Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, while created at different times and technically separate, are contiguous in the Southern Sierra Mountains. They contain magnificent sequoia trees are easily visited together.
Kings Canyon has three radically different sections, the:
- Canyon, for which the park is named. The canyon is the deepest in the country, with granite cliffs that soar up to 3,500 feet above the canyon floor;
- High Sierra mountains, some of which are well over 14,000 feet; and
- Sequoia Groves that house some of the most massive trees in the world.
Our explorations of the canyon and the mountains were cursory, viewing the canyon’s depth and steep cliffs from the road and the mountains from viewpoints in the western and central portions of the park. We focused primarily on the mixed conifer/sequoia groves and the range of trees they house.
The visitor’s center is always a good place to stop to see a video and exhibits that provide very cursory explanations of the park, its history and its ecosystems.
General Grant Grove
The General Grant Grove in the park has a concentration of majestic sequoias—both alive and dead. The live trees included those of all sizes and ages. Most standalone, some with fused bases and root systems and some that are so close together as to almost appear as one. The highlight is the majestic, 1,650 year-old General Grant Tree.
Despite its tender years (sequoias can live well over 3,000 years) and the severe burns it has suffered over the ages, the tree benefits from a very favorable combination of moisture, sun and soil nutrients. The result is a giant that is already one of the five largest trees in the world with a height of 268 feet tall, a base circumference of 108 feet and a weight of 1,254 tons.
The grove is also home to a few other standouts, or actually, ex-standouts, such as the;
- Fallen Monarch. You can walk through this hollowed-out trunk. It has been previously used as a camp site and a horse shelter.
- Centennial Stump is the remains of a tree, cut in 1875 for a 24-foot diameter slice that was transported to Philadelphia for an exposition. At the time, it was widely decried as a hoax, since it was clearly impossible for any tree to grow to such a size.
- Big Stump trail is a wonderful trail through a former sequoia stand that was logged in the 1880s, before the area was protected. There are several stumps on which you can see how clean cuts were made, others that broke unevenly and others that shattered when they fell. You can see traces of sawdust from the cuts that have not fully decayed after 140 years. The grove also has several large and thriving trees, several seedlings that have sprouted in open areas and a few “children” that were planted 1888 that have grown tall, but have not yet begun to expand their girth. Others died of natural causes, as by toppling over or from fire. Some of the “standing corpses” have decayed into weird shapes, appearing almost as gothic spires or fantasy castles, onto which children anxiously climb. One meadow, which was the site of a lumber mill, is littered with irregularly shattered shards and sawdust. Overall, a fascinating range of trees, and their remnants, in a short, roughly two-mile walk.
- North Grove, for its large sequoia stand and its neighboring Dead Giant Grove, with giants that have long since fallen and others that have died but remain standing as ghastly naked, whitish skeletons;
- Panoramic Point trail, a road up a mountain ending in a short trail that provides views across the entire canyon to peaks including the 1,568-foot Mt. Goddard and the 14,242-foot Mt. Palisade.
The park is also home to a number of the region’s several hundred caves including Boyden Cavern, whose chambers and formations can be seen on a guided tour, which we opted to skip.
Kings Canyon Food and Hotel
We stayed at the John Muir Lodge in Grant Grove Village. This was nice lodge in the park. Although 20 years old, it was very clean and our room was very comfortable. We did have wifi, although they claim it is mostly in common areas. No A/C as it generally cools down at night and is not needed. They do not have an elevator. If stairs are an issue, you can stay on the first floor. Or, they also have people to help with luggage. Highly recommended.
We had dinner at Grant Grove Restaurant. We didn’t have a lot of choices in Grant Grove Village and this seems the best choice. While they don’t take reservations, we went early and did’t have an issue getting a table. The room itself was had some nice views and you could eat inside or outside. The food is locally sourced, with sustainable and organic ingredients. As in many national parks, you can’t expect too much from the food. The almond-crusted ruby trout (despite the paucity of almonds) and green salad were the standouts, although not great. The beef chili and chicken pot pie very very disappointing. Joyce had a MacMurray Ranch pinot noir with her trout, Tom had glass of local, Tioga Sequoia General Sherman IPA with his meal.
