Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, you’ll spend a lot of time gazing up – high up – at some of the largest living organisms in the history of the planet. If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, the main attractions at these central California twin parks are around 40 different redwood groves. These giant trees can only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation, and the parks are home to seven of the 10 tallest trees in the world.
Surprisingly, these trees, which stretch up to nearly 300 feet tall, aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively overshadowed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley surrounded by 4,000-foot-tall granite walls, and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney, the lower 48’s highest point at 14,494 feet. .
Located in the southern Sierra Nevada, roughly equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kings Canyon and Sequoia are actually two national parks for the price of one. They share a border and a long history, dating back to the earliest days of the conservation movement in America. On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the nation’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the region’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later, he added General Grant State Park to the list.
In those early days, America’s first black national park superintendent (and only African-American officer in the U.S. Army), Colonel Charles Young, led efforts to build a road through the giant forest of Sequoia, and by 1903 the landscape had opened up to tourists arriving by wagon. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established Kings Canyon National Park, which absorbed the former General Grant Park.
Today, Sequoia comprises 631 square miles, which include the famous Generals Highway, which runs through dense redwood groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine glacial valley of Mineral King; and Crystal Cave, a marble cave closed until 2023 due to forest fire damage to its road and trail. The bifurcated 722-square-mile Kings Canyon, meanwhile, looms atop Sequoia like two lopsided rabbit ears: to the west, an undulating ribbon of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and nearby village and center of welcome ; to the east, a much larger expanse of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The winding ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest.
Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free for much of the year. In 2019, before pandemic-related disruptions, Sequoia welcomed approximately 1.2 million visitors; Kings Canyon, just over 630,000. Compare that to the 4.6 million people who stopped at Yosemite National Park, their neighboring Sierras 40 miles to the north.
For park ranger Rebecca Paterson, “connecting to the soundscape” is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness. “Find a secluded spot, take a few steps off the trail, maybe sit down, maybe close your eyes, and be quiet and listen to the sounds of the park for a few minutes,” says Paterson. “I can’t express how soothing and enjoyable it is.”
Location : Central California, approximately 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles
Area: 865,964 acres or 1,353 square miles
The highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet
The lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1370 feet
Kilometers of trails: 866
The main attraction: Redwood groves with record trees
Admission fees: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bikes or walk-in; $70 for annual passes
Best way to see: By car or by the park’s free shuttle (between May and September)
When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds have left and before the snow starts
Plan your trip
The parks are located relatively central in the state and a bit removed from major cities: you can expect around a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles. Depending on where you’re arriving from, you might want to take advantage of the much closer Fresno Yosemite International Airport, about an hour and 15 minutes from the entrance to Kings Canyon on State Route 180. The airport offers nonstop flights from 11 US cities. , including Dallas, Denver and Las Vegas.
When planning your trip, note that it is difficult to generalize about the weather in these areas. There is a huge elevation change from the foothills of Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the large groves of trees in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you climb higher in the parks. Fortunately, the NPS maintains a helpful website with forecasts for specific areas. The foothills tend to have milder winters and hot, dry summers, with average highs in July and August reaching the upper 90s and average winter lows falling into the mid-30s. In the Sequoia Giant Forest and in Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove, summer temperatures are significantly milder, typically in the mid-70s during the day and into the 50s at night. Even though it’s very hot when you enter the parks (it’s been known to reach 114 degrees), you might still need a light sweater as you’re surrounded by redwoods. Plan and pack accordingly – layers are your friend.
While winter can be peaceful and the parks look beautiful under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during these months. Several roads, including the 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road, and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road, are closed due to dangerous and icy driving conditions, and many park accommodation options are closed. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume Gate until Spring 2023. Check the park’s website for closures before you go.