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Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks

In the southern Sierra, within reasonable reach of the Los Angeles megalopolis, you can still find raw, roadless wilderness. While nearby Yosemite is plagued by crowds and overdevelopment, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks remain a largely unspoiled alpine realm, with high-country lakes and mountain streams, snowfields and scores of peaks that top 13,000 feet. In short, there’s enough here to satisfy a John Muir wanna-be through several lifetimes of exploring.

Introduction

On a clear day, stand on top of Moro Rock and you’ll easily understand why Sequoia National Park is our second oldest national park, dating back to 1885. The view extends from the 12,000 foot peaks of the Sierra’s Great Western Divide to the foothills. The churning middle Fork of the Kaweah River races below. To the north lies the Giant Forest plateau where sequoias rise above their forest neighbors. The tallest, 275 foot-tall General Sherman, has a trunk that weighs an estimated 1,385 tons and a ground-level circumference of nearly 103 feet. And just out of sight beyond the divide, the highest mountain in the contiguous 48 states, Mount Whitney, reaches 14,494 feet of elevation. Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia’s sister, was added to the system in 1940. The older General Grant National Park, which is the area now known as Grant Grove, was folded into the new park. As well as magnificent groves of sequoias, the park takes in its eponymous King’s Canyon and the gorges of the King River, two of the deepest in the U. S.

Today, the two parks are generally treated as one. Outdoor recreation is focused on the giant sequoia groves Giant Forest, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove and on the high country of the parks’ eastern side. There are only three roads that reach significantly into the park but scenic drivers won’t be disappointed. The Generals Highway, an extension of Highway 198, hooks through Sequoia National Park, providing easy access to Giant Forest and Grant Grove. Highway 180 deadends 8.5 miles past the Kings Canyon boundary and passes by Cedar Grove and several trailheads along the way. The road to Mineral King follows a branch of the South Fork of the Kaweah River and provides access to several wonderful trails.

With all this talk about trails and trailheads, it should come as no surprise that this is a great hiking park. And where there’s high mountains, such as Mt. Whitney, there’s usually climbing. And don’t think for a minute that the park closes up in the winter. Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park offers excellent cross-country skiing once the snow starts sticking to the ground. Wildlife viewing is good all year long, even in the winter.

When the crowds are thronging Yosemite to the north, Sequoia/Kings Canyon may well be the get-away solution you need. From the world’s largest trees, to Mount Whitney, to some of the most exquisite Sierra scenery anywhere in the range, these parks deliver wonder, grandeur and a fulfilling peace of mind.

History & Culture

John Muir first entered Kings Canyon in 1873 and was impressed by it’s similarity to the Yosemite Valley. It was not long there after that the beautiful setting began to change due to the wholesale cutting of sequoias. It was in 1881 that the first bill to protect the trees first entered Congress. It died before it reached the floor and Muir turned his attention to protecting the Yosemite Valley. The residents of the nearby town of Visalia carried on the battle and eventually succeded. On September 25, 1890, a bill was signed by President Benjamin Harrison that established Kings Canyon National Park making the second in U. S. history.

Since prehistoric times, native peoples traveled the forest of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The first to inhabit the area were a Paiute group, called Monaches or Western Monos, who migrated from east of the Sierra Nevada near Mono Lake. Acorns were the staple food for these people and they based their movements and trade on its availability.

In 1806, Spaniard Gabriel Moraga led an expedition to Kings Canyon in search of a site for a mission. His party discovered a major river on January 6, the day of Epiphany, for which they christened it El Ro de los Santos Reyes- The River of the Holy Kings(the three wise men who visited the infant Jesus). The name was later shortened to Kings River.

American trappers and explorers began to trickle over the lofty passes beginning in the 1827. However, the Gold Rush of 1849 thousands of newcomers to California in search of mineral wealth. The newcomers brought smallpox and measles to the mountains with them. These diseases devastated the native peoples and many died and some moved, but some stayed and their descendants still live in the San Joaquin Valley.