Kings Canyon Park is connected to Sequoia Park via the scenic, 45-mile Generals Highway, a ridge-hugging mountain road that climbs to elevations of 7,600 feet, with turnouts that provide sweeping views over the valley to the west and the canyon and snow-covered peaks of the High Sierras to the west.
While views are generally blocked by tall conifers, occasional glimpses and scenic turnouts yield stunning views along the length of the ridge road. Even better are occasional stops at granite mounds, including Buena Vista and Big Baldy, that rise above the trees and provide incredible 360-degree views over the central valley, King’s Canyon and to the snow-capped High Sierras. We stopped at one of these domes and were rewarded with more than just a spectacular view.
We did take time to hike the Buena Vista Trail. The trail winds its way to the top of a dome over the course of a mile that is lined with boulders that are strewn across the landscape and balanced in improbable positions, and by dozens of beautiful patches of wildflowers in colors that span the rainbow, from whites, pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, blues and violets. The barren granite at the top, meanwhile, provides spectacular views in all directions. Many wonderful rewards for a two-mile round trip with a mere 400 feet of elevation gain.
Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park was founded in 1890. It is the second oldest national park in the country (after Yellowstone) and spans altitude ranging from a mere 1,370 feet in elevation to the peak of Mt. Whitney which, at 14,494 feet, is the highest spot in the 48 contiguous states. Among the primary attractions of the park are its:
Big Trees Trail. This lovely and fascinating 1.5-mile, self-guided interpretive trail around Round Meadow. While the low-lying meadow is itself too wet for sequoias to grow, its banks provide the sunlight and the moist, fertile soil that is ideally suited for sequoias to take root and grow around it. The interpretive panels explain the conditions that sequoias require (bare, ashy soil—ideally after a fire—in which seeds can take root; a moderate level of moisture in the soil and the air; cool, but not cold temperatures; and clear access to sunlight–as around a meadow). And all of this is within a narrow band on the western slopes of the Sierras between 5,000 and 7,500 feet in elevation.
Since these giants have such widely spread, but shallow (typically less than three feet) root structures, they can thrive in spaces in which many other trees cannot properly root. Once rooted, they grow tall quickly. By the time they tower above neighboring trees and have full access to sun, their full-rounded tops block sunlight from their lower branches, which gradually fall off. When they reach their maximum heights, their tops get less and less moisture and the top growth and begin to die. By the time vertical growth stalls, they begin growing in circumference—a growth that continues over their entire lives. Death, occasionally from fire (a condition from which most survive and even thrive), typically occurs when they fall over (usually from strong winds or heavy loads of snow in their branches).
The panels also explain the evolution of the area, from the aggressive cutting of the trees in the 1880s, through the conservation movement, the proliferation of private ownership and the building of roads and buildings next to the trees, the National Geographic Association’s raising of money to buy the land and the park’s clearing of the land to give trees the opportunity to thrive.
General Sherman Tree. At 275 feet tall, 102.6 feet around and breaking the scales at 2.7 million pounds, this 2,200 year-old giant is generally considered to be the largest living tree in the world. It continues to grow, adding the equivalent of one 60-foot, one-foot diameter tree each year—probably similar in size to a branch that fell and remains next to the tree.
Giant Forest Grove. This grove has a paved Congress Trail (complemented with detours on a few other trails) that appears to be a living laboratory on the effects of fire on sequoias. Although the trail provided no descriptions and the rangers we asked knew nothing about a specific fire, the level of damage and a number of small, familial stands of similar age “young” trees suggest a particularly large fire that opened the way for a large number of seeds to root and grow at the same time.
Evidence of a large fire were everywhere, from eerily-charred standing corpses that resemble blackened versions of the gothic-esque spires of Gaudi’s Familia (in Barcelona), to giants that somehow managed to survive despite huge, disfiguring burn scars that destroyed half the trees’ bases. One tree, despite losing its entire crown, appeared to growing small additional branches and needles from its side. The signs of post-fire renewal were just as evident as those of destruction. We saw at least three stands of six-to-nine much younger trees that grew within a couple feet of each other. A large fire probably cleared enough of the ground cover and canopy, and opened a sufficient number of cones to permit large numbers of seeds to root, and seedlings to grow to maturity.
