Ever since I spent a quick couple of days in Yosemite National Park, I’ve been itching to get back to California to explore of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I heard that south of Yosemite were two other less visited but equally spectacular National Parks: Sequoia and Kings Canyon. SoCal native April of The Unending Journey regularly visits the area and when I saw her amazing photos, I knew it had to go on my bucket list. April has put together this amazing list of things to do in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks for us. It includes the best places to stop, some scenic drives and recommendations for hikes both easy and challenging. Thanks April! – Taryn
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Standing with my head all the way back, I still can’t fathom the size of the tree before me. No matter how many times I’ve been, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the enormity of the sequoias. To stroll through a land filled of these silent giants fills you with joy and wonder. It’s almost like recapturing the wonder you felt as a child. Yes, people visit Sequoia National Park to see its namesake trees, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what to expect.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon Basics
The parks are located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, 220 miles south of Yosemite Valley, 275 miles south of San Francisco, and 375 miles west of Las Vegas.
Admission is $35 per vehicle and valid for 7 days. (The fee includes both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.)
There’s one gas station in Sequoia, located in front of the Stony Creek Lodge in the middle of the park.
Cell service is highly limited within the parks. On a few of the outer trails like Buena Vista Trail, I’ve been able to get signal. Otherwise, cell service is not available.
Where to Stay
There are several lodging options in the park ranging from camp grounds, basic hotels, cabins, and one high-end hotel. There are also a few Airbnb’s outside the parks.
My favorite place to stay is at the Stony Creek Lodge. Ideally situated in the middle of the park, it offers charming rooms. And, as there’s only 11 rooms, there’s not a mess of people so you can enjoy the quiet of the Sequoia National Forest around you.
Another great option is the Grant Grove Village. It has it all – hotel, rustic cabins, and a large campground. Rooms in all the lodging in the park fill up months in advance, especially during peak seasons.
There are also more options in Three Rivers, just outside the park.
How Long to Spend in the Parks
If you want to do Sequoia and Kings Canyon properly, plan on spending at least two days there. Though, you can easily spend a week there and still not see everything. Yes, it’s possible to visit both parks as a day trip, but you’ll miss 90% of both. Don’t short change yourself. Sequoia is my favorite national park in the US. It’s my happy place. And, if you take your time with the park, it may become yours, too.
Best Time to Visit
I love visiting the park in September or October. The crowds have thinned and being out in the fresh, cool mountain air is highly invigorating for hiking. During the winter months, a lot of the park is closed due to snow. However, there are some trails that you can snowshoe. And, seeing the red of the sequoias against the white snow is pretty awesome.
Weather and Elevation
The main portion of Sequoia National Park is around 7,000 ft/2100 m. Make sure that you stay hydrated and have plenty of water with you. The valley floor of Kings Canyon is around 5,000 ft/1520 m and is always at least 10 degrees warmer than Sequoia.
The American Black Bear can be found throughout both Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Unless provoked, they most likely will not be interested in you. However, keep a wide berth from bears (at least 100 yds). If hiking in the back country, you should have bear spray handy. In the lower portions of Kings Canyon, rattlesnakes can be found. Again, do not provoke the snakes. If they’re on the trail, wait until they have cleared.
Guidebooks and Maps
If you want to do a lot of hiking in the park (highly recommend), than my go to book every time I visit is the Falcon Guide Hiking Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. My copy is getting beat up but I find it’s trail descriptions to be accurate. And, it provides elevation and distance charts for each hike, which is really helpful for planning.
My Tips for Visiting
As a local, here are my tips for getting the most out of your visit to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: Get an early start when visiting the parks. There can be long lines at the entrance stations in summer and weekends. And, there’s something about hearing how alive the forest is when there’s no one else around. If you’re on a budget, bring your own food as park food is expensive. However, make sure you have the proper containers to store it as bears have a highly perceptive sense of smell. There’s several places throughout the park where you can refill water.
