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AARP’s Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Spend a lot of time looking up — way up — at some of the largest living organisms on the planet

Sequoia National Park, California
Quan Yuan/Getty Images

Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, you’ll spend a lot of time looking up — way up — at some of the largest living organisms in the history of the planet. If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, the main attractions in these twin parks in Central California are approximately 40 different sequoia groves. These behemoth trees can only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation, and the parks are home to seven of the 10 largest trees in the world.

Amazingly, these trees, which stretch up to nearly 300 feet high, aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively dwarfed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley hemmed in by 4,000-foot-high granite walls, and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,494 feet.

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Located in the Southern Sierra Nevada, about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kings Canyon and Sequoia are actually two national parks for the price of one. They share a border and a long history, dating back to the early days of the conservation movement in America. On Sept. 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the country’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the area’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later, he added General Grant National Park to the roster.

In those early days, America’s first Black national park superintendent (and the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army), Col. Charles Young, led efforts to build a road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest, and by 1903, the landscape had opened to tourists coming in by wagon. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established Kings Canyon National Park, which absorbed the former General Grant park. 

Today Sequoia comprises 631 square miles, which include the famed Generals Highway, which cuts through dense sequoia groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine Mineral King glacial valley; and Crystal Cave, a marble cavern closed until 2023 due to wildfire damage to its road and trail. The bifurcated, 722-square-mile Kings Canyon, meanwhile, sits atop Sequoia like two lopsided bunny ears: To the west, a squiggly sliver of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and the neighboring village and visitor center; to the east, a much larger swath of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The meandering ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections as it cuts through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest. 

Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free much of the year. In 2019, before pandemic-related disruptions, Sequoia welcomed about 1.2 million visitors; Kings Canyon, just over 630,000. Compare that to the 4.6 million who stopped in at Yosemite National Park, their Sierras neighbor 40 miles to the north.

View in Kings Canyon National Park
Brian Guiney / Getty Images

For park ranger Rebecca Paterson, “tuning in to the soundscape” is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness. “Find a secluded spot, take a few steps off the trail, maybe sit down, maybe close your eyes, and just be silent and listen to the sounds of the park for a couple of minutes,” Paterson says. “I can’t express how calming and enjoyable this is.” 

Locator map of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks in California
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​​Facts Box

​Location: Central California, about 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles

Acreage: 865,964 acres, or 1,353 square miles 

Highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet 

Lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1,370 feet 

Miles of trails: 866

Main attraction: Sequoia groves with record-breaking trees

Entry fee: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $70 for annual passes 

Best way to see: By car or by the free park shuttle (between May and September)

When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds leave and before the snow begins

Plan Your Trip 

The parks are relatively centrally located within the state and a bit of a trek to reach from major cities: You can expect about a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles. Depending on where you’re flying in from, you may want to take advantage of the much closer Fresno Yosemite International Airport, about an hour and 15 minutes from the Kings Canyon entrance on State Route 180. The airport offers nonstop flights from 11 U.S. cities, including Dallas, Denver and Las Vegas.

When planning your trip, note that it’s hard to generalize about the weather in these parts. There’s an enormous elevation shift from the foothills in Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the big tree groves in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you ascend higher through the parks. Fortunately, the NPS maintains a helpful website with forecasts for specific areas. The foothills tend to have milder winters and hot, dry summers, with average highs in July and August reaching into the upper 90s and average winter lows dropping to the mid-30s. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove, summer temperatures are significantly milder, usually in the mid-70s in the daytime and the 50s at night. Even if it’s scorchingly hot when you enter the parks (it has been known to hit 114 degrees), you may still need a light sweater by the time you’re surrounded by sequoias. Plan and pack accordingly — layers are your friend. 

While the winter can be peaceful and the parks look gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during those months. Several roads, including 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road, close due to treacherous, icy driving conditions, and many of the parks’ lodging options shutter. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume gate until spring 2023. Check the park website for closures before you go. 

In general, you’ll want a car in these parks. From late May through mid-September, there’s also a shuttle bus system, with free routes covering such areas as the Giant Forest, Moro Rock, the General Sherman Tree Trails and Wuksachi Lodge. Meanwhile, the $20 Sequoia Shuttle (reservation required) transports guests in from the gateway town of Visalia.

