Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, you’ll spend a lot of time looking up — way 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 in these twin parks in Central California are approximately 40 different sequoia groves. These behemoth trees can only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation, and the parks are home to seven of the 10 largest trees in the world.
Amazingly, these trees, which stretch up to nearly 300 feet high, aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively dwarfed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley hemmed in by 4,000-foot-high granite walls, and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,494 feet.
Located in the Southern Sierra Nevada, about 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 early days of the conservation movement in America. On Sept. 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the country’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the area’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later, he added General Grant National Park to the roster.
In those early days, America’s first Black national park superintendent (and the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army), Col. Charles Young, led efforts to build a road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest, and by 1903, the landscape had opened to tourists coming in 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 famed Generals Highway, which cuts through dense sequoia groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine Mineral King glacial valley; and Crystal Cave, a marble cavern closed until 2023 due to wildfire damage to its road and trail. The bifurcated, 722-square-mile Kings Canyon, meanwhile, sits atop Sequoia like two lopsided bunny ears: To the west, a squiggly sliver of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and the neighboring village and visitor center; to the east, a much larger swath of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The meandering ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections as it cuts through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest.
Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free much of the year. In 2019, before pandemic-related disruptions, Sequoia welcomed about 1.2 million visitors; Kings Canyon, just over 630,000. Compare that to the 4.6 million who stopped in at Yosemite National Park, their Sierras neighbor 40 miles to the north.
For park ranger Rebecca Paterson, “tuning in 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 just be silent and listen to the sounds of the park for a couple of minutes,” Paterson says. “I can’t express how calming and enjoyable this is.”
Location: Central California, about 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles
Acreage: 865,964 acres, or 1,353 square miles
Highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet
Lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1,370 feet
Miles of trails: 866
Main attraction: Sequoia groves with record-breaking trees
Entry fee: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $70 for annual passes
Best way to see: By car or by the free park shuttle (between May and September)
When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds leave and before the snow begins
Plan Your Trip
The parks are relatively centrally located within the state and a bit of a trek to reach from major cities: You can expect about a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles. Depending on where you’re flying in from, you may want to take advantage of the much closer Fresno Yosemite International Airport, about an hour and 15 minutes from the Kings Canyon entrance on State Route 180. The airport offers nonstop flights from 11 U.S. cities, including Dallas, Denver and Las Vegas.
When planning your trip, note that it’s hard to generalize about the weather in these parts. There’s an enormous elevation shift from the foothills in Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the big tree groves in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you ascend higher through 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 into the upper 90s and average winter lows dropping to the mid-30s. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove, summer temperatures are significantly milder, usually in the mid-70s in the daytime and the 50s at night. Even if it’s scorchingly hot when you enter the parks (it has been known to hit 114 degrees), you may still need a light sweater by the time you’re surrounded by sequoias. Plan and pack accordingly — layers are your friend.
While the winter can be peaceful and the parks look gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during those months. Several roads, including 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road, close due to treacherous, icy driving conditions, and many of the parks’ lodging options shutter. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume gate until spring 2023. Check the park website for closures before you go.