This is not to suggest that all of the grove’s trees died from fire or suffered great damage. A number of trees (some cut with convenient walk-throughs) died “natural deaths by being toppled by high winds or heavy snow accumulations. Some fell intact which others shattered, either in the center or into hundreds of pieces. Although all sequoias, by virtue of their long lives and the inevitability of lighting fires, suffer varying degrees of burn damage, small burns are “healed” with new wood growth and other, larger one, may weaken the tree’s base, but leave it otherwise healthy. Some of these grow to well over 2,000 years and become giants, such as the grove’s President, McKinley, General Lee, Chief Sequoyah and of course, General Sherman trees.
Although the Giant Forest Grove provides a tremendous learning opportunity, it’s a shame that the Park Service doesn’t have the resources required to capitalize on it.
Giant Forest Museum explains the ecology of sequoia ecosystems and provides examples of trees at various stages of life. , from sprouting seeds, to six-inch seedlings, a 30 year-old, ten-foot tree, and a roughly 800-year old giant that pales in comparison to the largest and oldest trees which can be up to about 310 feet high, 40 feet in diameter, weigh up to 1,400 tons and live to 32,000 years.
Crescent Meadow, another of the goldilocks environment in which a large grove of sequoias took root around a meadow after fire. This area is located just past the Auto Log, a fallen sequoia on which cars used to drive and the Tunnel Log a fallen tree into which the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps carved a notch under which cars can drive.
The Meadow itself is surrounded by dozens of huge living trees and several that have died. These dead trees are in all shapes and flavors. Some lay intact on the ground, other have decayed to the extent that they can be walked though, some remain standing in varying states of decay. While virtually all have scars from previous fires, some have burned to death. One, for example, stands as a blackened, deformed, but intact tree while another, the so-called Chimney Tree, has had the center burned out so that visitors can enter and see the sky. Among the most famous of the meadow’s trunk giant’s is Tharp’s Log, a hollow trunk that the region’s first non-Indian settler converted into a home. He built a front room and door at the entrance, carved a wooden window that can be opened and closed, build a stone chimney and furnished in (a table and bed remain). A few large, lovely wildflower spreads further brightened the trail.
Crystal Cave, which was temporarily closed due to a rockslide, is a stalagmite/stalactite-filled cavern that can be toured with a guide.
Moro Rock, a granite dome that towers 6,000 feet above San Joaquin Valley, can be reached via a 400-step stairway that was knee-unfriendly for Joyce’s ailing joint. Although we had to pass on the hike to the top, the view from Generals Highway in the south end of the park is impressive enough.
Southern Sequoia Park, past Moro Rock and Crystal Cave, offers some of the most dramatic and impressive landscape in the park—even more so than the drive into the park from the north. This drive along Generals Highway down to around 3,000 feet in elevation (as far as we went) is undeveloped and unspoiled. The steep, hairpin road and pull-offs provide dramatic views of steep green mountains to the west and, to the east, jagged, granite cliff-faces (including the dramatic Moro Rock) that plunge thousands of feet into the valley. An awesome drive!
Hotel and Food in Sequoia National Park
We stayed at Wuksachi Lodge. Built in 1999, the Lodge replaced many of the places that were encroaching on the trees. The building we stayed in didn’t have any elevator so if stairs are an issue, ask for a ground floor. We had wifi in the room. No A/C as the nights cool down. Although it was nice, we preferred the John Muir Lodge in King’s Canyon. But one doesn’t have alot of choices if you want to stay in the park.
As with accommodations, meal options are also very limited. You could go into a cafeteria in Lodgepole Village or The Peaks, a full-service restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge. We choose the Peaks for both lunch and dinner. We had two very good sandwiches for lunch: A bison burger with gouda, dijon, arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and caramelized onions and a turkey, avocado and bacon sandwich with swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion on whole wheat toast.
Dinner was somewhat more mixed. The pan-seared halibut with alfredo sauce was very good in spite of the slightly overcooked cheese tortellini that came with it. Pan-seared trout and the whole grains with which it was served, meanwhile, were overcooked, although the steamed squash with which it was served was good. We ended up with a bottle of 2015 Meiomi Chardonnay from the very limited, very basic wine list. While we were very happy with the service at lunch, dinner service was very slow.