This article discusses the absolutely best things to do in Kings Canyon National Park, one of the three parks located in the Sierra Nevada.
There are three National Parks in California’s Sierra Nevada.
And… Kings Canyon National Park
Chances are that if you are not familiar with the area, you have not heard about the last park on the list. Actually, I know Californians which have never heard of the park even though it is adjacent and operated jointly with Sequoia (the two parks are administered as one unit).
To put things in perspective, Sequoia gets about one million visitors per year and Kings Canyon gets only half of that. And, I have a suspicion that most of those visitors concentrate on the sequoia groves located close to the park’s entrance. Several years ago, Sunset Magazine included the Park in its list of the “Sierra’s Hidden Gems.”
In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what I was set to discover. We are on a quest to visit all of California’s National Parks. Therefore, we allocated a day to Kings Canyon.
Well, I am glad we visited because the park leaves you pretty much speechless at certain moments. My list of things to do in Kings Canyon National Park will help you to plans your own adventure.
What to Know Before your Visit
Kings Canyon National Park is divided into two main areas.
The Grant Grove area is located in the “high” part of the park (elevation 6,500 feet). This area is the most commonly visited since it is not that far from the limits of Sequoia National Park. It counts with a Visitor’s Center, village and campgrounds.
The Cedar Grove area is located in the “low” area of the park (elevation 4,600 feet). This part is located at the bottom of Kings Canyon (the park’s main road snakes through the canyon). Few people make it here. This area has the same facilities as the Grant Grove area.
In addition, you have the Hume Lake area which can be accessed through the park roads but it is located on a mix of private and United State Forest Service land.
Things to Do in Kings Canyon National Park
There are plenty of things to do in Kings Canyon National Park. I recommend not rushing since you want to savor the glorious views!
General Grant Grove
As the header implies, explore this area to take a look at General Grant, the second largest tree in the world. He used to be the third until the tree that used to be the second largest lost the upper half of its trunk. It is a bit confusing since the interpretative signs in the park still describe him as the third largest.
General Grant is famous for being proclaimed the “Nation’s Christmas Tree.”
The other interesting thing about General Grant is that he is considered a baby. Well, a sequoia baby of only 1,700 years. The oldest sequoias are about 3,500 years. The moisture, nutrients and sunlight conditions on his location are ideal for growth. That is why he has beaten many older trees in terms of size.
General Grant is connected to other trees by a paved, ⅓ of a mile (0.5 km) trail. The marked trail is full of stops where visitors can learn about the trees, area’s history and even, how trees in the vicinity were cut and taken to the East Coast. The fallen trunks were used to prove the veracity of pioneer’s tales related to humongous trees found in California.
Drive to the Kings Canyon Panoramic Point
Once you pass the Grant Grove, you are going to find the Panoramic Point Road on your right. Once you are there, keep going for two miles till the end of the road.
From a parking area, you only have to walk 0.5 miles to a scenic overlook from where you can observe a pine-covered valley, Hume Lake and the tall peaks of the Sierra.
If hiking is your thing, you can walk to the Park Ridge Fire Lookout (2.4 miles, one way).
Local Knowledge Note: It is “the Sierra” (singular) not “the Sierras” (plural). The Sierra Nevada (named after the Sierra Nevada in Southern Spain) runs for 400 miles.
The Main Attraction: Kings River Canyon
Once you are done admiring the mighty sequoias, start the slow descent to the lower part of the park.
When I visited, after seeing the “Kings Canyon Scenic Byway” sign, a sharp cliff appeared on my right side. My husband stopped to take a better look and noticed I was starting to get anxious.
He asked me if I wanted to continue. I mumbled a hesitant “yes.” I thought we were going to pass the cliffy areas fast.
I was wrong.
Shortly after the stop, we took a left curve and that is when I saw the deepest abysm I have seen in my life.
The sky was mostly gray and sunset was upon us. A straight line of sun rays was passing through the clouds and lighting the left wall of the canyon. It was a transfixing image. I wasn’t expecting that at all.
As you can imagine, I was holding to dear life in my seat. All I could think was a video I saw on YouTube about a bus transiting one of the world’s most dangerous roads (in China). Why do you need to go to China if we have equally scary stuff in the United States (no railing separating you from the bottom)?
But, I survived the steep descent to the canyon’s floor. Our initial idea was to drive the road and return to camp near the park’s entrance. I told my husband I couldn’t take the drive back to back. We ended up camping close to Cedar Grove Visitor’s Center.
The subsequent photos were taken the following day when we were getting out.
This area of the park protects the headwaters of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River and the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. Both the South and Middle Forks of the Kings Rivers have extensive glacial canyons. One portion of the South Fork canyon, known as the Kings Canyon, gives the entire park its name. Kings Canyon, with a maximum depth of 8,200 feet (2,500 m), is one of the deepest canyons in the United States.
A few miles outside the park, Kings Canyon deepens and steepens becoming arguably the deepest canyon in North America for a short distance. At the highest part of the road, the canyon appears so deep that it is almost impossible to see the river at the bottom. I had to use the camera’s maximum zoom to capture the following photos.
Check out how the road meanders on one side of the canyon. Super scary!
The neat thing is that the junction of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River can be observed from the road.
The river gets more visible as soon as you get closer to the bottom of the canyon.
