4:15pm. It is less structured and limited to 16 people, has a minimum age requirement of 13, and costs $16 per person. There are also historic candlelight tours ($16) and belly-crawling wild cave tours ($125, 4-6 hr.) on Saturdays in summer. The cave is a constant 48°F (9°C), so take a sweater or jacket. Sturdy footwear is recommended, and strollers, tripods, and backpacks are prohibited. Information is available at visitor centers or by telephone (tel. 559/565-3759; www.sequoiahistory.org).

Ten miles west of Cedar Grove, in Giant Sequoia National Monument, is Boyden Cavern, the only other cave in the area that hosts tours. Boyden is an especially scenic cave known for a wide variety of formations, including rare "shields," which consist of two roughly circular halves of mineral deposits that look like flattened clam shells. Highlights include a flowstone formation, known as Mother Nature's Wedding Cake, and the appropriately named Christmas Tree and Baby Elephant formations. The cave is open daily from late April through mid-November. Hours are usually 10am to 5pm in June, but often are shorter at the beginning and end of the season. Visitors get to see the cave on guided 45-minute tours that follow a well-lighted, handrail-equipped trail. Tours leave approximately every hour on the hour. The cost is $13 for ages 13 and up, $8 for children 3 to 12; admission is free for children 2 and younger. Reservations are not required. Special flashlight tours are also available for $35, with a four-person minimum. For information, contact Boyden Cavern (tel. 559/338-0959; www.boydencavern.com or www.kingscanyoneering.com). The tour operator also offers a number of "canyoneering" trips, where participants rappel, hike, and even swim in Kings Canyon; call for reservations and additional information.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.