Bordering Sequoia National Park on the north, Kings Canyon is a glacially carved granite river valley with comparable scenery, hiking, and camping to the more famous Yosemite NP. As part of its dramatic scenery, Kings Canyon National Park in California offers looming mountains, tumbling waterfalls, and stands of giant sequoia trees. But for a number of reasons, Kings Canyon is the least visited national park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In recent years, the park has averaged about 600,000 visitors per year, about half the 1.2 million who visit co-managed Sequoia and a sixth that of Yosemite’s 4 million. So, what gives?
The main reason that Kings Canyon CA sees so little visitation is that only a small portion of the rugged park can be reached by road. Both Sequoia and Yosemite have multiple roadways winding through large parts of those parks. The 722-square-mile Kings Canyon NP, on the other hand, has only a single scenic byway that mostly passes through Sequoia National Monument while winding through foothills and forests as it climbs into the high country. Once inside the boundary of Kings Canyon NP, the road only reaches seven miles before terminating in a series of trailheads. From there, you have to go on foot if you want to see more of his remote and mountainous park.
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway & Grant Grove Village
Starting near the foothills town of Dunlap, the spectacular Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is a 50-mile section (one-way) of CA-180 offering the only road access to the park. Along the way, it passes through many areas of interest, allowing access to viewpoints, hiking trails, and campgrounds.
Near the junction with the Generals Highway, which leads to Sequoia NP, you’ll find the Grant Grove Village area, a small, detached unit of Kings Canyon NP. Here you’ll find the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, offering information about the entire park and a 15-minute film. The village also has a lodge, cabins, restaurant, and grocery store—but note there are no gas stations inside either national park. The only fuel on the byway is at the seasonal Kings Canyon Lodge & RV Resort near Yucca Point or down at Dunlap in the foothills.
Located in conifer forest at an elevation around 6,500 feet, three of the park’s 15 campgrounds can be found at Grant Grove Village. Campgrounds include a mix of tent-only and non-electric RV sites: Sunset has about 160 sites, Azalea has about 110 sites, and Crystal Spring has around 35 sites. Reservations are required during the high season and are typically available up to one month in advance. Precise opening dates differ between campgrounds, so visit the reservation page for more info. This is a great place to base camp if you wish to visit both Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park.
Grant Grove Village has several excellent highlights. The Grant Grove is an old-growth sequoia forest with some of the largest trees in the area. A 1/3-mile paved walking loop leads to the General Grant Tree, also called the Nation’s Christmas Tree, and other named features. Other trails include the North Grove Loop, a less-traveled 1.5-mile hike through giant sequoias, and Buena Vista Peak, a 2-mile round trip hike up a nearby granite peak that offers a panoramic view of Redwood Canyon and the High Sierras. A more challenging trail is the 5.7-mile loop hike, with about 1000 feet of elevation gain, to Ella Falls.
Giant Sequoia National Monument
Beyond Grant Grove Village, the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway passes through the northern portion of Giant Sequoia National Monument, part of Sequoia National Forest. There are thirteen groves of giant sequoia, including Converse Basin Grove, one of the largest in the area. Though much of this 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 a moderate 2.5-mile loop trail. Within the Hume Lake Ranger District, which surrounds the byway, there are fourteen campgrounds that offer a USFS alternative to NPS Kings Canyon camping. Some are accessible by paved roads while others require driving on rough dirt roads. Beyond Kings Canyon Lodge & RV Resort, the byway is closed during winter, roughly from mid-November until late April.
Cedar Grove & High Sierra Wilderness
The final seven miles of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway passes through the heart of the park. Cedar Grove is located along the South Fork Kings River on the valley floor of the granite-walled Kings Canyon. Located at an elevation of 4,600 feet, the Cedar Grove Village includes a visitor center with exhibits, a 21-room lodge, a snack bar, and four campgrounds.
Three of the Cedar Grove campgrounds are available to tents and RVs, including Moraine with about 120 sites, Sheep Creek with about 110 sites, and Sentinel with around 80 sites. Canyon View offers four large group sites for tent camping only. These campgrounds are open from roughly late May through early September, and all sites must be reserved. Cedar Grove is the place to stay for hiking excursions into the alpine wilderness. Wherever you are hiking or camping at Kings Canyon National Park, it’s important to review safety considerations regarding black bear encounters.
Within Kings Canyon, there are a few easier trails along the river while other hikes are more strenuous and lead steeply up into the surrounding high country. One easy and rewarding walk is on the short, paved path to Roaring River Falls, a powerful waterfall emerging from a granite chute. Another popular roadside attraction is Knapp’s Cabin, a 1920s fishing cabin built by a Santa Barbara businessman. Zumwalt Meadow Trail is a 0.8-mile out-and-back hike along the river with an option to continue another 0.8 mile on the Kanawyer Loop trail, which leads toward the Road’s End trailheads.
Starting from Road’s End, one of the best hikes in the entire park is to Mist Falls. This moderate 8-mile round trip (out-and-back) involves about 900 feet of elevation gain while following the river through South Fork Canyon to the lower end of Paradise Valley. Mist Falls is one of the largest falls in the park, a steep cascade tumbling over ledges and slides.
Continuing beyond Mist Falls follows the Woods Creek Trail into Paradise Valley, a popular backpacking destination. Adventurous multi-day backpackers can push further into the High Sierra wilderness by completing the Rae Lakes Loop. This 41-mile loop trail involves about 7,600 feet in elevation gain and typically takes four to six days to complete. For all backcountry camping in Kings Canyon National Park, a wilderness permit is required. During quota season from late May to mid-September, a reservation is required and can be made up to six months in advance. Visit this park webpage for more information.
Two other trails depart from Road’s End. This includes the moderately challenging Bubb’s Creek Trail, a 12.3-mile out-and-back trail into a glacial creek canyon that is also part of the longer Rae Lakes Loop. The other option is considered highly strenuous and sees less use. The Copper Creek Trail switchbacks steeply up from Road’s End, with almost 8,000 feet of elevation gain in only 11-miles, one way.
We hope this post has been helpful in planning your trip to Kings Canyon National Park. Let us know what part of this park strikes you as a favorite and why. COMMENT BELOW! We would love to hear from you!
Cover photo: Taking a break in South Fork Canyon. Abigail Marie/Adobe