Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: The Complete Guide

Sequoia National Park

TripSavvy / Vince Fergus

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Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Address
47050 Generals Hwy, Three Rivers, CA 93271, USA
Phone +1 559-565-3341

Located in California's southern Sierra Nevada mountain range, Sequoia National Park and the adjacent Kings Canyon National Park are known for their towering sequoia trees and miles of uninterrupted wilderness trails. While not nearly as popular as nearby parks like Yosemite or Joshua Tree, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are great destinations for travelers looking to escape into the breathtaking nature of the Sierra Nevadas with a fraction of the crowds.

Even though they are technically two separate national parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are administered together by the National Park Service and admission into one park includes admission into the other.

Things to Do

What to do mostly depends on what season you're visiting the park. Summer is usually the favorite time of year to visit since all of the hiking trails are open, the wildflowers are in bloom, and the waterfalls are roaring. Plus, a few key attractions are only open in the warmer months, including Mineral King, which is a glacial valley just like Yosemite, and the Crystal Cave, an underground marble cavern filled with dramatic stalactites and stalagmites. Many trails and roads are no longer accessible once it begins to snow, although winter sports enthusiasts can try their hand at cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.

Regardless of what season you visit, the trees are perhaps the biggest draw to the area—literally. The grove known as Giant Forest contains five of the largest trees on earth, including General Sherman, the most massive living thing in existence. Not far away you can also see General Grant, another giant sequoia tree that's one of the biggest, tallest, and oldest trees on the planet. Looking up at these giants and pondering the thousands of years they've been there is perhaps the best thing to do in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S., lies in Sequoia National Park. Even though you might assume that the biggest thing around is easy to spot, you can't actually see Mt. Whitney from most trails inside Sequoia and Kings Canyon because it's blocked by other mountains. You'll have to climb to one of the other peaks in the area or drive up the east side of Mt. Whitney along scenic Highway 395.

Learn more about the top things to do in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Best Hikes & Trails

Hiking is without a doubt the primary activity for visitors to Sequoia and Kings Canyon and with over 1,000 miles of hiking trails between the two parks, there's no shortage of options.

  • Congress Trail (Sequoia): One of the most popular trails for first-time visitors, this 2-mile hike begins near the General Sherman sequoia tree and winds through the Giant Sequoia Grove. Here, visitors can see some of the biggest and oldest trees on the planet. The trail is not difficult and takes about one to two hours.
  • Alta Peak Trail (Sequoia): Serious hikers who want to spend a full day outside can reach the summit of Alta Peak at 11,204 feet. This strenuous hike is 7 miles each way, but the unbeatable views of the Great Western Divide and nearby mountains make this one of the most popular day hikes.
  • Mist Falls Trail (Kings Canyon): Once the snow thaws by late spring, Mist Falls is thundering—sometimes all the way until autumn. The trail is 9 miles roundtrip and takes about three to five hours, but there's no significant elevation gain to worry about. You can reach the trailhead at Roads End, which is the easternmost point of Highway 180.
  • Mt. Whitney Summit: Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the continental U.S. and the most popular mountain to hike on in the Sierra Nevadas. Even though the mountain is in Sequoia National Park, most hikers begin on the trailhead on the eastern face off of Highway 395, and that can be completed in a day. There are also trails to the summit that begin inside Sequoia National Park, but they require multiple days to complete. Regardless of where you begin, this is the only hike in the area that requires a permit.

Rock Climbing

Nearby Yosemite National Park gets all of the fame for being one of the best places to rock climb in the world, but Sequoia and Kings Canyon are part of the same mountain range and offer some equally great climbing opportunities—and with much fewer crowds.

The easiest climb to reach is Moro Rock near the Giant Forest, which has a parking lot right at the base. It offers 1,000 feet of vertical granite wall, and the summit offers one of the best views in the national parks (non-rock climbers can also enjoy the view by climbing the 400 stairs that reach the top).

