“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” –John Muir
How does one write about a national park that is so vast that 90 percent of it is accessible only by foot or horseback? I suppose the best way is to start with the 10 percent where the majority of people visit, where they can enjoy spectacular scenery from walking paths or their cars.
Pioneer naturalist John Muir called California’s Sierra Nevada the “Range of Light.” Here, you’ll find 1,350 square miles of grandeur in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. You’ll also find smaller crowds than at Yosemite to the north.
I call the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks my “extended back yard” as I live on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Sierra Nevada range stretches over 400 miles north and south and approximately 70 miles east and west. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are located in the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, between California’s Central Valley on the west side and the Owens Valley desert on the east.
A Brief History Of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
On September 25, 1890, Sequoia became the nation’s second-oldest national park and California’s first national park. Days later, Congress tripled the size of Sequoia and created General Grant National Park to protect all the sequoia trees from logging to keep the pristine beauty of the land. Sequoia National Park expanded again in 1926 to include Kern Canyon and Mount Whitney.
In the late 1930s, Ansel Adams created a book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, to help establish Kings Canyon as a National Park. General Grant National Park was absorbed by Kings Canyon when it was named a national park in 1940 to preserve the peaks, canyons, rivers, lakes and forest. The two parks merged in 1946 and are now referred to as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Cedar Grove and Tehipite Valley were added to Kings Canyon in 1965, making them off limits for hydroelectric dams. In 1978, Mineral King was added to the Sequoia section after a ski resort proposal that included hotels, restaurants and movie theaters alerted people to the idea that it needed protecting. A few additional expansions have occurred in the years since.
Sequoia National Park Highlights
I recommend going to the Sequoia section of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in April or May, when temperatures are cooler, grasses are greener, and the wildflowers are blooming.
From California State Route 99, two highways go east into Sequoia and Kings Canyon, State Routes 198 and 180. Since Tioga Pass (east to west) is most often closed till late May due to snow, 180 may not be an option depending on the time of year.
It takes me almost a full day’s drive from my home to the Ash Mountain entrance on the park’s southwest corner. I always look forward to staying a night at the artist village in Three Rivers. The Kaweah River flows right through the village and is literally the backyard to the storefronts, which means coffee on the deck with a river view. In the morning, photographing the whitewater rafting from the Gateway Restaurant bridge is a must. The Kaweah drainage is one of the steepest in America. Most of the rapids are rated Class III to Class V. You must be ready when photographing this fast-moving, action-packed sport as things happen in a blink of an eye. A fast shutter speed and even a creative slow shutter speed, using a 16-35mm and a 24-300mm lens, work great.
The road from the Ash Mountain entrance to Hospital Rock follows the river, and in spring, hillsides sparkle with the colors of lupine, Indian paintbrush, shooting stars and long-stemmed flowering yucca. The river, flowers and distant mountains make for a lovely scene in late afternoons.
The pictographs on the rock-face at Hospital Rock are quite impressive, considering how they have withstood the test of time alongside a road of RVs, cars and people. Right next to the site on a flat bedrock slab are several stone mortars. Oak trees shade the worn holes where Potwisha women once socialized while grinding acorns into flour for bread. I remember an evening when I had given up on a scene by the river due to smoke haze. Instead, I decided to visit this site and arrived just as the sun was setting and filtering through a thick smoke layer. Suddenly, the painted rock glowed, and I got the shot.
Heading into the park, Generals Highway climbs more than 5,000 feet on narrow, scenic switchbacks to the edge of the Giant Forest, where four towering sequoias called the Four Guardsmen straddle the highway. Seeing these fellows, I start getting excited about the Giant Forest, home to more than 8,000 trees, up ahead. The Giant Forest was named by John Muir for the amazing amount and size of these wonderous trees. At higher elevations, vibrant red snow plant flowers appear through the withering snow beneath the sugar pines and white firs that intermingle with the sequoias.
The General Sherman Tree commands the stage at the Giant Forest, and it deserves to. The world’s largest living tree at 275 feet tall (and still growing) and over 36 feet wide at the base, it’s an estimated 2,300-2,700 years old. Just think about the knowledge this tree has about the early explorers, missionaries, native people, farmers, trappers, fur traders, hunters, gold seekers, cattle ranchers, sheep herders, lumber mills, countless fires and long periods of drought.
