Planning a Visit in Kings Canyon National Park: Best Things To See and Trails to Hike

December 28, 2020 /
kings canyon things to do

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

 

Maybe you didn’t know this, but the deepest canyon in the U.S. is not the Grand Canyon; it is Kings Canyon in California. While the famous gorge in Arizona is 6001 ft deep, Kings Canyon reaches up to 8200 ft (according to the Guinness Book of World Records). However, this particular record is not enough reason for King Canyon to make it on the road in California.

Kings Canyon has the “misfortune” of being stuck between rivals Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park (often people just drive past it to get to the other parks). Visitors who want to explore the Sierra Nevada prefer Yosemite and Sequoia to Kings Canyon, since the views in Kings Canyon can be similar to those of the other two parks mentioned.

kings canyon CaliforniaIn fact, Kings Canyon has “characteristics” that are quite common in the region. There is a scenic road that cuts through the wide canyon and along the river you can find pine, fir and cedar forests, rushing waterfalls, paths that wind through sequoia forests, mountain lakes and spectacular viewpoints. Anyone reading this list could say that it is a collection of beautiful sights… for this reason we have decided to publish this quick guide for visiting Kings Canyon.

How to get there?

Kings Canyon National Park CaliforniaThere are two ways to get to Kings Canyon:

  • from Fresno: drive along  CA-180 E to the Big Stump Entrance. The distance is about 60 miles (1.10 hrs).
  • from Sequoia National Park: the two parks are connected by CA-198 E, called Generals Highway. It takes about 45 minutes to travel the 26 miles of this scenic road from Lodgepole Visitor Center (Sequoia) to Grant Grove (Kings Canyon). Please note: During the winter (January-March) this road may be closed due to snow! Check the official website for road closures.

How should you plan your visit?

Usually, there are two ways to see the Kings Canyon.

  • The first is also the most common. Drive through Kings Canyon, then continue towards Sequoia National Park. The short distance between the two national parks makes this a favorable solution, but it only allows you to visit Kings Canyon in a fairly superficial way, limiting yourself to the most famous and accessible areas.
  • The alternative solution is to dedicate a day (or more) just to this national park, driving and (above all) walking in the very heart of the Kings Canyon.

In this article I will give you some advice on how to plan your trip in both cases.

Visiting Kings Canyon in half a day

As it was mentioned above, this is a viable option, provided that you organize well your itinerary and overnight stays. The first piece of advice I would like to give is to book accommodations as close as possible to the Big Stump Entrance. Fresno is a great choice. You start the day early, that way you can spend a little more time at Kings Canyon (2-3 hours) and then plan to leave for the Sequoia around lunchtime.

Tips on where to stay in Fresno

Here’s what you can do in the short time available to you:

  • visit the sequoia forest of Grant Grove, where you will find the ancient and gigantic General Grant Tree and the Fallen Monarch tree “corpse”.
  • reach the best viewpoints to see the immense Kings Canyon from above.
  • drive for a while on the scenic route that follows the Kings River, maybe as far as Roaring River Falls.

Visiting Kings Canyon in one day

In addition to the aforementioned activities, in the time remaining you can visit Hume Lake and you may also decide to drive all the way down Kings Canyon Road (usually closed from January to April) and arrive at Cedar Grove, the easternmost point of the park and the last bastion of civilization, where the most pristine trails in the Sierra Nevada begin.

There are some interesting hikes that make a good way to spend the afternoon: the meadows of Zumwalt Meadow, the remote Mist Falls or the spooky Boyden Cavern.

Kings Canyon trails

Here is a detailed guide to the Kings Canyon trails, excursions and viewpoints mentioned above:

General Grant Tree Trail

Kings Canyon things to seeAs the name suggests, this short trail is located in the Grant Grove area and will take you to the General Grant Tree, the only sequoia tree that can compete with the General Sherman of Sequoia National Park. Almost 1700 years old, this giant is among the largest trees on the planet, a record that attracts many visitors.

The asphalted path leading to General Grant is a third of a mile long, and it will take you less than an hour to get to the end. Bear in mind that you need to take some time to explore the Fallen Monarch, a huge tree that has fallen to the ground and is now “visitable” inside. The trail is well marked and it starts right in front of a parking lot located one mile northwest of Kings Canyon Visitor Center, after the first fork in the road.

