Certainly the highlight of Kings Canyon National Park and neighboring Sequoia National Park are the giant sequoia trees. In fact, Kings Canyon National Park protects the largest sequoia grove on the planet in Redwood Mountain Grove. It also is home to “Big Stump” – a shocking testament to the days when these gentle giants were harvested for their wood.
Of the three “Sierra” parks (Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks) in California, Kings Canyon is the least visited. But in our opinion it is the most diverse. The main entrance and visitor center is just a short drive from Fresno, California, and if you are planning a visit to Sequoia National Park, you can drive through Kings Canyon on the way. The two parks really are quite different and it is well worth a visit.
Kings Canyon National Park
The area was originally set aside as General Grant National Park in 1890 to protect the giant trees (including the General Grant tree) from logging. It was expanded and renamed Kings Canyon National Park in 1940 and expanded again in 1960 to protect the rivers from being dammed to meet power needs in Los Angeles. Today Kings Canyon National Park protects more than 400,000 acres that not only includes the world’s largest stands of sequoia trees, but also a glacier carved valley more than one mile deep, high mountain meadows, multiple “14ers” (mountains higher than 14,000 feet) and vast wilderness.
Things to do at Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park has two distinct sections but most people will only visit the western part; 154 acres geologically separated from the rest of the park. That’s where you will find the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, campgrounds and accessible trails.
Be sure to stop at the visitor center. There you will learn that Kings Canyon is not all about the trees. They have a really good movie that shows the diversity of the park and talks about how glaciers formed the canyon. It really is much different than neighboring Sequoia National Park; you’ll see that immediately if you visit both visitor centers.
The feature attractions in this section of the park are the General Grant tree and the Big Stump Grove, plus longer hikes through the Redwood Mountain Grove. There are a couple campgrounds there, plus it is the entrance to the Sequoia National Forest and Jennie Lakes Wilderness where you will find additional camping.
General Grant Grove
It is only a 1/3 mile walk to go see the General Grant tree. This is the world’s second largest tree by trunk volume – 46,608 cubic feet of wood. Only the General Sherman in Sequoia National Park is larger. We went early in the morning and there was no one else out there. It is a lovely walk through an entire grove of huge trees, culminating at the General Grant tree.
On the way, you walk by the Fallen Monarch. This huge sequoia tree fell to the forrest floor centuries ago and was used by many as a shelter including a couple squatters in the 1870’s who lived in the fallen tree until they finished their cabin. Today you can walk through it and picture what it may be like to live there.
One of the stumps remaining in the grove tells an amusing tale. Easterners didn’t believe the stories of the giant trees in California, so they cut one down and shipped it in pieces to reassemble and display at the 1807 Chicago World’s Fair.
Big Stump Grove
As you drive into the park, right near the entrance, there is another short trail that is worth walking along. It is a 2 mile circular path that takes you through an area of the forrest that was logged in the 1880’s. The remaining stumps are huge; you can picture the size of the trees that were cut down and imagine how many men it took to fell them. The largest stump is from the “Mark Twain” tree, estimated to have been over 1300 years old when it was cut down.
This is also a nice way to experience the sequoia forest – there are some old growth trees remaining, plus meadows, streams and in season, wildflowers.
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
We did not do it, but you can also access the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway from this side of the park. This is the only automobile access to the actual canyon; taking you across the Sequoia National Forest / Giant Sequoia National Monument and then dropping 2,700 feet to the Kings River (designated a Wild & Scenic waterway). There is another visitor center at the end of the road, where you can take guided tours to Boyden Cave. We will definitely make a point of doing this on our next visit! It sounds amazing. But we can’t go in winter. The road closes at first snowfall.
Wilderness Adventures in Kings Canyon National Park
Our wilderness experience in Kings Canyon National Park was not in an automobile. We joined a guided trip that went through some of the most remote parts of the park; donning our backpacks and hiking for 7 days across the sierra. It was a hard hike; ascending 20,000 feet and descending 18,000 feet over 70 miles. But it was gorgeous!
The portion of the hike that was in Kings Canyon took us to Roaring River Ranger Station and through Cloud Canyon, through beautiful wild-flower filled meadows surrounded by stately trees and mountains, and along glacier-fed streams with waterfalls everywhere.
The highlight was Colby Lake; a crystal clear lake surrounded by mountains with giant waterfalls seemingly coming right out of the rock. The water there was so clear you could see the fish swimming. Made us wish we had brought the fishing pole along, but we had to make do with a swim – perfect after a long day hiking up and down mountains. This was such a remote place we didn’t see anyone there, or on the trail getting there. It was truly spectacular. We’ve never seen so many stars.
From there, we climbed up Colby Pass, topping out at 12,000 feet elevation. Located on the Great Western Divide, this was the border between King Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park. From the top we got breathtaking views of both!
If you look at the map, you will see there are lots of trails in Kings Canyon National Park, including sections of the Pacific Crest and John Muir trail. You can hike for days or weeks, but be prepared for high elevation, lots of water crossings, and lots of up and down hills. There are also several trailheads where you can camp and do day hikes.
Multi-day hikes require a permit. Plus the park requires all food and toiletries to be kept in a bear canister – adding several pounds to your already heavy backpacks. We didn’t actually see any bears, but that is a good thing. The last thing anyone needs is a bear who thinks of humans as a food source. Much better to keep them shy and wary of humans,
We did see other wildlife – deers browsing in the meadows, marmots watching us from rocky outcroppings and elusive picas out gathering seeds. It is truly a beautiful place and we encourage anyone who is able to get out on to one of the trails.
Need Help Planning Your Visits?
If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.