Overcrowding isn’t much of a concern, even during the summer high season in July and August. “Avoiding crowds has a lot to do with timing,” Paterson says. “Weekdays are always more forgiving than weekends. If you can get to the entrance station before 9 a.m., you’re likely to be rewarded with ample parking at your destination.”

Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park, California, USA
Chris Putnam / Alamy Stock Photo

Where to stay and eat 

The jewel in the crown of lodging options in these parts is Sequoia’s 102-room Wuksachi Lodge, which features an architectural style that screams “national parks lodge,” thanks to its native granite and oak, hickory and cedar touches. Located 2 miles from Lodgepole Village, the hotel is a perfect jumping-off point for hiking trails that lead out into Cahoon Meadow and Twin Lakes. It’s now open year-round, but things can get a little dicey in the winter if you’re not used to driving in snow because it sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet; remember to pack those snow chains! Amenities in mobility- and hearing-accessible rooms include widened doorways, visual fire alarms and phones with flashing lights.

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In Kings Canyon, Grant Grove Village is home to two seasonal lodging options in the park’s western section: The 36-room John Muir Lodge (open late March to late October) includes a stone fireplace in the lobby that’s an inviting spot to cozy up next to as you plan tomorrow’s adventures. Grant Grove Cabins, a collection of timber and tent-style cabins, are open from April through October. Book early and request Cabin No. 9, one of the few with an en suite bathroom instead of a shared bathhouse, a particular luxury on those cold Sierra nights. The lodge does not have an elevator, so anyone with mobility issues will want to request a room on the first floor. 

For a slightly more off-the-beaten-path option, the 21-room Cedar Grove Lodge is remotely located in Kings Canyon’s eastern wilderness. It’s only open late May through late October, after the snow has melted, but it rewards the intrepid with access to scenic Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring Falls and Muir Rock.

The parks also play host to more than a dozen campsites, four open year-round: Azalea Campground, under a stand of evergreen trees near King Canyon’s Grant Grove; Potwisha Campground, set among a hot and dry oak woodland in Sequoia; Lodgepole and South Fork Campgrounds, in a remote area of the Sequoia foothills. Park campgrounds differ wildly in terms of amenities, locations and crowds, so study the options before you go. Reservations are made available one month in advance, though you can often snag a spot on the day of your visit. Most offer a few accessible campsites with amenities like paved paths to restrooms and raised fire pits for people with impaired mobility. 

The standout dining option? At the Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge, tuck into hearty fare like pan-seared ruby-red trout and braised short ribs while taking in the Sierra views. The restaurant also serves a daily breakfast buffet ($19.95 for adults). Nearby, head to the seasonal Lodgepole Café for grab-and-go picnic goodies, like breakfast burritos and hot dogs.

In Kings Canyon, the seasonal Grant Grove Restaurant serves dishes like beef chili and a trout sandwich. In the park’s other section, Cedar Grove Grill is open May through mid-October and serves hearty burgers and sandwiches on the drive out to Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls.

The General Grant Tree, a Giant Redwood, or Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, in Sequoia National Park, California, USA.
Ashley Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

Things to do

Visit the parks’ enormous trees. We know what you’re here for — very big trees! And, yes, you’ll see giant sequoias everywhere, but there are a few not-to-miss standouts. In Sequoia, the General Sherman Tree ranks as the world’s largest by volume and stands 275 feet tall with a base width of 36 feet. You can access it by two trails. One runs a half-mile downhill from a parking area; it’s paved and includes a few stairs, but the climb back uphill can be tiring. If you have a disability parking placard, you’ll have access to a small lot on Generals Highway with a wheelchair-accessible trail. About a five-minute drive down the road in the Giant Forest Grove, you’ll reach the free Giant Forest Museum, with informative exhibits about this unique landscape, and the 1.2-mile Big Trees Trail, which Paterson calls “a great option for people with limited mobility.” It’s flat, paved and easy to navigate, with benches for rest stops. 

In the Grant Grove area in Kings Canyon, just 1.5 miles from the visitor center, you’ll meet the General Grant Tree — aka the nation’s Christmas tree — the world’s second-largest tree, with a height of 268.1 feet and a base circumference of 107.5 feet. The one-third-mile paved loop trail passes through a dense collection of sequoias, with other highlights including the Fallen Monarch, a hollow sequoia log wide enough to walk through, and the historic Gamlin Cabin, which dates to 1872. The trail has tactile informational signs with Braille and raised illustrations. 

