California is fortunate to be home to nine national parks (yes, nine!), more than any other state. With such a plethora of natural and national treasures, it may not come as a surprise that two of the state's most spectacular parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, are often overlooked.
While typically referred to together, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are actually two distinct but contiguous parks located in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Kings Canyon lies to the north and Sequoia to the south. Other than iconic giant sequoia trees that inhabit both parks, many of the highlights of Sequoia and Kings Canyon tend to be less known precisely because they are located within the rugged parks' backcountry and are inaccessible by road. Having world-famous Yosemite lying to the north doesn't necessarily help in winning the popularity contest either.
While perhaps not quite as accessible or well known as some of the other parks, both Sequoia and Kings Canyon have roads that provide excellent and unfettered access along the western slope, ideal for spring through fall road trip exploration. Highways 180 and 198, leading east from Fresno and Visalia respectively, climb up the hot oak-savannah foothills, eventually penetrating cool shaded conifer forests that also happen to be prime habitat for supporting the largest trees in the world.
Beyond the prehistoric trees carrying stoic names such as General Sherman and General Grant, the roads continue on. Highway 180 drops into deep, glacially carved granite canyons, paralleling a picturesque river and providing access to fantastic trails and campgrounds. Highway 198 loops through the Giant Forest, granting access to sequoia behemoths, scenic meadows, overlooks, and trails that will leave you truly inspired.
Suffice it to say, a four day trip into Sequoia and Kings Canyon can open up a ton of opportunities for exploration in both parks. And with Highway 198 connecting the two parks, visitors can get between Sequoia and Kings Canyon within a couple hours.
If you're ready to hit the road, we've got you covered. Keep reading for a sample itinerary, heading north to south, that packs in some of these west slop wonders. Happy trails!
- Enter Kings Canyon National Park on Highway 180 at the Big Stump entrance, continuing east and dropping into Kings Canyon proper.
- Since campsites are first-come, first served in Kings Canyon, swing through Sheep Creek Campground and secure a spot.
- Get your bearings by driving to Road's End, passing through the Cedar Grove area. Explore Muir Rock and relax for a bit on the beach near the emerald waters of the South Fork of the Kings River.
- Wrap up the day by stretching your legs with a half-day hike around the Kanawyer Loop Trail.
- After enjoying an early morning fire in camp, head east back toward Road's End and soak in the splendors of Zumwalt Meadow. This picture-perfect montane meadow provides unobstructed views of the deep granite walls of Kings Canyon.
- Heading back west, stop at Roaring River Falls, a narrow gorge flowing into scenic pools where the Roaring River drops into the Kings River. For a longer hike option, Roaring River Falls can be combined with a pleasant walk from Zumwalt Meadow along the River Trail.
- Climb west out of the canyon and head for a campground near Grant Grove. For those anglers out there, consider carving out a couple of hours to fish a stretch of the South Fork of the Kings River before climbing out of the canyon. There are some decent fishing holes upstream from Grizzly Falls.
- Grab a first-come, first-serves campsite at Azalea Campground or Sunset Campground (advanced reservations are possible and recommended at Sunset).
- Wake up with the sun and take a morning walk through some of the largest trees in the world in Grant Grove.
- Continue south along Highway 198 toward the Giant Forest. En route, stop at Lodgepole Campground and set up your campsite (advanced reservations are possible). There are plenty of first-come, first-served sites at Lodgepole, so if you're without reservations but still arrive early, you may be in luck. However, if staying in a cozy room sounds more like your cup of tea, book a room and reserve a dinner for a night in Wuksachi Lodge, a few miles away.
- With camping or lodging behind you, soak in the wonders of the Giant Forest. Visit the Giant Forest Museum, and of course, no trip through the ancient sequoias is complete without seeing the largest tree (by volume) in the world, the General Sherman Tree.
- If you are camping at Lodgepole, take a nice morning walk straight out of the campground along the Topokah Valley Trail to get the blood flowing (hint: there's more hiking/climbing in store today). Both the Watchtower and Topokah Falls, Sequoia National Park's tallest waterfall, are beautiful sights.
- Head back to into the Giant Forest to climb the granite dome of Moro Rock to catch a glimpse of the Sequoia high country and the peaks of the Great Western Divide, which splits the Kern and Kaweah watersheds.
- Visit Crescent Meadow, known as the "gem of the Sierra," and wander through giant sequoias surrounding a picturesque montane meadow. Keep on the lookout for black bears in this area, as they are frequently spotted around the hillsides between Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow.
- Head back down 198 toward Visalia and exit Sequoia National Park, or stay in one of the campgrounds near the park entrance: Buckeye Flat or Potwisha.
This itinerary should give you a pretty good idea about the road-accessible lands within both parks. If you have more time, consider heading back up to the trails and peaks of Mineral King Valley, accessed via Mineral King Road in the town of Three Rivers.