California's Sierra Nevada imposes rugged features on a state that many associate with sandy beaches and palm trees. It's a mountain range of great beauty hidden amid harsh wilderness, and nowhere is the terrain more dramatic than in Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. These truly special places combine mountains with meadows, waterfalls with wildflowers, and spectacular geology with awe-inspiring vistas that span, in some cases, nearly the breadth of the state. Together the parks cover 1.6 million acres (roughly 2,500 sq. miles). They host over four million visitors a year and are home to thousands of species of plants and animals.
Yosemite attracts more tourists than Sequoia & Kings Canyon combined, although all three are absolutely delightful parks. Yosemite covers 1,169 square miles -- roughly the size of Rhode Island -- and 94% is designated wilderness. Here you can enjoy the quiet beauty of a forest or a pristine meadow, observe a sunset from a towering granite cliff, hike a half-mile-high waterfall, enjoy a moonlit night that's as bright as day, climb a world-famous rock, and eat a gourmet meal before falling asleep -- be it under the stars or in the luxurious bed of a top-rated hotel.
Yosemite Valley, which attracts 95% of all Yosemite tourists, is just 1% of the park by area. Its popularity -- it is visited by over three million people each year -- stems from the fact that it contains a number of the region's jaw-dropping and record-setting features, including the highest waterfall in North America and three of the tallest in the world (Upper Yosemite, Sentinel, and Ribbon falls), as well as the biggest and tallest piece of exposed granite (El Capitan).
Wawona, a small community annexed to the park in 1932, is a 45-minute drive south of Yosemite Valley. Mostly a hodgepodge of resort cabins and private homes, Wawona is also home to the stately Wawona Hotel, a 9-hole golf course, and, the main attraction, the Mariposa Grove, the largest grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite. There are two smaller groves located near Crane Flat, about a half-hour drive west of Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite National Park's Tuolumne Meadows (an immense plateau peppered with wildflowers during the summer) and the glimmering Tuolumne River are a 1 1/2-hour drive northeast of the valley. Tuolumne Meadows is surrounded by a half-dozen domes and peaks. This high country also includes Tenaya Lake, White Wolf Lodge, and Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, though the two lodges are little more than restaurants with a collection of tent-cabins.
In the heart of the Sierra Nevada, just south of Yosemite, are Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, home to both the largest giant sequoia trees in the world and a deep gorge of a canyon that rivals Yosemite Valley for awe-inspiring beauty. Sequoia & Kings Canyon are separate parks snuggled next to each other and managed jointly. Combined, they outsize Yosemite. Their peaks stretch across 1,350 square miles and include 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the lower 48 states. These parks are also home to the Kaweah Range, a string of stark and magnificently beautiful mountains nestled among the Sierra. Three powerful rivers, the Kings, Kern, and Kaweah, tumble through the parks. Despite their large size, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks attract less than half the number of Yosemite's annual visitors, making them a great alternative for those looking to avoid huge crowds.
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