A nearby walking path leads you past a phenomenal display of heroically massive trees named after the likes of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, William McKinley, Robert E. Lee and Chief Sequoyah. I like to wander among them on spring weekdays when fewer people are on the path. With so many big trees, it takes patience to organize a composition and find unique perspectives, all the while studying the light.
A short drive away, Moro Rock’s granite dome soars way above the treetops. It’s well worth the 400 steps to the top if you’re not afraid of heights. There are spectacular panoramic views of the Great Western Divide, snow-topped Sierra Peaks and, toward the foothills, the low-lying chaparral, manzanita, oaks and pine trees. At dawn and at dusk, there are many stunning photos to be had from the top of the dome as well as from the bottom looking toward the sheer granite dome.
The Moro Rock-Crescent Meadow Road also features a tunnel log you can drive through and the well-preserved homestead of pioneer Hale Tharp, who lived in a hollowed tree while tending cattle in the meadow. I once spent hours at Crescent Meadows under a cloud after a rain shower shooting soft light on a wildflower mix of dew dropped blue lupine, mariposa lilies, Columbine and pink shooting stars. A deer was lying in the tree shadows nearby, probably wondering what the heck I was looking at for so long. And then a curious black bear meandered by…
Kings Canyon National Park Highlights
From Giant Forest, Generals Highway heads northward to the Kings Canyon section of the parks. Along the way, I like to stop at Lodgepole Visitor Center and take a 1.7-mile hike to Tokopah Falls, where the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River tumbles down a 1,200-foot staircase of granite. The trail to this cascading waterfall is one of the busiest, but crowds are less at dinnertime. Here, large boulders and granite walls replace the tree towers.
In the northern section near Kings Canyon Visitor Center in Grant Grove Village, there are still more trails and even more magnificent groves, including the General Grant Tree, the centerpiece of Grant Grove. It ranks as the second-largest tree in the world by trunk volume and is estimated to be a mere 1,650 years old. It is the only living object to be declared a “National Shrine,” a memorial to those who died in war. In 1926, General Grant was designated the “Nation’s Christmas Tree,” after a young girl who stood next to just the right person proclaimed, “What a wonderful Christmas tree it would be!” In the same grove, I’m intrigued by the Monarch, a fallen tree used to stable the U.S. Calvary horses. It’s incredibly well-worn and well preserved for a tree that had so many horses sheltered in it.
John Muir rode a borrowed mule named Brownie from Yosemite to Sequoia to study the giant trees. At Converse Basin, once the largest sequoia grove in the world, Muir witnessed the destruction of thousands of trees cut down by sawmills. Throughout the years, Muir’s keen observations, notes and drawings helped save the rest of the trees from total destruction. From Grant Grove Village, a dirt road will take you to Converse Basin, where the grove has slowly recovered and is quite beautiful. Muir found what he claimed to be the oldest giant sequoia at Converse Basin Grove. He was able to determine its age by counting the tree rings visible through a giant fire scar. The tree, called Muir Snag, is dead but still standing.
Over the past two centuries, 95 percent of the old-growth sequoia population has been logged. Today, the trees face new threats. Lengthy years of drought, temperature increase, and insect attacks have reduced their immune systems. Super-heated fires like in 2020 and 2021 can reach the highest crowns of these giants, and once those are burnt, they tend not to survive. The mix is a disaster for a tree meant to withstand natural fires. Thankfully, conservation groups are in the process of replanting. This also got me thinking about how photography is such an important tool for recording nature’s data—past, present and future.
Quite in contrast to the trees are the parks’ marble caverns. More than 200 of these caves exist in the underground world at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Two of the caverns are accessible to the public, Crystal Cave near the Giant Forest and Boyden Cavern northeast of Grant Grove. With an expert guide, you’ll get a chance to see how water has carved through marble to create strange formations that took 100,000 years to form. The cavern features crystalline marble, stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and other geologic formations. It opens in May, and you can also book private extended walking tours that give you extra time for photos. No tripods or backpacks allowed, so in this low-light cavern, I recommend that you take your favorite wide-angle zoom lens, turn on the image stabilization, and increase your ISO before entering the cave—and go have a blast.
