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California has no shortage of incredible national parks. Deep within the Sierra Nevada are Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, two highly underrated gems. These two parks share more than just a border; they're both mostly wilderness, filled with rocky canyons, crystal-laden caves, lush meadows, and stands of breathtakingly massive sequoia trees. The sequoias that grow here are some of the largest living organisms on earth, and are worth the trip into the mountains alone. But the parks also include amazing hikes that offer endless views; rushing waterfalls; scenic drives; and tons more. Here's a happy camper guide to all these parks have to offer.
The first thing that most people notice when visiting Sequoia National Park is the stunning drive to its entrance, and that's just the beginning of the park’s beauty. Honestly, everything about Sequoia is over-the-top: the size of the sequoias in the groves, the sweeping views of the dramatic landscape, the bejeweled and glittering caves, the crystal clear water in the rivers... even the grass in the meadows seems extra green and lush. The beauty here is almost Yosemite-esque, minus the crowds. And if you're an outdoors enthusiast, Sequoia is a dream come true. Hiking, horseback riding, rafting, rock climbing, backpacking, stargazing, snowshoeing in the winter... there are tons of different ways to enjoy the park. And, of course, it's an amazing place to set up camp. There are at least seven campgrounds in Sequoia alone, each in a different and beautiful settings with numerous amenities. All in all, this is a perfect spot to unplug and reconnect with nature.
Sequoia is famous for its trees, but to see one of its cooler attractions, you'll have to head underground. There are actually lots of caves in the park (240 to be exact), but the Crystal Cave is the only one that's open to visitors; the others are only open to researchers who keep an eye on the geological and biological state of the caves and their special ecosystems. You can only go inside Crystal Cave in the spring and summer on a guided tour, but the tour is worth checking out. To visit, grab tickets for the tour of your choice at one of the visitors' centers, then get ready to experience a subterranean marble world dripping with stalactites and pierced by stalagmites.
Surprisingly, John Muir, the famed naturalist and National Parks advocate, didn't consider Sequoia's forests or mountains its highlight-- instead he lovingly bestowed the title of "Gem of the Sierra" on Crescent Meadow, one of the park's easier hikes. It's a beautiful place, flat and lush with greenery, and is tucked away among forests and mountains. The 1.5 mile loop is incredibly peaceful and quiet... it's almost more of a relaxing stroll than a hike. Leave time to visit Tharp's Log, located at the back of nearby Log Meadow. It's a cabin made of a single log, a hollowed-out fallen sequoia, used by an early mid-19th century pioneer named Hale Tharp.
If you don't know a ton about sequoia trees, stop by the Giant Forest Museum for a quick lesson on why they're so important to preserve... beyond the fact that they're gorgeous, of course. It's not a huge museum, but it's filled with great information, and the historic building it's housed in really adds to the experience. It's located near the Giant Forest, the grove that contains five of the world's 10 most massive trees. Most of the trees are named for famous figures from American history, so it's easy to identify the exceptionally large or massive sequoias in the grove. During the busy season, you should snag a parking spot here and take the park's shuttle bus to Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow.
The best view of the whole park is from the top of Moro Rock, a granite dome overlooking the valley. Depending on whether or not the road to the Moro Rock Parking Lot is closed, the hike up could be as long as 2 miles or as short as .6 miles, complete with roughly 400 stairs up the granite dome. It looks a lot more intense than it actually is, and the views into the Kaweah Gorge and wilderness from atop the monolith are pretty incredible. It's smack dab in the middle of Sequoia National Park, so you can get a birds-eye view of everything from the top. Pro tip: Take the hike earlier in the day for the clearest views.
Sure, the Tree Log Tunnel is touristy, but it’s the kind of touristy kitsch you can only find in California, so it's basically mandatory to drive through. And don't worry: No trees were harmed in the making of the tunnel, since this tree died of natural causes. When it fell in the 1930s, it was 275 feet tall, 21 feet wide at the base, and probably around 2,000 years old. The tunnel carved into it is eight feet tall and 17 feet wide... but don't worry, there's a bypass if your vehicle won't fit. This attraction is located on Crescent Meadow Road, basically in between Crescent Meadow and Giant Forest, so it's honestly hard to miss.
