In honour of the U.S. National Park Service’s 100th Anniversary, I’ve introduced a feature called “Find Your Park,” named after the popular hashtag the NPS has been using this year to promote the parks. Each unique post features one of the U.S. National Parks that I have had the chance to visit.
Park: Kings Canyon National Park
Location: Fresno County, CA
Established: March 4, 1940
Size: 461,901 acres
Annual visitors: 566,810 (2011)
Entrance fee: $30 / vehicle / week
Times visited: 3
A park of over 450,000 acres, only a very small portion is directly accessible by road: the Grant Grove Area and the King’s Canyon itself with it’s village, Cedar Grove. I visited both of these areas on my third visit to the park this past summer.
We drove into Kings Canyon National Park from the Fresno area to the west. Before getting to the park gate the road climbs thousands of feet along a twisty-turny hillside road. As you climb, the landscape changes dramatically from dry valley floor to thick pine forests.
It was an exciting moment when I spied my first Giant Sequoia, knowing that the park entrance couldn’t be far.
Once through the gate we headed towards the Grant Grove Village and then turned into Sunset Campground. We found our site, set up camp and explored around the campground a little. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that there weren’t any sequoias immediately around the campground.
I would later learn how much the area was logged for the giant trees and that there is a significantly smaller amount of trees left. It makes me all the more grateful for our National Park system protecting these and many other important species.
Our primary stop in this small area of the park was to visit the Grant Grove, which was only a few minutes drive from our campground. The Grant Grove features a 1/3 mile paved loop trail that winds around dozens of giant sequoias, and features the General Grant Tree at its centre.
For our second day in the front-country area of the park we ventured 30 miles east to Road’s End. The drive along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is worth the entrance ticket! From the Grant’s Grove village, the road exits Kings Canyon National Park and enters National Forest land. The road constantly descends, curving around hillsides to descend nearly 3000 feet to the floor of the Kings Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the United States.
Driving into the Canyon was definitely reminiscent of driving into Yosemite Valley. John Muir called Kings Canyon “a rival to Yosemite.” It has a wide valley floor, crossed by the sometimes docile Kings River. The glacier-carved walls soar 4000 feet up. There are even waterfalls during wetter months. The only thing missing is the iconic domes that are such a familiar hallmark of Yosemite Valley.
We drove all the way to Road’s End and checked in with the wilderness station to get details about our day hike to Mist Falls. For the first mile or so we wandered along the flat and sandy valley floor. Reaching a junction, we turned north and started to climb through slabby granite, following alongside Woods Creek. The falls were suitably dramatic and the views were phenomenal, even with a touch of smoke in the air.
We had strategically started our hike early in the day to avoid the worst of the heat. The last hour (and last couple miles) were still a bit of a hot drag along the valley floor. We were relieved to make it back to Road’s End where we could enjoy one of the more popular swimming holes in the area along the Kings River. The swimming area is known as Muir Rock and has significant historic importance. John Muir used to host meetings on a large flat boulder alongside the river, sharing his wisdom about protecting the natural areas of America. It was a perfect way to spend the rest of the afternoon before venturing back to our campsite.
The front-country zone of Kings Canyon National Park only touches on a small piece of the large park, but is certainly worth a few days (or more!) of exploring, especially when you tie it in with a visit to Sequoia National Park (more to come on that!) There are some easy-to-moderate hikes in the Grants Grove area of the park as well as a range of easy-to-hard hikes in the Canyon area. Overall the park has a calm feel to it. It is not as heavily trafficked as some of the nearby parks, even on a weekend in middle of summer.
However, in order to really experience Kings Canyon National Park, you’re going to have a strap on some gear and hit the trail. Look for next week’s post to learn about some backcountry hiking options in Kings Canyon.