Saturday, June 2, 2012

Insta-guide to Kings Canyon National Park

Planning your first trip to Kings Canyon National Park? Or maybe you just want to find how to make the most of your time at the Sierra Nevada's least-visited park? Here's what you need to know, but what the official NPS website won't tell you (or will make you dig through dozens of pages to find!):

Why go? Kings Canyon gives you classic Sierra Nevada mountain scenery without the crowds of Yosemite Valley, plus giant sequoia trees without the traffic jams of Sequoia National Park next door. You can drive down into the canyon itself, one of North America's deepest, and find swimming holes alongside the frothy Kings River, go wildlife watching or lace up your hiking boots and trek to waterfall cascades and alpine lakes.

Access? There's only one way into Kings Canyon National Park and that's via Hwy 180 to the park's Big Stump Entrance outside Grant Grove Village, starting either from Fresno in California's Central Valley or Sequoia National Park via the Generals Hwy. Kings Canyon National Park's two main areas, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, are geographically separated by the Sequoia National Forest and its Giant Sequoia National Monument. But they're connected by the twisting, narrow Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Hwy 180), which edges along the face of dizzyingly sheer cliffs for 30 miles down the canyon. This byway is open to Hume Lake year-round, but closed to Cedar Grove by snowfall, usually from mid-November through mid-April.

When to beat the crowds? Like elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada, summer is peak tourist season, especially from July 4th through the Labor Day holiday weekend in early September. Right now, the slower period between Memorial Day and late June is an optimal time to visit, as is September immediately after Labor Day. In winter you can still visit the Grant Grove area of the park to go snowshoeing among the giant sequoia trees.

Park highlights honestly worth making time for? Even if you have to wait for a parking space, don't miss seeing Grant Grove, where many of the park's biggest trees live. The nature trail is kid-friendly, and you can walk right through the Fallen Monarch, a giant sequoia stump that once served as a hotel, a bar and a horse stable for US Cavalry who were the Sierra Nevada's first park rangers. Near the end of Hwy 180 past Cedar Grove Village, pull over at Zumwalt Meadow. Across a scenic bridge, a short nature trail loops around the grassy meadows where mule deer graze, black bears forage with their cubs and bird song echoes off canyon walls.

Best day hikes? In addition to the nature trails at Grant Grove and Zumwalt Meadow, the most popular day hike is from Road's End in Cedar Grove to Mist Falls, over 8 miles round-trip but worth every step for the canyon views and waterfall cascading over granite. Extend this hike another 2 miles each way to reach Paradise Valley. A day hike most visitors miss is the peaceful 8-mile Hotel Creek-Lewis Creek Loop, which tops out near the Cedar Grove Overlook and is especially great for birders in the early morning.

Best swimming holes? Cedar Grove has 'em all, but most aren't safe enough to swim in until the Kings River flow slows down later in summer. When in doubt, ask a ranger first before taking a dip. At Road's End, hit the river beach near Muir Rock, where conservationist John Muir once gave inspiring outdoor talks and kids today jump screaming into the river. Or follow the path west from Road's End along the riverside, curving left and south to find the Red Bridge, usually a less crowded swimming hole. Off Hwy 180, Hume Lake is another popular place to swim and paddle around in summer, with USFS recreational areas and beaches by a Christian camp that rents boats.

Which campgrounds may have last-minute availability? Unlike in Yosemite, Kings Canyon National Park campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Campgrounds in Grant Grove usually fill up before those in Cedar Grove, although on summer holiday weekends, it's not unheard of for all campsites in the park to be taken by early Friday afternoon. Check at the Grant Grove visitor center about campground availability in Cedar Grove before making the drive all the way down canyon.

Affordable alternative base camp outside the park? You can find primitive campgrounds and free dispersed camping in the Sequoia National Forest just outside the park, including near Hume Lake and along Big Meadows Rd off the Generals Hwy between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. 

Any hazards? Drowning is the number-one cause of fatalities in the park, usually in rivers and streams that are flowing too fast and too furiously to be safe to swim in, as well as from fatal slips off boulders by the top of waterfalls. Kings Canyon is also black bear country: all food and scented items (e.g., sunscreen, soap, toiletries, gum, soda, beer, empty coolers and recyclable containers) should be within arm's reach at all times, or else properly stored in a bearproof storage locker and never left visible in your vehicle. When camping, treat the bearproof storage locker at your campsite like a refrigerator: always keep the door closed. For more tips on bear safety, click here.

Have more tips for visiting Kings Canyon National Park or neighboring Sequoia National Park? Let us know by posting a comment below. Thanks!

Related posts:
Insta-guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Free Online Mini-Guides to Offbeat National Parks
Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley

Photo credits: Kings Canyon National Park (Sara J. Benson), Sequoia National Forest (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

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