Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia National Park is home to the largest trees in the world, by volume, and many excellent camping opportunities. Most visitors come to explore a few of the roughly forty different groves of giant sequoias, some of which can be reached by road while others require hiking on easier or harder trails. Other popular activities include backpacking, rock climbing, and fishing. Throughout the 631-square-mile park there are seven NPS campgrounds, plus more camping can be found in the surrounding Sequoia National Forest.
Given the park’s wide range of elevations from about 2,000 feet to well over 8,000, weather can be quite variable. Most of the roughly 1.25 million annual visitors come during the summer when temperatures range from warm to hot. The milder seasons of spring and fall are also popular. While the park sees less overall visitation during winter, activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing offer an adventurous and unique way to explore the area. During the summer, the park service operates a free shuttle, with most of the routes following the General Highway through the park.
A trip to Sequoia National Park is often combined with a visit to the adjacent Kings Canyon National Park, and the two parks are co-managed by the same NPS unit. Located within the boundaries of Sequoia National Park, the summit of Mt. Whitney in California is the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,505 feet. However, most people hike Mt. Whitney from the trailhead at Whitney Portal in the Eastern Sierras, about a five-hour drive from the park. Reaching the summit is typically done during one long and strenuous day, requiring a 22-mile round-trip hike with over 6,200 feet of elevation gain and the same amount of descent. A permit for Mt Whitney accents is required and can be obtained through a lottery by Inyo National Forest.
Explore Giant Sequoia Trees
The biggest highlight, literally, for most visitors is exploring the giant sequoia groves. Many people are often curious about what distinguishes sequoias vs redwoods, which naturally grow along the California coast and can be found in Redwood National & State Parks. A relative of the coastal redwood, giant sequoias naturally grow only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, between the elevations of 4,000 and 8,000 feet. While redwood trees are the tallest trees in the world, sequoias are the largest by volume.
At the top of the list is the Giant Forest, the largest of the unlogged old-growth sequoia groves. Many visitors start at the Giant Forest Museum, which offers exhibits about the massive trees and surrounding landscape. Starting from the museum, the Big Trees Trail is a 0.75-mile nature loop around Round Meadow with interpretive panels. Giant Forest is home to the General Sherman Tree, the largest in the world at 275 feet tall with a base diameter of 36.5 feet. The age of General Sherman tree is estimated at over 2,200 years old! The General Sherman Tree Trail is only a half-mile, but it includes some elevation change and stairs.
Several highlights are located nearby. The famous Tunnel Log was created when a giant sequoia fell over Crescent Meadow Road in Giant Forest during 1937. A tunnel was cut through the log, and today visitors can drive or walk through. Outside the grove, a short and popular stop is Moro Rock, a granite dome with a stairway climbing 300 feet to the summit, offering views of the western half of the park. Starting from Lodgepole Campground, some of the best hiking in the Sequoia National Park can be found on the Tokopah Falls Trail. This moderate hike is 3.5 miles round trip along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River to the impressive 1,200-foot cascading Tokopah Falls.
In 2021, forest fires damaged several popular groves inside the park, including the Redwood Mountain Grove and Muir Grove, both of which are currently closed due to hazardous conditions. One grove offering a unique historical perspective is Big Stump Grove, which was extensively logged in the 1880s. Today, visitors can see old-growth stumps and stands of young sequoias, about 100 years old, with four- to six-foot diameters.
Outside Sequoia National Park, there are several other groves to visit in Kings Canyon National Park and the adjacent Sequoia National Monument, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Converse Basin Grove is one of the largest groves in the area. Though much of the grove was logged around the turn of the 20th century, there are remaining old-growth sequoias scattered throughout. At 269-feet-tall, the Boole Tree is the tallest tree in America’s national forests, and it can be reached on moderate a 2.5-mile loop trail.
Camping Sequoia National Park
There’s no shortage of campgrounds in and around Sequoia National Park, especially when including options in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park. Not all campgrounds are open each year, and some are open year-round while others only open seasonally, so it’s important to check the park website for current information. Campground elevations range widely, with those located at lower altitudes having warmer temperatures and those at higher altitudes being colder. Reservations are required at all but one campground during peak season, typically beginning in the spring with sites available one month ahead of time.
In the foothills area of the park, typically dominated by oak grasslands, there are three campgrounds at around 2000-3000 feet. Located along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River, Potwisha has 36 sites. Buckeye Flat has 28 sites and is located on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. South Fork Campground has ten primitive sites, all first-come, first serve throughout the entire year. Reached by a rough dirt road, this campground is located in a remote corner of the park on the South Fork Kaweah. Nearby is the trailhead for the Garfield-Hockett Trail, a steep 5-mile hike, one-way, to the Garfield Sequoia Grove, the second largest grove in the park.
There are four NPS campgrounds located at higher elevations within the park, often set in conifer forest. The largest is Lodgepole Campground with 214 sites and access to amenities like showers, laundry, and a grocery store. Located near Giant Forest, this popular campground offers easy access to many favorite sites and Lodgepole Visitor Center. Dorst Creek Campground has 204 sites located on the banks of Dorst Creek, and offers access to Lost Grove, with a short walk through a small but pleasant grove of giant sequoias. The two remaining campgrounds are smaller and located in the remote southern Mineral King area of the park. Cold Springs offers 35 sites, including group options, and Atwell Mill offers 21 sites.
There’s plenty more camping in Sequoia National Forest, with about fifty developed campgrounds plus additional options for dispersed camping and cabin rentals. Other lodging opportunities usually four options inside the two parks. The Wuksachi Lodge at Giant Forest, the Cedar Grove Lodge, John Muir Lodge, and Grant Grove Cabins in Kings Canyon NP, the Grant . However, due to the 2021 forest fires, both lodges will remain closed throughout 2022. Further accommodations can be found in the neighboring town of Three Rivers.
Cover photo: Tunnel Log. Adobe/Maygutyak