North Grove Loop

Those who like to feel small among these giants of nature are in luck. As soon as you finish the loop of the General Grant Tree, you can continue the adventure on a trail called North Grove Loop, which can be easily explored starting from the same parking lot (RV area). The route is a bit longer (1.5 miles), but the hike through the redwoods is very easy and relaxing.

Roaring River Falls Trail

Kings Canyon trailsThis is another easy trail, but in a different part of Kings Canyon. To reach the trailhead of this short trail you have to leave Grant Grove and follow the Kings Canyon Scenic Drive for about 32 miles (calculate this distance by taking the Visitor Center as your starting point) past Cedar Grove Village. Since you will be driving right through the middle of the canyon, I’ll let you imagine the view that awaits you.

Shortly after the bridge over the Roaring River, you will see a parking area. Park your car and walk along the short paved trail that climbs up the mountain along the rushing course of the river. After a few minutes’ walk you will reach a beautiful viewpoint over the waterfalls.

Zumwalt Meadow

Kings Canyon National Park attractionsThe scenic drive continues past the parking lot heading east through evergreen forests surrounded by ominous granite peaks. After 1.7 miles you can park your car in the parking lot of Zumwalt Meadow Trail, a slightly different excursion from the ones seen so far.

You’ll have the chance to walk on a footbridge that loops around a typical  meadow of the Sierra Nevada. You’ll hear the sound of the Kings River flowing through the woods and as you look up, you’ll see mighty rock faces soaring above. The hike is 1.5 miles long, but it does not require much effort, as the elevation of the trail is minimal. If you are lucky (or unlucky…!) you may even meet a bear!

Mist Falls

kings canyon things to doThere is a much more challenging trail leading to Mist Falls, also located in the Cedar Grove area. To reach the trailhead you will have to drive to where the paved road ends, park your car in the first parking lot on the right and take the Kanawyer Loop Trail, which is the first and also the easiest part of the hike.

After 3 miles the trail gets harder, as you climb up along the South Fork River to the scenic waterfalls. The total elevation of the climb is about 820 feet and the trail is over 8 miles long. It is an optimal choice for those who want to go on a day trip, but it is not recommended for those who have little time and little experience hiking.

Boyden Cavern

Although not as popular as Crystal Cave in nearby Sequoia National Park, Boyden Cavern has some beautiful chambers full of rock formations that can be visited on a 45-minute paid tour (available from late April to September). Unlike the other cave, there’s no need to get tickets in advance, just show up at the entrance and stand in line.

How do you get there? The short uphill path leading to the entrance to the cave is located at the dedicated car park, also along Scenic Drive, 20 miles from the Visitor Center.

Viewpoints

Here are some of the best vantage points you can visit in Kings Canyon National Park.

Kings Canyon Overlook

After the Visitor Center, as it was mentioned earlier, you will approach a fork in the road: on the left is the parking lot for Grant Grove. On the right is an ascent through the woods leading to Kings Canyon Overlook, where you will see an endless landscape over the woods, peaks and lakes (all Hume Luke) of the entire Kings Canyon.

Junction View

visit kings canyon california This beautiful viewpoint is located 10 miles from the Visitor Center, and it found along the road leading to the canyon itself. After a steep uphill stretch, on the way down you will find a clearing on the left side where you can park and enjoy an exceptional view of the canyon.

Buck Rock Lookout

This lookout is slightly more challenging to reach but also offers a very beautiful view. It is an elevated watchtower built in 1923 and used to watch out for fires. From up there you can enjoy a wonderful view of both the Great Western Divide and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The draw of the excursion is not just the view, but also the way you get to the top. You will have to climb 172 dizzying steps to reach the observation point found on the side of the granite peak.

To get to the Buck Rock Lookout you need to drive on Generals Highway towards Sequoia National Park. 8.3 miles from the Kings Canyon Visitor Center there is a side road on the left leading to Big Meadows (there is a campground in the area). After 2.8 miles you will take another left and drive another 2 miles or so, after which you can park and walk to the peak where the lookout is located. This is definitely not recommended for those who suffer from vertigo! Buck Rock Lookout closes at 5pm and also the road is closed during the winter.

Map of Kings Canyon

Where can you find accommodations?

You have the option to spend the night both inside the park and in the immediate vicinity (including Sequoia National Park). In our in-depth guide you will find detailed tips for choosing where to find accommodations in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Under the link below you will find a list of all available hotels in Kings Canyon Park.

Hotels in Kings Canyon National Park

Video of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

 

Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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