Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains contains the deepest canyon in the United States and offers a chance to see soaring granite cliffs and rock formations without the crowds at nearby Yosemite. With miles and miles of backcountry wilderness waiting to be explored, roaring waterfalls, scenic drives, and some of the world’s largest sequoia trees, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Kings Canyon National Park.
You can easily drive the road down into Kings Canyon and hit the top sights in one day, but if you plan to do any hiking I’d carve out some extra time there. Kings Canyon National Park is frequently visited in conjunction with neighboring Sequoia National Park, and I’d highly recommend hitting them both while you’re in the area.
Drive to Cedar Grove
This spot in the bottom of Kings Canyon can only be accessed during the warmer months when the snow melts. The road into the canyon typically opens in May, but you’ll want to check the National Park site for up to date information if you’re visiting in spring or fall.
The drive into Kings Canyon is spectacular and you’ll probably want to pull over at scenic overlooks every 2 minutes along the way. Fortunately, there are plenty of places along the edge of the road for cars to pull off to admire the scenery. We decided to stick to the spots on the side of the road we were driving on each way to keep from having to turn across traffic all the time. It required a little self-restraint when we passed up good spots on the way down, but it made our trip more efficient and we were able to stop anywhere on the other side of the road we wanted on the way back up.
Driving into the canyon can easily take your whole day, so give yourself lots of time to enjoy it. You can stop into the Cedar Grove Lodge for lunch, or book yourself a room at the hotel if you visit during its operating season. Camping is also available in the canyon. Note that though the road to Kings Canyon (Highway 180) begins and ends in the National Park, a large stretch of it winds through Sequoia National Forest, which surrounds Kings Canyon and its sister park, Sequoia National Park, on 3 sides.
Listen to the roar of waterfalls
Along the drive into Kings Canyon, you’ll find a couple notable waterfalls just off the road. As you enter the canyon, the first you’ll come across is Grizzly Falls. We visited in mid-May after a winter with high snowpack and it was absolutely thundering. I was darting from tree to tree trying to get closer to it for photos while still staying dry because it was kicking up so much mist. (This one is technically in Sequoia National Forest, but no one is drawing lines on the road.) There is also a little picnic area right near the bottom of the waterfall, which makes it a great spot to stop and have a bite if you’ve brought your own food.
Just a little further down the road, you’ll find Roaring River Falls. This smaller, but perhaps even more mesmerizing waterfall was also raging during our spring visit. Later in the summer, they’ll be quieter, but still well worth visiting. This waterfall isn’t quite as close to the road, but the walk up is short and should be easily doable for almost anyone.
There are other waterfalls you can get to via hikes if you want a little more of a challenge. Mist Falls is a popular one, and can be reached after a 4-mile trail from the very end of the Kings Canyon road.
Visit the General Grant tree
The General Grant tree is a massive sequoia that’s listed as the second largest tree by volume in the world. It’s second only to the General Sherman tree just to the south in neighboring Sequoia National Park and is also known as the nation’s Christmas tree. The tree can be visited on a 1/3 mile paved trail from a parking area. This part of the park can get congested in the summer, so it’s recommended to get an early start if you can. We went first thing in the morning and had the place almost to ourselves, which was glorious.
You’ll also find other large sequoias along the trail, including a fallen one you can walk right through. At various times, this was used as a cabin, saloon, and stable at various times. Now that’s a big tree.
Take a hike
There are several trails in Kings Canyon National Park ranging in length and difficulty. The Zumwalt Meadow trail, right in the bottom of Kings Canyon, is a must-do if you have the time. This 1.5 mile trail was my favorite thing we did in the park. It took us through some of the best scenery in the park with soaring granite cliffs and took us through a rockfall area, along the river, and to a flooded meadow that reflected the mountains.
The river was near its peak when we were there and some of the water was spilling into the area where the trail was so we had to make our own way around it. In other areas, snowmelt was causing flooding leaving short stretches of the trail covered by a few inches of standing water. We had to be a little creative to pick our way around the wet areas but we managed to keep our shoes dry. There were also some areas that required traversing slightly rough terrain where rockslides had been in the past, so while it was mostly easy, there were some trickier areas.
A fascinating yet sad trail that we liked was the Big Stump Trail just inside the park boundary. This 2-mile long trail winds through an area where these incredible trees, some more than 1000 years old, were cut down for logging. All that remains of most of them are the massive stumps they left behind. It’s a relatively easy walk that should take you about an hour.
We also managed to fit in a hike on the Buena Vista Trail. This one differs a different flavor as the payoff is a spectacular view – hence the name – looking toward the west. When we did the hike, it was very hazy (but still beautiful), but we were told later that it tends to be clearer in the mornings due to the pollution in the valley. This trail was moderately difficult and still partially snow-covered in mid-May. There were a few places where we struggled to find the trail as it passed over bare, rocky areas, but we made it successfully and had the overlook all to ourselves.
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