Things to Do in Sequoia National Park
See the Sequoias
Sequoias are among the oldest living trees in the world. And, they are one of the most resilient trees. Their bark can get up to 2 feet thick, helping them withstand a multitude of natural disasters, including fire. In fact, sequoias need fire to survive. Sounds odd, right? But, their cones only open from the heat allowing the seeds to come out. And, you’ll see lots of sequoias with burnt out trunks, and those trees are still thriving.
Amazingly, there are only about 75 sequoia groves in the entire world. And, all of them are found in California in the Sierra Nevadas. Sequoias require a cool climate to thrive. Because of this, you’ll only find them at elevations between 5,000 and 7,000 feet.
Though they’re not as tall as the coastal redwoods, Sequoias are still impressively tall at around 275 feet. And, they’re the largest tree species in the world. In fact, the world’s largest tree is found in Sequoia National Park. The General Sherman Tree is 52,000 cubic feet in volume and 2.7 million pounds in weight! If you can’t fathom that, seeing the tree in person doesn’t help. It’s just a massive tree. However, in the grand scheme of sequoias, General Sherman is still on the young side. The tree is about 2,000 years old. Other trees in the park are over 3,000 years old!
Even with their height, my fascination with Sequoias is with their bases. They’re absolutely massive. They resemble gigantic claws digging into the ground. These claws can get up to 35 feet in diameter! Everything about these trees makes you feel so insignificant. And, that’s a great feeling.
Best Places to see Sequoias
Once you see your first Sequoia from the road, you’ll find them irresistible. And, there are several places where you can see the best of the best.
After taking a climb to the top of Moro Rock and enjoying the awesome views, there are several short trails in the area that take you past sequoias.
And, if you continue past Moro Rock, you can actually drive through a sequoia! In 1937, a sequoia fell across the road. Rather than try to move it, a tunnel was carved out instead. Thus, Tunnel Log was created. It’s a popular spot for photos. You’ll need to go early in the morning to get a clear shot without a backlog of cars.
Giant Forest Forest Museum
By the Giant Forest Museum, there’s an accessible trail that takes you past some incredible sequoias. And, the great thing about this trail, is that you get to see the sequoias both up close and at a distance. Both viewpoints allow you to appreciate the size of these trees. From a distance, you can easily see how tall they are and how they dwarf all other trees. Up close, the enormity of the trees is the staggering.
General Sherman Tree and the Congress Trail
This a must stop for anyone visiting the park because this is where the General Sherman Tree stands. To be in front of the largest living organism in the world is awe-inspiring. As General Sherman is near the start of the paved trail, many people will go directly to it, take a few pics, and then leave. Please don’t make this mistake.
The 2-mile Congress Trail continues and goes past some incredible groupings of sequoias including the House and Senate groupings. You can also find yourself standing inside the charred trunk of a sequoia. If you only have time to do one small trail, this is the one you must do. Please note that the start of the trail descends about 200 feet. It’s not a problem going down. However, going up can be a struggle. You’re at an elevation of around 7,000 ft. So, your body feels things a bit differently at this higher elevation.
General Grant Grove
A short, paved trail takes you around some incredible sequoias, including the General Grant Tree (the second largest sequoia in the world). I think the widest sequoias are found here. And, if you still need more sequoias (and, without the crowds), go to the end of the overflow parking, where the trail for the North Grove Trail begins. Just shy of 2-miles, it’s an easy loop through a sequoia grove.
Drive the General’s Highway
The road through Sequoia National Park is called the General’s Highway, connecting the Sherman Tree to the Grant Tree. This road is one of the most fun roads you can drive in a national park. Only 33 miles in length, the road weaves its ways through the thick forests of Sequoia.
Entering through the southern entrance of Sequoia through Three Rivers, the General’s Highway is filled with hair pin curves. It’s a difficult and fun stretch of road getting to Moro Rock. Due to the amount of sharp turns, vehicles over 22 ft in length are not permitted on this portion of the road. If curvy, steep mountain roads freak you out, it’s best to enter through the northern entrance of the park. But, once you get to Moro Rock, the road lessens in its intensity.
In some spots, you drive by some incredible sequoias. Their red trunks are unmissable. There are some great pull outs for views. But, as awesome as the General’s Highway is, you need to explore Sequoia on foot.