In 1864, Harvard geology professor and director of the newly formed California Geological Survey, Josiah Dwight Whitney, sent a team of five men to map the region. William Brewer, director of the survey team for whom Mount Brewer was named, named the highest peak Mount Whitney to honor his supervisor.

In the 1870’s, ranchers brought cattle and sheep to the Big Trees and sawmills came shortly after. Eventhough sequoia wood is brittle and broke across the grain when it fell and was useless as timber, the early loggers chopped down and carried away one-third of the ancient trees. It was at this point that conservationists started to fight. Two of the leaders were John Muir and George Stewart.

On September 25, 1890, Kings Canyon National Park was created to protect the forests and the enviroment in which they thrived. One week after its creation, Congress increased the park’s size three fold and created General Grant National Park to preserve Grant Grove. It was forty-nine years after John Muir’s article advocating a national park to include Kings Canyon that his goal was finally realized. It was on March 4, 1940 that Congress created Kings Canyon National Park absorbing tiny General Grant National Park. All the sequoias within the parks boundaries were forever protected from logging.

During World War II, as an economic measure, Sequoia and Kings Canyon were managed jointly and the successful policy continues to this day. It was in 1978 that the last addition to the park was made. To protect the steep glacier-carved valley of Mineral King from ski resort developers, Mineral King was added to Kings Canyon National Park.

Nature & Science

Geology
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are the home of awe-inspiring geological features and resources. The parks contain a significant portion of America’s longest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada. Included in the Parks’ mountainous landscape is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney(el. 14, 495 feet). There are 11 more peaks taller than 14,000 feet found along the parks’ eastern boundaries at the crest of the Sierra Nevada. In Kings Canyon National Park, prominent ridges extend westward from the crest creating the Goddard and Monarch divides with mountains taller than 13,000 feet. In Sequoia National Park, a second prominent ridge of mountains, The Great Western Divide parallels the Sierran crest. It is the mountains of the Great Western Divide that greet visitors in Mineral King and that can be seen from Moro Rock and the Giant Forest area.

Many peaks in the Great Western Divide climb to more than 12,000 feet. Between these lofty mountains lie deep, spectacular canyons. Most significant of these is Kings Canyon. In the parks, Kings Canyon is a wide glacial valley featuring tall cliffs, a meandering river, green vibrant meadows and beautiful waterfalls. A few miles outside the parks, Kings Canyon deepens and steepens becoming arguably the deepest canyon in North America for short distance. The confluence of the South Fork and Middle forks of the Kings River lies at 2,260 feet, while towering above the rivers on the north side of the canyon is Spanish Peak, which is 10,051 feet tall. The south side of this canyon above the confluence is significantly lower. Dozens of other canyons also await visitors to the parks. This includes scenic Tokopah Valley above Lodgepole, Deep Canyon on the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River and deep in the parks’ remote backcountry, Kern Canyon, which is more than 5,000 feet deep for 30 miles. The parks are headwaters for the Kaweah River, the Kern River, two forks of the Kings River and small areas of the San Joaquin and Tule river watersheds.

It is clear that the Sierra Nevada is a young mountain range, probably less than 10 million years old. Incredible forces in the earth, forced the mountains to grow and climb toward the sky. During the 10 million years at least four glacial episodes have coated the mountains in a thick mantle of ice. Today, a few small glaciers remain in the parks. They are the southern-most glaciers in North America. Glaciers move through the mountains like slow-motion rivers carving deep valleys and craggy peaks. The extensive history of glaciation within the range and the erosion resistant nature of the granitic rocks that make up most of the Sierra Nevada have together created a spectacular landscape of hanging valleys, towering waterfalls, craggy peaks, alpine lakes and gigantic glacial canyons.