Most other climbs in the parks are more remote and require hiking in to them. One of the biggest walls in the area is Angel Wings in Sequoia National Park with 2,000 feet of climbing space, but it's about an 18-mile trek to reach it from the High Sierra Trailhead.

In Kings Canyon, the Bubbs Creek Trail offers all sorts of options for climbing. Some of the best pitches require hiking in about about 8 miles, but they're still much more accessible than Angel Wings.

Cross-Country Skiing

There's usually enough snow from December to April for cross-country skiing and visitors are welcome to ski on their own wherever it's accessible. One of the most magical winter experiences is to visit the giant sequoias while they're surrounded by snow, and the Giant Forest and Giant Grove both have designated ski trails so you can see the best sights.

If you aren't sure about exploring in the snow on your own, there are also ranger-led snowshoeing excursions. These hikes are moderately strenuous and hikers must be at least 10 years old, but if you've ever been curious about winter trekking then there's no better way to try it.

Scenic Drives

With almost a million acres between the two parks, it can be mindboggling to try and plan out what to see and how to get there. Thankfully, no matter which route you take you're bound to see something remarkable, but a few of them do stand out for being the best of the best.

These drives are typically open year-round, although they may close in the winter during heavy snowfall. If there are icy conditions, signs that indicate chains are required will be posted.

  • Generals Highway: This popular route connects Sequoia and King Canyon National Parks, winding through the sequoia groves and passing by several of the most visited attractions in the parks. The route begins at the Sequoia National Park entrance and continues on until the town of Grant Grove. Even though it's only 50 miles, you should plan for at least two to three hours to finish it and even longer if you plan to stop and hike.
  • Kings Canyon Scenic Byway: Drive through the eponymous canyon on this picturesque road. The byway begins in Grant Grove and continues east along Highway 180 for about 34 miles until Roads End, where you can either park and hike one of the trails there or turn around and drive back. In the winter, only the first 6 miles of this highway are open to traffic and it closes after Hume Lake.

Where to Camp

Day hikes and scenic drives are great, but there's no better way to experience the California wilderness than pitching a tent and camping (or in some cases, parking an RV). There's a dizzying number of camping options between the two national parks, a few others in Sequoia National Forest, and some private campground options nearby.

Within the boundaries of the national parks, there are 14 different campgrounds run by the NPS, three of which are open year-round. Reservations are required for most campsites, so make sure to plan ahead.

  • Lodgepole (Sequoia): One of the larger and most popular campgrounds, Lodgepole is located just a short distance away from the General Sherman tree and conveniently located right off of Generals Highway. Campsites are open for tent or RV camping. Lodgepole is closed in the winter, but be aware that snow is possible even in late spring and fall.
  • Grant Grove Village (Kings Canyon): Grants Grove is considered the gateway to Kings Canyon and has three different campgrounds. One of them is open year-round, but be prepared for snowy conditions if you visit in the winter.
  • Cedar Grove (Kings Canyon): The four campgrounds that make up the Cedar Grove area are in a much more remote part of Kings Canyon National Park, ideal for High Sierra backcountry hiking. All four campgrounds are closed in the winter.
  • Pear Lake Winter Hut (Sequoia): This winter getaway is run by the Sequoia Parks Conservancy, not NPS, but cross-country ski fans can experience the ultimate trip. Open from December to April, this rustic stone hut requires a strenuous 6-mile hike through the snow. The backcountry trails to get there are considered advanced, so only experienced cross-country skiers or snowshoers should attempt it.

One of the most popular places to camp in the area is around Hume Lake, which offers all kinds of activities year-round and over a dozen different campgrounds. While these campgrounds are often grouped together with Sequoia and Kings Canyon, they are technically outside of the borders of the national parks and fall under the jurisdiction of Sequoia National Forest. But if you're looking for a camping trip in the national parks, any one of the Hume Lake options would also be an excellent choice.

Where to Stay Nearby

If camping isn't your cup of tea, there are a number of accommodation options both inside the parks and in the near vicinity that range from high-end lodges to "glamping" cabins.

