Written by “Go-To Global Gal” Alyce; all photos taken by and belonging to Alyce Howard
Recently, I saw an ad that left me slightly dumbfounded. Oddly enough it was a commercial for allergy medicine, but the promotion of their product seemed almost like a footnote to the overall message of the advertisement. They shared findings from a recent study conducted by Columbia University and frankly, the numbers startled me:
- Americans spend approximately 95% of their time indoors—that means we spend nearly 346 days a year indoors.
- For every minute we live, it’s calculated that we only spend the equivalent of two seconds
- According to the study, by the time you’re 35 years old, you’ve spent the equivalent of 33 years
- As we spend less time outdoors, and technology becomes more and more prevalent in our daily lives, words describing items found in nature are being replaced by technological terms in popular junior dictionaries. Words like “dandelion,” and “acorn,” are being replaced with “broadband,” and “blog.”
I saw this ad shortly after I’d begun planning my summer road trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park—a less well-known national park that is predominantly wild and recognized as a “hidden gem” located just south of the more famous Yosemite National Park. After reflecting on those dismal statistics and all the benefits to our physical and mental health that we get from being outdoors (improved eye health, better sleep, increased levels of serotonin, improved short- and long-term attention spans—just to name a few!), I was even happier to be leaving the city behind for a few days with plans to spend all my time outdoors.
All research and seriousness aside, if you ever have the chance to visit California, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are well worth considering as a destination contender! While they are two separate parks, bordering each other on California’s east central border, in many ways they’re managed jointly. If you’re looking for a chance to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors—in the form of towering mountain peaks, pristine wilderness, raging rivers, mighty waterfalls, giant behemoths (a.k.a. the massive Sequoia trees that dot these national parks), and deep canyons formed by rivers or glaciers—then this is your park! With less traffic than its northern neighbor, Yosemite, these parks give you incredible views, plenty of activities, and a chance to experience two of America’s beautiful national parks without any overwhelming crowds. Here are some fun facts about these two parks as well as some of their best-known attractions:
- Sequoia was established as a national park in 1890, making it California’s first national park!
- 84% of the park is accessible only by horse or on foot; 97% (of these two combined parks) is considered true wilderness.
- There are more than 200 caves (that have been found to date) below these parks, including the famous Crystal Cave.
- Mount Whitney, found within the borders of Sequoia National Park, is the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14, 494 ft.
- Kings Canyon is a relatively young park, having been established in 1940, and is often called the “Mini Yosemite” thanks to the glacier-carved canyon near Cedar Grove.
- The General Grant tree can be found inside King’s Canyon National Park near Grant Grove Village. This Giant Sequoia is the world’s largest tree—by combined weight and width—measuring 103 ft around and 275 feet tall. And it’s still growing!
- Since 1962 when President Coolidge dubbed the General Grant tree as the “nation’s Christmas tree,” the park has held a Yuletide celebration at its base.
- Drive on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Hwy 180) from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, crossing back and forth between both parks as you navigate the 30 miles of mountain switchbacks, and you’ll have the chance to skirt along one of the deepest canyons in North America (reaching 8,200 ft deep in certain places), follow the wild Kings River, and pass towering Grizzly Falls. There are places to pull off and take pictures or soak in the views all along the road so be sure to take time to stop and really enjoy the journey!
- Continue on Hwy 180 towards “Road’s End” and stop to hike up to Roaring River Falls, then continue onto iconic Zumwalt Meadow and toward Grand Sentinel to see vistas reminiscent of Yosemite’s Cook’s Meadow.
- These two contiguous parks are 66 miles long, 36 miles at their widest point, and approximately 1, 353 square miles. And most of that’s inaccessible by car!
- These parks boast a whopping 800 MILES of trails! There is no road going all the way, east and west, through the parks, so it’s impossible to see all of the attractions in only a day or two. However, you can drive to see sequoias in the Giant Forest, Grant Grove, and along General’s Highway. If you go during late spring through October, you can also drive to Cedar Grove and Road’s End to see additional sights, but due to winter conditions (heavy snow, ice) this part of the park is closed part of the year.
We only had a short amount of time to spend in these parks—one full day plus a few hours on the day we arrived—so I definitely wish I’d been able to stay longer. But we still managed to get out and see and do a lot between Grant Grove (where we were camping) and Cedar Grove. We drove from San Diego to Grant Grove—an 8-hour drive thanks to traffic in LA—and checked-in at our campsite where I’d reserved a spot for two nights, then used that as a jumping-off point during our stay. If you’re thinking of visiting these parks here are a few of my recommendations and “lessons learned”:
- Most of the campgrounds are first-come first serve. If you’ll be arriving later in the day, or you’ll be visiting the park during its peak season, I recommend trying to get a spot at one of the few campgrounds that allow you to make a reservation online. Of note, when we arriveda lot of the first-come first-serve campgrounds were closed due to flooding along the river or maintenance so I was really glad I’d reserved our spot ahead of time.
- This may seem like common sense but when you arrive—especially if you don’t get their first thing in the morning—make sure you set up your tent before you do anything else. There are no lights in the park or in the campground; setting up a tent in the dark is no fun. Save yourself the time and hassle!
- Listen to the park rangers. Remember to be respectful of the park and be careful to leave nothing but your footprint behind. Be a good steward and do everything you can to protect the park so that future visitors can enjoy it, too. Forest fires are a real danger here in California, so follow their instructions about your campfire: don’t leave it unattended, make sure everything stays inside the fire ring, and put it out with water before you leave or go to sleep.
- Bears are something to be mindful of. They aren’t cuddly teddy bears—even if they may look pretty darn cute! They are wild animals and you need to be smart when you’re sleeping/hiking in a wild place like Sequoia & Kings Canyon. Don’t leave food in your vehicle or tent—use the bear box that they have at each campsite. It’s there for a reason! Consider getting bear bells, or purchasing something that makes a loud noise (like a handheld air-horn) to carry with you when hiking on some of the more remote trails. Speak with the rangers about what times of the day are best for hiking if you wish avoid (or lower the risk of) running into wildlife of the large predator variety.
- There’s a LOT to do and see between these two parks. Do your research before you go, and depending on how much time you’ll have, select a few sites/attractions that you’re most interested in seeing and make a plan. Knowing where each site is located inside the park will help you be strategic about the order in which you visit each place.
- If you enjoy horseback riding, try one of the two stables found in the park! It’s a great way to see the sights while also enjoying some time off of your feet. Go to the stable at Grant Grove to take a trail ride that goes past the towering Giant Sequoias and all the way to the General Grant tree, or go for a ride along King’s River and the meadows of Kings Canyon by going to the stable located in Cedar Grove.
- Make sure you fill up your gas tank at the last town near the foothills of the Sierra Mountains (where the parks are found). There are very few places to get gas inside the park (I could only find one or two places on the map that might have sold gas) so you want to make sure your tank is full before you enter the park. That way you have enough gas to drive around the park and see what you came to see!
Overall, we had an amazing time in these parks and I hope to have the chance to go back. If you enjoy being outdoors, hiking, or driving on scenic highways then I would highly recommend you consider a visit to the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks! I think most of us can admit that we probably spend too much time indoors—I know I do!—and what better way to get outside than to visit a national park?