Kings Canyon is Yosemite Without the Crowds
Kings Canyon is a High Sierra paradise hiding in plain sight.
Kings Canyon is a paradise of water, trees, and granite monoliths.
Photos by Kristan Lawson
Yosemite gets all the glory.
All around the world, Half Dome and El Capitán are household words—and justifiably so. But psst: That’s why locals call it Yosemite National Parking Lot.
Meanwhile, about a hundred miles to the south, lies a lesser-known but no less beautiful national park: Kings Canyon, a gorge-riven, river-driven, pine-perfumed wilderness whose splendor stunned John Muir.
It has meadows, mountains, forests, foothills, cliffs, caves, cacti, chaparral, conifers, wildflowers, bears, waterways, and more. Confess: You have barely, if ever, heard of it. You’ve never spelunked its underground corridors or strolled its spectacular trails.
Remember that proud, popular high-school girl whom everyone wanted because her beauty was so over-the-top obvious? And remember her sister? Sweeter, shyer, more secretive, and totally overshadowed, but scintillating. Far less visited than Yosemite, Kings Canyon is that sister: deeper (literally: it’s the High Sierra’s deepest canyon) and more distant from the Bay Area.
Kings Canyon has the misfortune of being divided into two noncontiguous parts. Approaching from the west, you first encounter the park’s much smaller section, home to the General Grant Grove and Redwood Mountain Grove and to some of the world’s oldest, largest, and most magnificent trees. Then, after crossing a section of Sequoia National Forest along winding mountain roads, you reach the main part of the park and its breathtaking namesake: the canyon of the south fork of the Kings River.
Stare, shocked, at sheer granite cliffs rising vertically within arm’s reach of the twisty-turny 28-mile Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. Near Roads End, stand knee-deep in cold, calm, crystal-clear shallows under a bold, ditch-your-sorrows blue sky as trout glide past and woodpeckers hammer. Hike all day amidst oaks, alders, sycamores, incense cedars, and sequoias, then lift locally brewed Kaweah, Tioga-Sequoia, or Brewbakers beers beside a crackling fire by night.
Kings Canyon is a land of easy hikes and backcountry backbreakers, of sledding, skiing, and snowshoeing. And always, eternally, simply seeing. Rearing eastward from virtually every viewpoint are the bald peaks of the Sierra Crest. Topping 14,000 feet, North Palisade is nearly 10 times as high as Grizzly Peak and five times as high as Mount Diablo. Pocking the park’s slopes are many cave systems, some of which run quite deep. Open-to-the-public Boyden Cavern contains stalactites, stalagmites, grottoes and a subterranean stream.
Hole up in rustic comfort at riverside Cedar Grove Lodge or at lusciously rustic, stone-and-timber, WiFi-friendly John Muir Lodge. Open all year, the latter is a leisurely 1-mile walk from General Grant Grove and 2 miles from perfectly named Panoramic Point.
The great thing about visiting national parks is that, because they’re too big too see totally in one go, you can stake out a few swatches to savor intensely for however long you can stay. Kings Canyon, a park for all moods, offers so many varicolored swatches.
Nearly 270 feet tall and with a 106-foot circumference at its base, the General Grant Tree is more than 1,600 years old. John Muir himself traveled back and forth between the canyon and his Martinez home.
And what he saw here agonized him. By the 1870s, sawmills were summarily transforming this valley’s ancient sequoias—too splintery to saw into planks—into toothpicks. Muir and other conservationists battled—successfully, eventually—to stop them.
Kings Canyon is a diverse microcosm of California’s many disparate wildernesses. Each moment on this diverse, now-I’m-scorching, now-I’m-arctic landscape is more haunting than the last. It’s a public park that feels bewitchingly private.