The Sierra Nevada mountains are still growing today. The mountains gain height during earthquakes on the east side of the range near Bishop and Lone Pine. Rain and winter snows combine with the steep character of the landscape to create an environment that includes massive movements of sediment and rapid erosion. The mountains are being removed by erosion almost as quickly as they grow. This erosion has created and deposited sediments thousands of feet thick on the floor of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon contain more than 200 marble caves. Caves only form under special conditions including the right kind of rock, fractures or spaces in the rock and enough water to erode underground rooms and passages. The caves of the two parks include the longest cave in California, Lilburn Cave, with nearly 17 miles of surveyed passage. Lilburn is a very complex maze cave with beautiful blue- and white-banded marble.

Nearby mines attest to the unusual geology in the Lilburn area and the cave has displays of rare and colorful minerals including green malachite and blue azurite. Beautiful Crystal Cave features a trail and lights for park visitors. This commercialized cave has seen millions of visitors since it first opened to the public in 1941. It has beautifully banded marble, many cave formations, large rooms and the creative Spider Web Gate. Soldier’s Cave has been a favorite with California cave explorers since its discovery in 1949. Three rope drops must be negotiated to reach the cave’s lowest and most extensive level. Several outstanding formation areas exist, one of which has high quality “dog-tooth spar” crystals. This cave has suffered due to inadvertent damage by cave explorers. People have accidentally broken cave formations and muddied extensive areas of white flowstone. Soldiers Cave was the site of a restoration and cleaning project between 1992 and 1997.

Ecology
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks support a diversity of animal species. There are over 260 known native vertebrate species in the parks and numerous additional species may be present. Of the native vertebrates, five species are extirpated and over 150 are rare or uncommon. While there have been some studies of park invertebrates, there is not enough information to know how many species occur in the parks. Many of the parks’ caves contain invertebrates, some of which occur only in one cave and are known nowhere else in the world. The variety of wildlife in the parks reflects the variety in elevation, climate and habitat.

Extreme topographic differences and a striking elevation gradient (ranging from 1,360 feet in the foothills to 14,491 feet along the Sierran crest) create a rich tapestry of environments, from the hot, dry lowlands along the western boundary to the stark and snow-covered alpine high country. This topographic diversity in turn supports over 1,200 species of plants, which make up dozens of unique plant communities. These include not only the renowned groves of massive giant sequoia, but also vast tracts of montane forests, spectacular alpine habitats and oak woodlands and chaparral. The richness of the Sierran flora mirrors that of the state as a whole – of the nearly 6,000 species of plants known to occur in California, over 20% of them can be found within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Attractions

Giant Forest
The Giant Forest was named in 1875 by explorer and conservationist John Muir and is the park’s most famous attraction. The Giant Forest is a giant sequoia grove and is also celebrated for its beautiful meadows. The cinnamon-colored Big Trees, members of the redwood family, may be seen today as Muir found them.

Giant Forest Museum
Fun for the entire family, the Giant Forest Museum is open daily, free of charge, and is full of fascinating exhibits, plus interactive, hands-on displays that celebrate the life of a Giant Sequoia tree. The Giant Forest Museum, located on Highway 198, approximately one-hour north of the Ash Mountain entrance, is open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

General’s Highway
The road from Ash Mountain to Hospital Rock was originally built by the Mt. Whitney Power Company to provide access to build a flume that carries water from the Marble and Middle Forks of the Kaweah River to a power generator just outside the park. You can see this concrete flume on the far side of the river.

General Sherman Tree
The General Sherman Tree is a gigantic sequoia is neither the tallest nor the widest tree but it is considered the largest living tree in the world because of its volume. It weighs approximately 2.7 million pounds and is believed to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. The General Sherman Tree height is 274.9 feet, and its circumference at ground level is 102.6 feet. The diameter of its largest branch is nearly 7 feet. Each year the General Sherman adds enough wood growth to make a 60 foot tall tree of usual proportions.

