Next door to Sequoia National Park is the beautiful and equally impressive Kings Canyon. The two parks are in the same range of the Sierra Nevadas and are dually managed by the park service.
Kings provides the granite peaks in contrast to the green and cinnamon colored groves of Sequoia. Kings was declared a national park in 1940, taking over what was once General Grant National Park, an earlier extension of Sequoia NP and declared by naturalist John Muir as “a wilderness sanctuary for the sequoias.”
In fact, while at Kings, visitors can see the General Grant tree, the second largest living organism on earth, a massive sequoia second only to the General Sherman tree down the road in Sequoia NP. Kings Canyon has many waterfalls, meadows and several groves of sequoias itself, while offering distinct scenery and terrain different from its sister park so close by.
Both parks are accessed via the Generals Highway and visitors can enjoy the 30 mile Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to gain an overview of the park and drive through one of the deepest canyons in North America. Glaciers carved out Kings and left smooth and sheer walls to look down into the meadows and basins below. The drive passes the lovely Zumwalt Meadow and Kings River, Big Baldy and Little Baldy Ridge, Cedar Grove visitor center, and terminates at a permit station which requires special access to continue on hikes into deeper parts of the wilderness.
The rushing Kings River is a refreshing stop in the valley floor, where the deep snowpack this year made for a full river and loads of mist coming off the falls. There is an immense diversity of wildlife including birds, many types of squirrels, mule deer, black bear, lizards, wildflowers, and the climate-impacted pika. We saw Steller’s jays, quail, chickarees and western fence lizards doing their pushups.
The road curves and winds and leaves no margin for error as it rises through the canyon. In several places drivers are encouraged to use a lower gear, and water stations are available to cool off brakes. Mobile home users should check in advance as certain length vehicles are not permitted on some switchbacks.
A small village at Grant Grove is a fine starting point to grab a map, see an informational film and enjoy exhibits which explain the topography and geologic history of the area. A general store, restaurant and gift shop are all set in an attractive area which blends in nicely. These areas were popular tourist destinations at the advent of automobile travel and were almost circus like in atmosphere.
The National Park Service continuously strives to reverse that feel and seeks to disturb as little as possible. Visitors will find minimal services in keeping with that goal. Don’t expect cell service, gas stations or fancy restrooms.
Not to be missed is Panoramic Point, accessed directly behind the visitor center, affording incredibly stunning views of the Sierras for miles, all the way out to the snow capped granite peaks which often stay white all summer. For those familiar with the White Mountains of New Hampshire, this view is multiplied by 10. In fact, the Sierra Nevada range is some 400 miles long and boast the tallest peak in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet.
Years of drought and damage from the bark beetle has made for the closure of several campgrounds at Kings temporarily. In order to protect visitors, controlled burns of damaged areas are being conducted. Entire mixed conifer groves of ponderosa pine, sugar pine, western white pine, lodgepole pine and black oak have succumbed. The park service is working to contain it but the trees are dying at an unprecedented rate, including a small number of sequoias.
For those of us in the east who may not be familiar with wildfires, naturally occurring fires are healthy for trees in the Sierras, clearing away the forest floor and making way for seeds to germinate. Years of fire suppression by the park service left piles of fuel, resulting in hotter, more intense fires when they did happen, sparked by lightning or carelessness. When trees, and specifically the giant sequoias in Kings and Sequoia NP were not reproducing, the forest service knew it had to change.
A 2019 Park Forester report identified “5,600 trees that needed removal, topping, or limbing.” While this is most disturbing, it is important to note the sheer vastness of the 800,000 acres of wilderness will not disappoint.
Kings and Sequoia are far less busy than their neighbor, Yosemite, to the north which makes for quiet hikes and easy parking. These parks are spectacular and unique in their own right and should not be missed.