  • Wuksachi Lodge (Sequoia): This could be called the "signature hotel" of Sequoia National Park, and is the place to stay for those who want the experience of staying in nature without sleeping on the ground. At this year-round lodge, you can find all the amenities of a resort, all within walking distance of the world's biggest trees.
  • John Muir Lodge (Kings Canyon): Located in Grant Grove at the entrance to Kings Canyon, this lodge offers individual cabins that have all of the amenities of a hotel room. The General Grant tree and the scenic Panoramic Point trail are within easy hiking distance.
  • Bearpaw High Sierra Camp (Sequoia): Adventurous hikers can book one of the tent cabins at Bearpaw High Sierra Camp. To reach them, you'll have to start at the Lodgepole campground and hike 11.5 miles with about a thousand-foot elevation change (the hike is considered moderate difficulty). In exchange for your hard work, you'll get to stay in one of the most remote locations in the park with a hot meal waiting for you.

How to Get There

There are two main entrances into the parks depending on where you are coming from. Visitors coming from the Los Angeles area typically drive through Bakersfield and arrive at Ash Mountain Entrance off of Highway 198, while visitors from San Francisco or Northern California pass through Fresno to get to the Big Stump Entrance off of Highway 180. The Ash Mountain Entrance is generally considered more scenic, but it's also very windy and includes a lot of narrow curves. Both roads are plowed throughout the winter and usually open, but check conditions in case a recent storm has caused closures and definitely carry tire chains.

The nearest major airport is the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, which is about one hour and 15 minutes from the Big Stump Entrance into the parks.

Accessibility

To make sure everyone can enjoy the natural beauty of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, both parks offer a range of services for visitors with mobility needs, low vision, or hearing loss. Wheelchairs are available to borrow at no cost and many attractions have wheelchair-accessible paths to reach them, including the General Sherman tree, Tunnel Rock, and most campgrounds. Display posts around the parks include text in Braille and tactile maps, and ranger-led programs are available with an ASL interpreter if requested in advance.

For more information, the NPS has prepared detailed accessibility guides for every trail, campsite, and attraction. You can even see videos of various areas from the perspective of visitors with disabilities to know exactly what to expect before you arrive.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The park entrance fee can be paid for online before arriving, which helps to get in quickly and avoid long backups at the entrance gate. In the winter, the entrance gate are unmanned so you'll either need to pre-purchase your pass online or head to Grant Village to buy one.
  • During the annual National Parks Week in April, entry is free to national parks across the country, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon. A few other days throughout the year are also free, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Veterans Day.
  • There are no gas stations in either park, but you can fill up your tank at Hume Lake, Stony Creek, and Kings Canyon Lodge. However, gasoline costs significantly more there than it would if you filled up in Fresno or Three Rivers on your way to the park.
  • Bears are among the many creatures that live in Sequoia National Park. They love human food and can cause damage to your vehicles trying to get it. To stay safe whether you're camping or staying in a hotel, make sure to store all of your food and toiletries properly.
  • Cell phone coverage is not reliable inside the park, so make sure your loved ones know how long you'll be gone and carry a hard copy of a map with you in case you get lost.
  • If you're bringing a pet into the national parks, they are only allowed outside of the car on paved roads, campgrounds, or picnic areas. They cannot be brought onto any trails. If you're in Sequoia National Forest, pets can be on trails as long as they're leashed.
  • Forest fires are always a possibility from spring through fall, but they're especially likely in late summer. Fires can affect air quality and travel access to the mountains, so it’s a good idea to check for them before you go.
  • Even if you don't hike all the way to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the lowest elevation in Sequoia and Kings Canyon starts at 6,000 feet. Altitude sickness is a possibility when you first arrive, especially if you're embarking on strenuous hikes.
  • There are many ways to do your part to protect the Sierra Nevadas, from simply following the "leave no trace" guidelines during your visit to really making a difference through volunteering.
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Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: The Complete Guide