The General Sherman Tree in the Giant Forest Grove is currently the world's largest living tree by volume. While it's quite tall (275 feet), the most striking aspect of its size is its diameter. At its base, the tree is 36 feet in diameter, and it remains quite sturdy all the way to the top. The accepted standard for comparing tree size is actually wood volume, and Sherman's trunk's volume is 52,500 cubic feet. Its largest branch, which broke off in 2006, was wider in diameter than most trees, which should give you a good idea of how massive everything about Sherman is. Pictures can't really do justice to the feeling of walking among giants like General Sherman.
You can't go wrong with any of Sequoia's campgrounds, but Dorst Creek is a standout. The setting features open stands of shady pines, and sites come with fire rings, picnic tables, and bear boxes where you can safely store food. Rangers lead programs here on occasion, and are almost always around if anyone needs help or has any questions. The park's shuttle makes stops here, and it's centrally located relative to the most popular attractions. The showers and store are located at the larger Lodgepole Campground, and you can take the shuttle or drive there, but the benefit of staying at Dorst Creek is that it's less crowded, which means quieter nights and better chances of spotting wildlife.
The second largest sequoia tree in the world is located in Kings Canyon National Park: the 1,600-year-old General Grant Tree. For a long time, it was thought that Grant was larger than Sherman, but measurements proved that Sherman was slightly larger. Grant is 267.4 feet tall and 28.9 feet in diameter. Either way, it's no less respected than Sherman; in fact, in April of 1926, President Calvin Coolidge declared that it was the "Nation's Christmas Tree" (it gets decorated each holiday season as such), and in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower christened the tree a "National Shrine," a memorial to those who died in war. The tree is the only living object to receive such an honor.
The best way to see Kings Canyon National Park is the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (aka CA-180). It's the only route into the park's namesake rugged canyon, with its terminus at Road’s End, deep inside Kings Canyon. You’ll pass through groves of sequoias and drive along the nationally-designated Wild and Scenic Kings River before descending into the canyon, where there are points when it feels like the walls are closing in. The road technically starts in Sequoia National Park and enters Kings Canyon National Park from there.
The best thing about the drive is that it passes near the coolest attractions Kings Canyon has to offer, such as the General Grant Grove. Be on the lookout for the trail that will take you to the Boole Tree, the world’s 6th-largest tree, which is still impressively large. You can also make a side trip into Boyden Cavern, which you can tour for an additional fee. The cavern is filled with mysterious and strange formations, including the Pancake Room, Mother Nature’s Wedding Cake, soda straws, and the Taco Shells. There are lots of other scenic pull-offs and hikes just off the road as well. Road’s End, where the byway stops, is in the Cedar Grove area of the park. CA-180 is a dead-end road, so you’ll have to turn around and head back the way you came (which, given the views, isn’t a bad thing at all). Spending the night in Cedar Grove is a great option that allows you a little extra time to explore.
In a lot of ways, Kings Canyon is similar to Sequoia; they're even run as one unit by the NPS. But the thing that sets Kings Canyon apart is... well, Kings Canyon. It's one of the deepest canyons in the country, at a more than 1.5 miles deep. There are two main areas in Kings Canyon: Grant Grove Village (home to the General Grant Tree); and Cedar Grove, a village that serves as the starting point for tons of hikes further into the park. Another noteworthy grove is Redwood Canyon, the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees. It's not hard to see why John Muir called Kings Canyon "a rival to Yosemite."
The Kings River is what formed Kings Canyon, and you can admire its power and beauty at Roaring River Falls. Roaring River is a tributary off Kings River, and its two-tiered waterfall is breathtaking. The granite gap that the water flows through is narrow, so the falls can be almost violent when the water is high and fast-flowing. Roaring River Falls is super easy to reach; it's at the end of a short, paved, shady, 1/4-mile hike from the trailhead.
Kings Canyon's answer to Crescent Meadow is the equally stunning Zumwalt Meadow. It's a hidden pocket of lush greenery, surrounded by rugged granite walls. All around are stands of trees, and the mighty Kings River flows right through. The contrast between the two rock formations that tower above Zumwalt (North Dome and Grand Sentinel), and the lively meadow below is striking. The 1.5-mile self-guided trail around the verdant alpine meadow is flat and easy, but it's a hike that's meant to be savored. For a longer hike, there's a trail that connects Zumwalt to Roaring River Falls.
An adventure deep into Sierra Nevada’s wilderness parks will no doubt stun even the most experienced outdoorsperson. The dramatic beauty, fresh pine-scented air, and primeval sense of untouched nature are sure to make anyone a happy camper.
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