Moro Rock
Moro Rock is a large granite dome also found in the Giant Forest area. Common in the Sierra Nevada, the dome was formed by exfoliation, or the casting off in sheets of rock layers on otherwise unjointed granite. Taking a quarter-mile trail, you can climb nearly 400 steep steps to the top of the barren rock (el. 6,725 feet). Moro Rock offers an unparalleled view of the Great Western Divide and its rugged canyons. Moro Rock parking area is 3.5 miles south of the General Sherman Tree at General’s Highway. RVs and trailers are prohibited on this road.

Hospital Rock This site on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River was once home to nearly 500 Native Americans belonging to the Potwisha sub-group of the Monache, or Western Mono, Indians. Archeological evidence indicates that Indians settled in this area as early as 1350. Today, visitors to Hospital Rock can still view ancient rock paintings, or pictographs and bedrock mortars used to grind acorns. The area got its present name in 1873, when James Everton stayed here to recover from a gunshot wound he had received while stumbling into a shotgun snare set to trap bear.

Crescent Meadow
It is rumored that John Muir called this grassy open area the “gem of the Sierra.” Crescent Meadow is located 1.5 miles east of the Moro Rock parking area. A hike on the trail around the Crescent Meadow takes about an hour. Several trails start here, including the one-mile route to Tharp’s Log and the High Sierra Trail. From here the High Sierra Trail runs 71 miles to Mt. Whitney (el. 14,494 feet), the highest peak in the lower 48 state.

Tharp’s Log
Hale Tharp, the first non-Native American settler in the area, established a cattle ranch among the Big Trees. Tharp also built a simple summer cabin from a fallen, fire-hollowed sequoia log in the 1860s. It is the oldest pioneer cabin remaining in the park. The cabin is located in the Giant Forest area, a mile northeast of the Crescent Meadow parking lot.

Auto Log
Drive your car onto a fallen giant sequoia. The Auto Log is 0.9 miles from the Generals Highway via the Crescent Meadow Road.

Tunnel Log
Tunnel Log is a fallen giant sequoia with a tunnel for traffic. This is the only tree you can drive your car through in these parks. Tunnel Log is located 2.7 miles from the Generals Highway via the Crescent Meadow Road.

Crystal Cave
Formed of marble, the Crystal Cave is decorated with curtains of icicle-like stalactites and mounds of stalagmites. To reach the Crystal Cave, you must drive to the end of the twisting, seven-mile road heading west from the Generals Highway two miles south of the Moro Rock turnoff. Trailers, RVs, and buses are prohibited because of the road’s narrowness. From the parking area, it is a 15-minute hike down a steep path to the cave entrance. The cave is open in summer only. The Sequoia Natural History Association offers 45-minute guided tours daily every half hour between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. from mid-June to early September (less often in early May and late September). A jacket or sweater is recommended. Call 559-565-3759 for information. Tickets are not sold at the Crystal Cave; purchase them at Lodgepole or Foothills visitor centers only.

In Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia’s neighboring sister park to the east, John Muir described it as “a rival to the Yosemite”.

Grant Grove and the General Grant Tree
Grant Grove is located one mile beyond the Grant Grove Visitor Center on the west side of the road. From the parking area, a half-mile loop trail leads to the General Grant Tree. The General Grant Tree was discovered by Joseph Hardin Thomas in 1862 and named by Lucretia P. Baker in 1867 to honor Ulysses S. Grant. Measuring 267.4 feet tall and 107.6 feet around, it is the third-largest tree on earth. The General Grant Tree is known as “The Nation’s Christmas Tree,” and special celebrations are held under its snow-laden branches every year.

Big Stump Trail
Near the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park, 2.5 miles southwest of Grant Grove Village, is the Big Stump Basin Trail. The one-mile loop trail reveals the remains of early logging. The Mark Twain Stump is all that’s left of the 26-foot-wide, 1,700-year-old tree that took two men 13 days to cut down in 1891. Because sequoia wood decays slowly you can still see piles of saw-dust created more than a century ago.