If you’re looking for off-the-beaten-path beauty, drive 35 miles beyond Grant Grove on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to Cedar Grove’s road-end. It’s the only vehicle route into Kings Canyon. Zigzags and curves along cliffsides above the river make you appreciate the pullouts that have the most spectacular expansive views of one of the deepest river-cut canyons in North America—a mile deeper than the Grand Canyon.
At Cedar Grove, the river is king and can be used as a foreground to grand landscape scenes in just about every direction. Rugged rock walls soar high above a canyon floor of lush green grasses and velvet ferns at Zumwalt Meadows. In early summer, the boardwalk trail is lined with an array of wildflowers. Deer and an occasional bear frequently graze the tall grasses and drink from the river and spring marshes. Marmots and little pikas peek from heaps of jumbled boulders along the meadow edges.
For car seekers, what makes this hidden gem extra attractive are the constant roadside river and mountain views, like North Dome at 8,715 feet and Grand Sentinel, and easy-access places like Roaring River Falls, Grizzly Falls and Zumwalt Meadow. My favorite is an 8-mile round-trip hike to Mist Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in Kings Canyon. During spring snowmelt, the South Fork of the Kings River thunders its way down giant granite slabs and continues rapidly to South Fork Canyon. It can be a hot walk to the falls, so I suggest you lighten your camera load, bring a dry cloth for the mist, and also take bottled water and loads of mosquito repellent. At sunrise and sunset, the warm light on the mountains and meadows reminds me of the Yosemite paintings by famed artist Albert Bierstadt.
All of this may sound wonderful, but don’t forget, I saved the parks’ 90 percent for last. Sequoia and Kings Canyon offer incredible opportunities for wilderness recreation on over 800 miles of maintained trails in more than 800,000 acres of designated wilderness.
The backcountry trails usually don’t open up until late June or July, and even then, the snowpack determines how far you can go. Through the years, I’ve spent days, weeks and even months at a time riding and hiking those trails, trying to capture the Sierra’s magic with my camera. From most of the trailheads, it takes at least a full day or two of hiking or riding over rugged terrain to reach the heart of the Sierra in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Fortunately for me, many of those trailheads begin where the canyon roads end near my home. You must be self-sufficient in these parts; there are no concessions, only nature and lots of it.
The most popular trails in the park’s wilderness are the 215-mile John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail (commonly known as the JMT and PCT). Both travel the entire length of the parks north to south, and the High Sierra Trail traverses 72 miles west and east. Aside from these longer routes, there are plenty of other connecting trails, loop trails, side trails and more.
Mineral King Loop in southern Sequoia National Park is another backcountry opportunity. From State Route 198 at Three Rivers, take Mineral King Road, a 25-mile-long winding drive. At the end, you are greeted by the mountains of the Great Western Divide. The granite ridge is a prominent feature of the landscape in the Mineral King quadrangle snaking north-south for 40 miles. A loop trip starting at Timber Gap can take seven to 10 days or up to a month. From steep switchbacks on Black Rock Pass at 11,600 feet elevation, below are breathtaking views of shimmering lakes in u-shaped glacially carved canyons and the less-seen, weather-beaten foxtail pines.
Traveling farther to Little Five Lakes and Big Five Lakes, you continue on to the barren landscape of stark, rugged granite at Kaweah Gap on the High Sierra Trail. In this remote area, photographs of perfectly mirrored lake reflections are abundant in the Nine Lakes Basin and Kaweah Basin. Looping back, you can enjoy a heaping fish fry with a wandering bear in the deep sculpted Kern River Canyon and then go to Rattlesnake Creek, where there really are rattlesnakes—I saw three in one day. Dusty and tired, you have a long haul back to Farewell Gap and Mineral King.
When planning a backcountry trip, you will need to get wilderness permits ahead of time. You can get them online at recreation.gov.
Whether in the front country or backcountry, you should keep in mind that you’re in a wild environment where landforms are consistently altered by rivers cutting into canyons, avalanches and erosion. It’s a place where wildlife roam free. We are the visitors to this precious natural environment. Fortunately for all of us, the parks were created to protect and preserve these lands for future generations. To keep them a pristine place, our part is really quite simple: What you pack in, pack out.
See more of Londie Garcia Padelsky’s work at londie.com.