Although these “generals” are popular, especially in the summer, don’t stop there: They’re a great jumping-off point for exploration. “People visiting the parks will find a lot of opportunities for solitude if they’re willing to hike for even 15 minutes,” Paterson says. “The Giant Forest and Grant Grove both have miles and miles of wonderful trails that see surprisingly few hikers.” On these trails, you’ll have time and space to linger, take in the evergreens’ woodsy scent and listen for the chirps of squirrels and the calls of acorn woodpeckers, Steller’s jays and other birds.

Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park
Giovanni Accetta / Getty Images

Climb Moro Rock. Yosemite has Half Dome, Sequoia has Moro Rock — and much like its more famous cousin to the north, this granite dome beckons visitors to summit its dramatic topography. While the climb up Half Dome isn’t for the faint of heart, Moro Rock can be doable for relatively in-shape visitors who can handle steep stairs. A concrete and stone path leads up more than 350 steps to postcard-perfect views out over the foothills and the San Joaquin Valley. There are handrails much of the way, so while you might not fear falling over the rather prodigious cliffs lining the trail, this is still a strenuous climb, made more challenging by the high elevations, which top out above 6,700 feet. The climb can take as little as a half-hour, but pace yourself and enjoy the experience to protect those lungs in the thinner air. In summer, keep your eyes and ears peeled for peregrine falcons nesting on the rock.

Go for a guided horseback ride. Two stables operate within Kings Canyon. Grove Stables offers one-hour guided trail rides ($60) that loop past the General Grant tree and through a grove of giant sequoias; for an additional $40, tack on a second hour through a second sequoia grove to a Sequoia Lake overlook. The Cedar Grove Pack Station, located outside Cedar Grove Village, also has one- and two-hour guided trail rides (priced the same at $60 and $100, respectively), but experienced riders can opt for a half-day ($175 for four hours) or full-day ($225 for six hours) itinerary.

The Milkyway shines in a starry sky above Sequoia National Park.
Jon Hicks/Getty Images

Enjoy the stars. “The parks are amazing after dark, once you get used to the idea,” says Paterson. She suggests finding a wide-open space to stargaze or take long-exposure photographs of the Milky Way, which she calls “a powerful experience that’s sure to make you feel closer to nature.” During a full moon, Paterson also recommends a night hike. “Just be careful out there,” she warns. “The parks have a 24-hour dispatch center, but help is definitely less readily available if you get into trouble late at night.” If you’d rather not go it alone, the parks occasionally schedule ranger-led moonlight walks (check the events calendar). This is also a great time to listen for the distinctive hooting of great horned owls and the squeaks of bats flying overhead. Fun fact: While 17 species of bats call these parks home, only three emit sounds the human ear can hear.

Afternoon autumn view of a public park in downtown Bakersfield, California, USA.
MattGush/Getty Images

Gateway towns 

If you want to spend time in the communities just outside the parks’ boundaries, stick to the stretch along State Route 198 that leads into Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance Station. About 35 miles west of the park is Visalia, a small agricultural city in the San Joaquin Valley with handsome architecture (including an art deco post office), a boutique-filled downtown and plenty of microbreweries. 

Even closer to the entrance station is Three Rivers Village, with a surprising array of businesses dotting the foothills, including local shops like Reimer’s Candies and Gifts (don’t miss the California walnut turtles), art galleries and artist studios, a nine-hole golf course and even a jazz club.

En route

Driving in from San Francisco, slow down to enjoy the underrated Central Valley. The state’s agricultural heart boasts some surprising hot spots. Merced’s recently revitalized downtown, for instance, includes the chic new Hotel El Capitan and its tasting-menu restaurant Rainbird, where you can sample innovative dishes like green garlic chawanmushi (egg custard) with coal-roasted kombu. The area is also home to excellent farm stands and a rustic-chic vineyard. 

From Los Angeles, Bakersfield is a worthwhile pit stop, thanks to the country’s largest collection of Basque restaurants. Established in 1893 as a boardinghouse, the Noriega Hotel was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Award, and it’s beloved for dishes like pickled tongue. The city’s also the birthplace of the so-called Bakersfield sound, made popular by country artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Learn more about Nashville West at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a museum and music venue, and the Kern County Museum.

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