Guide To Touring Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks

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I have to confess, I’ve found that not everyone likes to travel the way I do.  I like to see as much as possible when I go somewhere, and I hate to waste time after spending hours getting somewhere.  So I try to do my research before going.  Still, I’m always amazed how much websites don’t tell you, and how much I wish I had known before going.  So here are my tips for travelers, the things I wish I had known before going.  Of course, it’s not complete and won’t suit everyone, since everyone wants to do different things when they travel, but hopefully, some of these thoughts will help.  

My first comments are about logistics.  Yes, boring stuff to many, but critical, and they can make for break your day.  

Think about King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks as a slanted C.  Here’s a map to help you visualize.   The roads are closed in winter.  

Center map

The bottom of the C is Route 198 and the entrance Sequoia National Park.  From Visalia to the Giant Forest Museum, the most popular part of Sequoia National Park and the bottom of the C, the drive is 1.5 hours.  The most famous Sequoias and trails are around the Giant Forest Museum area.  Two really important things to know:

  1. Parking along Route 198, also known as General’s Highway in the park, is very limited.  On weekends, you have to park in one of the lots and take the free shuttle.  Know that there are several different shuttles, covering different destinations in the park, so you need to look at the signs to figure out which shuttle you need.  Depending on where you park, you may have to transfer shuttles to get back to your car.  I killed a lot of time just waiting for the shuttles, and I was surprised, there was often a lot of confusion about which shuttle stopped where.  It took a long time to get back to where I had parked my car.  
  2. If you’re going to hike the trails to see the trees, it’s worth getting a trail map, which you can buy at the visitor’s center.  They give you a map when you enter the park, but it’s not nearly detailed enough for hiking.  Here, I was also surprised because the trails were not very well marked, and there were a lot of people asking each other for directions on the less populated trails.  A kind family let me take a picture of their map, and when I got home, I tried to find the same map on the internet.  Surprisingly, this is the only site that had the map:  

There’s lots of things to do here, but here are some of the highlights for me, in order as you enter the park:

  • Lookouts as you ascend into Sequoia National Park.  There’s a couple lookouts as you drive up into the park.  There’s a nice view of Mount Whitney to the East at some pullouts.  
  • Tunnel Rock.  Right at the entrance, known as the Ash Mountain Entrance, there’s a tunnel rock where everyone stopped for pictures. 
  • Crystal Cave.  I didn’t actually go to the cave, but know that you have to buy tickets before you go.  Tickets are available at the visitor’s center.  
  • Moro Rock.  You can hike here from the Giant Forest Museum, about 1.5 miles.  Or you can take the shuttle to the base of the rock.  The ascent to the top is about 400 stairs, give or take.  The view is really spectacular.  To the west, you can see the valley and Route 198 into Sequoia National Park.  To the east, you can see Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  
  • Tunnel Log.  Everyone likes to stop here, if you’re driving, it’s fun to drive through.  
  • Crescent Meadow.  The shuttle stops here and it’s a short walk to the meadow.  Several other trails lead you to other parks of the park.  I hiked from the Crescent Meadow to the Sherman Tree, about 2.5 miles, and further up the road.  
  • The Congress Trail.  There’s a really dense collection of Sequoias here, so if you’re only going to do one trail, I’d recommend this one.  It’s not far from the road, but most people access this trail from the Sherman Tree, where shuttle stop.  
  • The Sherman Tree.  Might as well stop here, it’s super close to where the shuttles stop.  

Once you’re done with Sequoia National Park, it’s about an hour drive from the Giant Forest Museum to Grant Grove, the beginning of King’s Canyon.  

If we’re still thinking of the two parks as a slanted C, the top part of the C is Route 180 in King’s Canyon National Park.  It’s basically a one hour drive, without stops, from the King’s Canyon Visitor Center at the left of the C to the Cedar Grove Visitor Center at the end on the top right of the C.  There’s no exit on the east side, so once you make the one hour drive into the park, you have to make the one hour drive back the other way to exit King’s Canyon.  The drive starts at high elevation with great views of the canyon as you proceed east, and you descend to the valley floor next to the south fork of King’s River.  It’s also a scenic byway with lots of pullouts for views.  Along the way, there’s Boyden’s Cavern, which is temporarily closed because of a fire last fall.  There’s also a couple waterfalls to see toward the end of the drive, and camping on the valley floor next to the river is very popular.  The most popular things to do in King’s Canyon are as follows, from west to east:

  • Grant Grove / General Grant Tree Trail.  This is on the west side near the King’s Canyon Visitor Center as you begin your drive east.  Two main highlights here: first, the fallen monarch, with the inside carved out, which you can walk through; and second, the General Grant Tree, the second largest Sequoia by volume.  There’s an easy, short trail, and this is much less crowded than the Giant Forest area in Sequoia National Park.  
  • King’s Canyon Scenic Byway – just stop at any of the several pull outs and take in the view
  • Hume Lake.  I tried to go but ran out of time, it’s on my list to visit if I go back.  It’s 3 miles off Route 180.   
  • Boyden’s Cavern which is currently closed. 
  • The south fork of King’s River.  When you reach the bottom of the valley, you’ll be driving alongside the river.  Lots of camping and chances to stop and take a look around. 
  • Grizzly Falls.  A quick stop close to the end of the drive.  When I was there, this was powerful, impressive, cold and wet – expect to get sprayed if the water flow is strong.  

A couple warnings: the river is very strong, and when I went, there were several warnings.  According to the National Park Service website, a few people died recently when they slipped and fell into river, and were pulled away by the current.  Also, at some points near the river, mosquitos were everywhere, and I quickly hopped back into the car just to stop being bitten.  I had stopped to take some pictures, and must have had 5-10 bites when I got home.  If you exit the parks from King’s Canyon along route 180, heading west from the top of the Z, it’s 2 hours from Cedar Grove to Fresno and 2 hours from Cedar Grove to Visalia.  So in addition to the one hour drive back from the end route 180, it takes another hour to get to the next town  

I covered all of this in one long day, but I think most people would rather do this in two days and stay overnight.  I’d been here once after college with my roomies, but that was quite a long time ago, and it was definitely worth the visit back. 

Happy trekking. 

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