Panoramic Point
At Grant Grove Village, you can take a narrow, steep, 2.3-mile road that snakes east to Panoramic Point. From the parking area, take the .25-mile trail to the 7,520-foot-high ridge. The view from Panoramic Point takes in a magnificent stretch of the High Sierra. You can see Hume Lake in Sequoia National Forest and, just beyond a low ridge behind the lake, Kings Canyon. No RVs or trailers are permitted.

Cedar Grove
Highway 180 dead-ends 36 miles from the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park just beyond Cedar Grove. The village, nestled in a mile-deep section of Kings Canyon, is near two spectacular granite formations: Grand Sentinel at 8,504 feet in elevation and North Dome at 8,717 feet in elevation. The precipitous Grand Sentinel rises 3,500 feet above the canyon floor.

Boyden Cave
You can’t miss the entrance to Boyden Cave. The cave is located where Highway 180 crosses the Kings River along the South Fork of the Kings River. Located 10 miles short of Cedar Grove, the cave is in neighboring Sequoia National Forest. Daily tours are conducted during summer; call 209-736-2708.

Zumwalt Meadow
Lush in early spring, Zumwalt Meadow provides idyllic contrast to the rock formations deep in the heart of Kings Canyon. This scenic 1.5-mile trail offers high granite walls, a lush meadow and the meandering Kings River. Parking is 4.5 miles east of the Cedar Grove Village turn off.

Recreation

Camping
Camping is available in two areas of Kings Canyon National Park. Campsites in the Grant Grove area are located at approximately 6500 feet, within 1 mile of the Grant Grove of giant sequoias. Grant Grove is open all year, although there may be snow on the ground from November through early May. Cedar Grove is located at the bottom of the South Fork Canyon of the Kings River, at an elevation of approximately 4600 feet. Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is open from mid-April through October.

Hiking
With over 85% of their combined area declared wilderness, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are great hiking parks there’s no other way to get anywhere. The parks don’t even have an east/west route across the Sierra.

The Pacific Crest Trail extends the length of the parks. The John Muir Trail overlaps the PCT in the park, except for the trail that climbs to the top of Mount Whitney.

Kings Canyon is prime destination for backpackers, who head for the trailheads around Cedar Grove, though of course day hiking is excellent too. If you want to day hike around the big trees, Sequoia, offers the most options, with trails through Grant Grove, Giant Forest, Mineral King. If you appreciate spring wildflowers, or anytime-of-year oak savannah, the foothills trails around park headquarters at Ash Mountain are hard to beat.

Mountaineering
Mt. Whitney is the most frequently climbed peak in the Sierra Nevada, if not in the US. Because of this, the National Park Service and the US Forest Service, who manage the Whitney Portal Trailhead, have implemented a permit system to minimize the impact of day-hikers on the Mt. Whitney backcountry. All hikers entering the Mt. Whitney zone, including day-hikers, are required to obtain a permit.

Mt. Whitney can be most directly reached by a 10.7 mile trail from Whitney Portal, 13 miles west of the town of Lone Pine on the east side of the Sierras. Ice axes and crampons are needed in spring and early summer, but technical climbing equipment is not usually necessary between mid-July and early October. The elevation at the trailhead is 8360 feet. The elevation at the summit is 14,495 feet. Permits for this trailhead must be obtained through the Inyo National Forest.

There are other routes besides Whitney Portal from which to reach Mt. Whitney. These leave from less heavily used trailheads, but require a longer hike to reach the summit. The High Sierra Trail leaves from Giant Forest on the west side of Sequoia National Park and takes a minimum of 6 days (shuttle trip) or 10 days (round trip) to complete. The Sequoia Natural History Association’s bookstore offers books and maps for planning hikes to Mt. Whitney and elsewhere in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon areas.

