July 26, 2021: The Giant Sequoias of Kings Canyon
After a day in Fresno and a morning running errands, my girlfriend Maisie and I drove east into Kings Canyon National Park.
Kings Canyon and the adjacent Sequoia National Park are contiguous and operate as a single entity with a single entrance fee. However, because they were formed at different times by different acts of Congress, they are technically two distinct parks. Having already been to Sequoia, I decided to focus on Kings Canyon.
Kings Canyon also has two distinct sectors: Kings Canyon and the Grant Grove. The two sectors are separated by a stretch of Sequoia National Forest. With two days to spend, I decided to spend a day in each sector. Our first day would be spent in Grants Grove since we were already there. If you are wondering why Grant Grove is not part of Sequoia National Park, that is because it was originally its own national park called General Grant National Park created in 1890. In 1940, the park was expanded to include Kings Canyon. The Kings Canyon sector of the park is 700 times the size of Grant Grove, so the name needed to change. To change the boundaries of the parks would require another act of Congress.
The Grant Grove sector of the park protects the giant sequoia trees. Sequoias are the world´s largest trees. They are not the tallest (coastal redwoods) nor the widest (Montezuma cypress), but they have the greatest combination of width and height. In other words, giant sequoias have the most wood of any tree. While there are a few giant sequoia groves in the park, the most famous grove is the one containing the General Grant tree, the world´s 2nd largest tree. When General Grant National Park was founded in 1890, it was thought to be the world´s largest tree, but after careful measurements that title now goes to the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park.
The General Grant tree can be visited along a paved half-mile path that is downright magical. The sequoias are so large, you feel like a tiny ant when near them. Additionally, the red of the giant sequoia trees contrasts perfectly with the greenery of the forest.
We then got lunch at the visitor center. Due to COVID, there is only one restaurant operating in the park. Luckily, the food was pretty good. Food was served to-go but there was plenty of outdoor seating available. The restaurant also had Wi-Fi which allowed Maisie to work remotely.
In the afternoon, we visited the world´s largest sequoia grove, the Redwood Mountain Grove. Access to this grove is via a dirt road that winds through the enormous trees. Once in the parking lot, we were given a few options for hikes. None of the hikes are short. We opted for an 8-mile loop along the Hart Tree and Redwood Creek trails.
The rugged trail looped though countless sequoia trees including a few fallen ones. 4.6 miles in, we got to see the Hart Tree, the world´s 25th largest tree. Admittedly, the Hart Tree didn´t look any bigger than the surrounding trees.
Eventually we reached the Redwood Creek and followed it up back to the car. This loop was even more spectacular than the Grant´s Grove trail. We saw more sequoias and we got to see them in solitude. I can hardly imagine a more beautiful forest hike than this one.
Camping reservations in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks are nearly impossible without reservations months in advance. Luckily, there are a few campgrounds in between the two sectors of Kings Canyon National Park that are technically in Sequoia National Forest. These campgrounds were under the radar enough that we were able to snag a reservation just 2 days in advance. Our campground was a mere 10-minute drive from the Kings Canyon main visitor center, so we were able to drive over for dinner before heading to bed.
July 27, 2021: Kings Canyon
Today was our day to explore Kings Canyon, the namesake of the park. The name comes from a Spanish explorer who discovered the area in 1805. He named the river Rio de los Santo Reyes (River of the Holy Kings).
Kings Canyon is accessible via a single road from the Grant´s Grove sector of the National Park. The road leaves the park and drops down below the forest into the barren scrubland. It then winds its way up the enormous canyon along the river. The road is quite dramatic here with large waterfalls and cliffs.
Further along, we reentered the National Park and got our first glimpse of the canyon in all its glory.
King´s Canyon is a steep glacial-formed valley that contains some of the steepest terrain on the continent. The walls of the canyon are granite, giving it a similar appearance to the more famous Yosemite Valley to the north.
We parked at the aptly named Road´s End. This is the most popular trailhead in the park and leads to the upper reaches of the canyon. The most famous trail (considered by many to be the single best trail in the entire Sierra Nevada mountains) is the Rae Lakes Loop. However, the Rae Lakes Loop is a 30-mile 4-day backpacking trip. Instead, we settled for the final portion of this trail: Mist Falls.
Mist Falls is 7 miles roundtrip. The trail began by following the flat valley floor. While it was very special to be on the valley floor beyond all the cars, the temperature was very hot and there was little shade.
Two miles in, we reached shade and a creek. We then veered to the left, following the creek. The trail and creek gained elevation as we moved into the dramatic side canyon.
Eventually, we reached Mist Falls. The waterfall is seriously impressive and powerful. Maisie went for a swim, while I took a nap. A guided group from REI was also here and gave us some of their extra food.
The return hike was easy and by this time the temperature had cooled down a bit, so it was not terrible.
Back at the car, we stopped at a few other spots in the canyon including Knapp´s Cabin (the same guy from the abandoned castle near Santa Barbara) and another waterfall. But these sights were woefully unimpressive when compared to the Mist Falls.
We then drove back to the visitor center for dinner and then to our campground for a second night of well-deserved rest.
July 28, 2021: General Sherman
This was our final day of the trip and by this point we had seen most of the sights in Kings Canyon National Park that are accessible to the typical traveler. Yes, there is a lot more (like 90% of the park) that can be visited by multi-day backpacking trips, but for all intents and purposes, at our ability level, we had seen the park.
There was one sight, that I really wanted Maisie to see: the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park. The Sherman tree was a 90-minute drive to the south along the Generals Highway. Since Sequoia and Kings Canyon operate as a single park, we did not have to pay another entrance fee.
It is clear that Sequoia is a much more popular park than Kings Canyon. The Sherman tree parking lot is at least 4 times as large as the Grant tree´s parking lot…and it was nearly full at 10AM.
Like the Grant Tree, the trail to the Sherman tree is also a half-mile paved pathway. The trail is very well maintained and has plenty of informative signs as you descend into the Giant Forest, the grove with most of the world´s largest trees.
Eventually we made it to General Sherman, the world´s largest tree. It is magnificent, a miracle of nature.
Maisie somehow was unimpressed. She said it looked no bigger than any of the other sequoia trees….
With that, we walked back up to the car and headed to Los Angeles.
The Sequoia trees are inspiring no matter how many times you see them. They are so large that you feel small and insignificant. While most visitors go to Sequoia National Park, the trees in the Grant Grove are just as good, but with fewer visitors. The General Grant is a must-see, but the real highlight is the Redwood Creek trail.
Kings Canyon itself is nice, but it is not a must-see in my book. I would describe it as a less good (but also less crowded!) version of Yosemite. If you go, I highly recommend doing the full Rae Lakes loop, which requires a difficult-to-obtain permit in advance. If you have a free day in Sequoia or are looking to visit National Parks, then by all means go and, in that case, hike the Mist Falls trail. Otherwise, spend your time with the big trees.