A Guide to Kings Canyon National Park
Best known for its groves of Sequoia trees, Kings Canyon National Park spans a significant portion of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. But it’s not just these giant trees that attract visitors to the so-called Land of Giants, and neighboring Sequoia National Park. Deep canyons, lush valleys, snow-capped peaks, and terrain ranging from 1,000 to 14,000 feet are all part of the appeal—though the world’s largest trees are certainly a highlight.
A visit to Kings Canyon—to the old growth trees that inspired the writings of John Muir himself—is accessible to all travelers, thanks to a tangle of hiking trails ranging from novice, paved paths to advanced, multi-day trips. And you don’t need any technical skills at all to be impressed by the height, and age, of the iconic trees towering over the California coast.
Where to Stay
In addition to established campgrounds and backcountry camping opportunities, there are many year-round cabins and lodges to choose from in the vicinity of Kings Canyon National Park.
The John Muir Lodge, located in the Grant Grove area of the park, offers 36 rooms as well as a restaurant and is open all year. And Grants Grove Cabins, also located in Grants Grove and just a short distance from the visitor center, market, restaurant, post office, and gift shop. Although cabins are available year-round, they are limited during the winter.
For those interested in exploring the backcountry during the winter months, the Pear Lake Winter Hut is accessible only by a strenuous six-mile skin or snowshoe trip through the snow-covered groves. After the trek, visitors will find ten cozy beds and a wood pellet stove. Reservations are required and can be made online or by phone. Only those proficient in backcountry winter travel should attempt this type of trip.
Backcountry camping is permitted in designated areas, and is a great option for those seeking to experience untrammeled nature. Wilderness permits are required for all backcountry camping. Front-country campsites, like the Azalea and Sentinel campgrounds, are more accessible places to spend a night under the stars. Sentinel is located in the Cedar Grove area of the park and is closed during the winter months, while Azalea is located in the Grants Grove area and is open year-round.
What to Do
The main attraction of Kings Canyon National Park is the Sequoia groves. While their imposing height is impressive, travelers may be more impressed by the age of these natural landmarks. Many of the trees are between 1,800 and 2,700 years old.
Grants Grove, located just off of Highway 180, boasts some exceptionally large sequoias, in addition to a great vantage point over the General Grant tree. There is a network of trails in this grove that allow visitors to wander amongst the primordial forests, meadows, and waterfalls. Choose from a variety of hikes that can last anywhere from one hour to a full day or more.
If you have the time, take the Congress Trail hike from the General Sherman Tree (the world’s largest tree by volume) up to the top of the granite dome known as Moro Rock.
Of course, there’s more to see at Kings Canyon National Park than just trees. A scenic byway offers a number of scenic viewpoints punctuated by educational exhibits, while rock climbing and tours of the fragile crystal caves offer an unexpected perspective of a park best known for its boughs.
When to Visit
This park offers visitors year-round recreational opportunities. And it just happens to be one of the best national parks to visit in the winter. Travelers can snowshoe or ski beneath the snow-frosted trees, and even spend a night at cozy Pear Lake Winter Hut.
Certain areas of the park located at higher elevations, however, often close during the winter. For lengthy hikes and backpacking trips, your best bet is before winter descends upon the groves. The spectacular marble Crystal Cave, for example, can only be entered during the summer.
Keep in mind that weather can change drastically at any time of year, depending on the elevation of the specific region of the park you will be visiting.