Hiking in Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is a phenomenal place to hit the trails. And, it’s the only way to see the diversity of the park. If you think that Sequoia National Park is just about seeing some sequoias, then you’re in for a surprising treat. Beyond sequoia groves, there’s lush meadows, entry into the high Sierras, waterfalls, and vistas to appreciate. For shorter trails, two of my favorites are Tokopah Falls and Buena Vista Trail.
Past the Lodgepole Visitor Center is parking for Tokopah Falls. This mostly level, 3.8 mile trail follows the Kaweah River to the falls (can be seasonal depending on snow fall totals). Deer can be spotted in the surrounding forest. The trail also offers stellar views of the imposing Watchtower formation (a granite monolith).
Buena Vista Trail
The 2-mile Buena Vista Trail is directly off the General’s Highway between Grant Grove and Montecito Lodge. At trail’s end is an astounding view of the large Redwood Mountain Grove (known as the Sugarbowl) and the mountains to the east. This delightful trail lives up to its name.
Moro Rock Area
Around Moro Rock, there’s the short trail to Hanging Rock offering a different perspective of Moro Rock along the way. Or, you can take a stroll through the sugar pines on the Sugar Pine Trail (3 miles).
If you follow Crescent Meadow Road past the Tunnel Log, you can take a turn around Crescent Meadow (less than 2 miles). From that trail, you can take a short detour to Thorp’s Log. This fallen sequoia is so large, that the homesteader Hale Thorp used it as a small cabin!
Wolverton Area Trails
However, the Wolverton area of the park (past the Congress Trail and Sherman Tree) offers some of the best hiking options. These include a hike around the stunning Long Meadow (2.5 miles) or a big day hike to Alta Peak, offering amazing views from it’s 11,000 ft peak (13 miles). My favorite trail is the Lakes Trail that takes you to three small, but gorgeous mountain lakes. Along the way, you pass along an exposed section along the cliff face with sweeping views (and a sheer drop off). It’s a strenuous 13-mile trail. But, there’s plenty of incredible places to pause and have a small picnic. And, you won’t believe the scenery.
Things to Do in Kings Canyon National Park
And, as an extra bonus, there’s Kings Canyon National Park. Essentially, you get two national parks for the price of one. How can you pass that up? Unfortunately, a lot of visitors to Sequoia National Park don’t venture into Kings Canyon. And, that’s a mistake. The drive down into the canyon alone make it worth a visit. Be advised, that during winter, the road may be closed.
Drive Highway 180
The glacially carved Kings Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the United States at over a mile in depth. The canyon is surrounded by countless 12,000+ peaks. It’s a completely different landscape than that of Sequoia. Along the canyon floor flows the mighty south fork of the Kings River.
Driving along Highway 180 from Grant Grove down into the canyon is an epic drive. The mountain views are out of this world. Happily, there are many pull outs where you can stop and savor the views. And, if you’re the one driving, you’ll need those as you’ll not want to take your eyes off the road.
Hiking in Kings Canyon National Park
Once in the canyon, the hiking options seem endless. Kings Canyon is a gateway to the John Muir Wilderness. Miles and miles of back country trails can have you spending days in nature. It’s even possible to join the John Muir Trail from Kings Canyon. One of the more popular day trails is the 8-mile round trip to Mist Falls.
Most of the trails begin at Road’s End. One of my favorite hikes from there is Copper Creek Trail. If you don’t have the time or energy to hike the full 20 miles (roundtrip), hike the trail for about a mile. After going up several switchbacks, the views of Kings Canyon from this vantage point are unparalleled. The canyon stretches on in both directions. The bit of effort needed is worth it. But, do beware, rattlesnakes can be seen on that portion of the trail.
Short Walks in Kings Canyon National Park
If you’re not a hiker, you can still make quick stops at Roaring River Falls and Zumwalt Meadow. If perfection exists in nature, it is found at Zumwalt Meadow. Every time I visit, I always make time to do the short trail around the meadow. The openness, the greenery, the mountains all come together in a way that makes the area irresistible.
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