There is a point where the river can be observed at road level. The power of this river cannot be described with words. He moves at full force with an eternal impetuous sound.
Note: This may not be a pleasant drive for people with a fear of altitude. Also, motion sickness may occur.
After the main attraction, it is time to take it easy and admire the scenery. A 0.1-mile trail located next to the road takes you to a 75 feet waterfall. I got another taste of nature’s power in here. It was nearly impossible to get to the base of the fall due to the force of the water.
Roaring River Falls
This is another short but powerful waterfall that can be reached by a 0.3 paved trail. Granite peaks can be observed from the trail (remember to look back).
Zumwalt Meadow is the most scenic part of the Kings Canyon valley floor. The woods around the meadow are noticeably more lush and green than the woods in the rest of the valley, which is by and large rather sparse and without ground cover.
In addition, the meadow is at the steepest and most dramatic part of the canyon, situated between two tall, nearly vertical granite cliff faces. A one-and-a-half-mile loop circles the meadow and is one of the more popular trails in the park.
After the trailhead to the meadow, a short drive will take you to the road end. To get out of the park, you have to drive to the high altitude area using the same road used to get to the bottom.
At one point, we detoured to Hume Lake. This is actually a reservoir used to store logs for an adjacent mill and supply water for a flume used to transport the cut lumber. I suggest taking a look at the lake before leaving the park.
The lake was purchased by the Forest Service and it is used for recreation nowadays. Activities such as boating, fishing, hiking, and swimming are permitted.
Hike a Short or Long Trail
Like most National Parks, Kings Canyon has an array of trails suitable for all ages and tastes. I have already provided details about some walks but want to elaborate on the topic.
- North Grove Loop – Starts at General Grant tree parking lot (1.5 miles)
- Buena Vista Peak – 2-mile round-trip hike takes you scenic views of the tall trees in the park
- Knapp’s Cabin – 2-mile trail to a small fishing cabin
Moderate and strenuous hikes include the following:
- Don Cecil Trail – This was the trail used to reach the bottom of the canyon before the park’s main road was completed in 1939.
- Mist Falls – This 9-mile trail takes hikers to one of the largest waterfalls in the area. Most of the trail is flat. Elevation is gained on the last mile.
- Cedar Grove Overlook – The 5-mile (roundtrip) trail take 3 to 4 hours to complete (be prepared since elevation gain is the real deal in here).
The Rae Lakes Loop, one of the top backpacking trail of the Sierra Nevada, is accessed from the park.
Take a Guided Horseback Ride
Horseback rides are offered in both areas of the park. The Grant Grove Stables and the Cedar Grove Packing Station have multiple offerings, from 1-hour rides to multi-day trips.
This is a great way to cover a lot of ground and see areas of the park that are difficult to access by foot. Short rides are around $40-$70 per person.
Camping in Kings Canyon National Park
Campsites are categorized by area.
Near Grant Grove (on the high area of the park), you can stay on the following campsites:
- Crystal Springs
On the Cedar Grove area (on the low area of the park or the bottom of the canyon), the following campsites are open to visitors:
- Sheep Creek
- Canyon View
Most campsites operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. During high season (summer) and holiday weekends, try to arrive early if you are planning to camp. You need cash to pay on site.
The Sierra parks are bear country. Read and follow instructions at all times.
Lodging and Food Inside the Park
For those who do not want to deal with camping, there are accommodations in both areas of the park.
The Grant Grove Cabins & John Muir Lodge offers hotels rooms, cabins and restaurant services all year long. Expect to pay $40-$100 for a cabin and $115-$200 for a room.
The Cedar Grove Lodge offers room and restaurant services. Expect a motel level of service. Prices start at $150 per night.
In Sequoia National Park, you can find the beautiful Wuksachi Lodge. Accommodation on United States Forest Service and private lands are also available.
Similar to campsites, lodging inside the camp sells out fast. You need to make reservations with time.
There are some hotels and lodges on Route 245 near the park entrance.
The park has two visitor’s centers: Grant Grove and Cedar Grove. Both offer a restaurant (serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, expect simple fare), a store, restrooms, and other amenities.
From the Giant Forest area in Sequoia National Park, driving time is about one hour to the Grant Grove. From the Grant Grove, it is about an hour to Cedar Grove.
Carry water and snacks (preferably, high in protein snack) with you.
The road connecting the two park areas is no joke. Exercise caution, drive slowly and stop only in designated areas.
Cell phone service is limited or non-existed. I recommend picking up a map in one of the Visitor’s Center. Signage is excellent inside the park.
WI-fi is available at the Grant Grove restaurant.
Fill up your car’s gas tank before heading to the parks since there are no stations there.
Verify road closure status during winter.
In my opinion, this park is unique in terms of its views. I recommend visiting it in conjunction with Sequoia National Park (do not skip it!).
Kings Canyon National Park is located 240 miles from Los Angeles, 202 miles from San Jose and 238 miles from San Francisco.
The major city located close to the park is Fresno (54 miles or an hour away). The Yosemite Valley is located 140 or 3 hours away.
Given the distances from big cities and other attractions I would recommend spending two or three days in the area.
Sequoia National Park
If you are visiting Sequoia National Park too (if you are in the area, I am sure you do), I recommend reading my posts about the different areas in the park.
Have you visited Kings Canyon National Park? What are your suggestions for the top things to do?
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