Remember, backcountry permits are required for all overnight travel in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

In The Area

Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park has more than 3.3 million acres of spectacular desert scenery, interesting and rare desert wildlife, complex geology, undisturbed wilderness and sites of historical and cultural interest. Bounded on the west by 11,049 foot Telescope Peak and on the east by 5,475 foot Dante’s View, Badwater is the lowest point (-282 feet) in the western hemisphere.

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park’s 794,000 acres span the transition between the Mojave and Colorado deserts of Southern California. Proclaimed a National Monument in 1936 and a Biosphere Reserve in 1984, Joshua Tree was designated a National Park in 1994. The area possesses a rich human history and a pristine natural environment.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Lake Mead National Recreation Area (NRA) offers a wealth of things to do and places to go year-round. Its huge lakes cater to boaters, swimmers, sunbathers and fishermen while its desert rewards hikers, wildlife photographers and roadside sightseers. Three of America’s four desert ecosystems the Mojave, the Great Basin and the Sonoran Deserts meet in Lake Mead NRA. As a result, this seemingly barren area contains a surprising variety of plants and animals, some of which may be found nowhere else in the world.

Mojave National Preserve
Mojave National Preserve was created in October, 1994 when Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act. Congress acted to protect one of the most diverse desert environments in the world. The area ranges from creosote bush dominated flats in low areas to pinyon pine and juniper woodlands in higher elevations. Sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, vast vistas and mile-high mountains help define this amazing area within the Mojave Desert.

When To Go

Depending on where you go and what your plans are, Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks are a year round destination. Deep snow often covers the middle elevations from December to May, but sub-zero temperatures are rare. Precipitation falls mostly between January and mid-May, but thunderstorms, rain and even snow can occur at any time of year.

Temperatures vary with elevation. In the summer, daytime temperatures often exceed 100 F in the foothills, but seldom exceed 90 F in the sequoia groves. Even in the summer, backpackers in the highcountry can encounter nighttime temperatures in the low 30’s and occasionally even in the 20’s.

In any season, it is wise to bring clothing that can be layered. And always include some kind of rain gear.

Traveler Facts

Contact Information
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
47050 Generals Highway
Three Rivers, CA 93271
Phone: 559-565-3341

Operating Hours & Seasons
In general, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are open year-round, 24 hours a day; however, some areas are closed in the winter. Snowstorms can close some roads temporarily and high mountain trails are snowbound until July 1.

Visitor Centers
When you arrive in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, stop at a visitor center for an overview of the park by watching a slide presentation and viewing the exhibits. Park rangers can be found on hand to answer questions. Backcountry permits, evening campfire programs, ranger-guided walks, maps, books and other park literature is also available. You will also find rest rooms and water fountains.

Foothills Visitor Center, Ash Mountain Entrance open year round. Exhibits on the ecosystem of the foothills of Sequoia National Park.

Lodgepole Visitors Center, General Sherman Tree open year round. Exhibits can be seen on the area’s scenic wonders, history, wildlife, geology and air quality.

Mineral King Ranger Station, Mineral King Road closed in the winter. Exhibits on the area’s mining era.

Weather/Climate
The Sierran foothills are characterized by mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Precipitation usually occurs from January to mid-May; rain in the summer is rare. Average rainfall is about 26 inches. During the winter, low-hanging clouds often drift in from the west, obscuring the countryside for several days at a time.

Summer in the middle elevations is characterized by warm days and cool evenings. These elevations receive an average of 40-45 inches of precipitation annually. Much of this falls during the winter, resulting in a deep blanket of snow from December to May. Sub-zero temperatures, however, are rare. In the summer, occasional afternoon thundershowers may occur. In the fall and winter, Lodgepole Campground is generally 10-15 degrees F colder than the average middle elevation temperature. Summer temperatures in Cedar Grove are generally hotter than the average for the middle elevations. Temperatures in mid-summer may reach the 90’s F. Cedar Grove is closed in the winter due to hazardous road conditions.


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