California is fortunate to be home to nine national parks (yes, nine!), more than any other state.
With such a plethora of natural and national treasures, it may not come as a surprise that two of the state's most spectacular parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, are often overlooked.
While typically referred to together, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are actually two distinct but contiguous parks located in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Kings Canyon lies to the north and Sequoia to the south. Other than iconic giant sequoia trees that inhabit both parks, many of the highlights of Sequoia and Kings Canyon tend to be less known precisely because they are located within the rugged parks' backcountry and are inaccessible by road. Having world-famous Yosemite lying to the north doesn't necessarily help in winning the popularity contest either.
If you're ready to hit the road to discover these hidden natural gems, use this sample itinerary, heading north to south, that packs in some of these west slope wonders. Happy trails!
- Enter Kings Canyon National Park on Highway 180 at the Big Stump entrance, continuing east and dropping into Kings Canyon proper.
- Since campsites are first-come, first served in Kings Canyon, swing through Sheep Creek Campground and secure a spot.
- Better yet, do it online before your trip.
- Get your bearings by driving to Road's End, passing through the Cedar Grove area. Explore Muir Rock and relax for a bit on the beach near the emerald waters of the South Fork of the Kings River.
- Wrap up the day by stretching your legs with a half-day hike around the Kanawyer Loop Trail.
- After enjoying an early morning fire in camp, head east back toward Road's End and soak in the splendors of Zumwalt Meadow. This picture-perfect montane meadow provides unobstructed views of the deep granite walls of Kings Canyon.
- Heading back west, stop at Roaring River Falls, a narrow gorge flowing into scenic pools where the Roaring River drops into the Kings River. For a longer hike option, Roaring River Falls can be combined with a pleasant walk from Zumwalt Meadow along the River Trail.
- Climb west out of the canyon and head for a campground near Grant Grove. For those anglers out there, consider carving out a couple of hours to fish a stretch of the South Fork of the Kings River before climbing out of the canyon. There are some decent fishing holes upstream from Grizzly Falls.
- Grab a first-come, first-serves campsite at Azalea Campground or Sunset Campground (advanced reservations are possible and recommended at Sunset).
- Wake up with the sun and take a morning walk through some of the largest trees in the world in Grant Grove.
- Continue south along Highway 198 toward the Giant Forest. En route, stop at Lodgepole Campground and set up your campsite (advanced reservations are possible). There are plenty of first-come, first-served sites at Lodgepole, so if you're without reservations but still arrive early, you may be in luck. However, if staying in a cozy room sounds more like your cup of tea, book a room and reserve a dinner for a night in Wuksachi Lodge, a few miles away.
- With camping or lodging behind you, soak in the wonders of the Giant Forest. Visit the Giant Forest Museum, and of course, no trip through the ancient sequoias is complete without seeing the largest tree (by volume) in the world, the General Sherman Tree.
- If you are camping at Lodgepole, take a nice morning walk straight out of the campground along the Topokah Valley Trail to get the blood flowing (hint: there's more hiking/climbing in store today). Both the Watchtower and Topokah Falls, Sequoia National Park's tallest waterfall, are beautiful sights.
- Head back to into the Giant Forest to climb the granite dome of Moro Rock to catch a glimpse of the Sequoia high country and the peaks of the Great Western Divide, which splits the Kern and Kaweah watersheds.
- Visit Crescent Meadow, known as the "gem of the Sierra," and wander through giant sequoias surrounding a picturesque montane meadow. Keep on the lookout for black bears in this area, as they are frequently spotted around the hillsides between Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow.
- Head back down 198 toward Visalia and exit Sequoia National Park, or stay in one of the campgrounds near the park entrance: Buckeye Flat or Potwisha.
If you have more time, consider heading back up to the trails and peaks of Mineral King Valley, accessed via Mineral King Road in the town of Three Rivers.
This article was originally published by Outdoor Project on 7x7 on Jan. 11, 2016.