This post is part of Just Ahead’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon Trip Planner—our guide to what you need to know to plan your trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Click here to see the complete series. And be sure to download our Just Ahead smartphone audio tour of Sequoia and Kings Canyon before you head to the parks.
Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are renowned for the world’s most massive trees, which thrive in both parks. But the parks comprise more than giant trees. They’re filled with amazing viewpoints, geological marvels, American Indian petroglyphs, lakes, rivers, meadows, and caverns. Following is our personal list of don’t-miss sights in the parks. Naturally, Just Ahead’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon audio tour guide carries you along some of the country’s most spectacular roads to these sites and more.
General Sherman Tree
No visit to Sequoia is complete without paying homage to the world’s largest tree, the General Sherman. It stands 274.9 feet tall, has a circumference of 102.6 feet, and a diameter of 36.5 feet. Consider this impressive stat: At 180 feet above the ground, the General Sherman tree still has a diameter of 14 feet. The General Sherman is the centerpiece of a grove of majestic giant sequoias. You can feast on plenty more by walking the two-mile Congress Trail, which begins at the General Sherman. Along the way are the Chief Sequoyah and the President—third-largest tree in the world.
In many national parks, you have to hike a long distance to see ancient rock art, and even then you may not find it. Park rangers, fearing vandalism, are often reluctant to share precise locations. But in Sequoia, Hospital Rock, a giant boulder decorated with crimson-colored paintings, is right beside the road (Generals Highway)—you can just drive up and have a look. As with so many rock paintings, no one knows exactly who painted them or what they mean. It’s fun to speculate—some look like humans, others like animals or stars. The rock is on the site of a 19th-century Potwisha Indian settlement, but the paintings were probably not the work of the Potwisha, but rather that of earlier native people.
This distinctive granite dome, 6,725 feet high, looms above you as you wind up Generals Highway in Sequoia National Park from the south. But it’s one thing to see it; better is to climb it. That’s easier than it sounds, thanks to some excellent staircase engineering on the part of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. A short side trip on Crescent Meadow Road and a 300-foot climb up the CCC stone staircase gets you to the top and a sweeping view of the Great Western Divide to the east, and endless foothills—with the San Joaquin Valley in the distance—to the west. Worth the climb.
The Sequoia and Kings Canyon region is home to more than 200 caverns and caves, but only two have guided tours. Crystal Cave, in Sequoia National Park a few miles off Generals Highway near Giant Forest, is the most convenient. It has three miles of passages that contain beautiful marble corridors and ancient crystalline formations including ornately polished marble, and stalactites that hang like icicles from cave ceilings. The cave, open May through November, is operated by the Sequoia Natural History Association LINK LINK http://www.explorecrystalcave.com/, and requires advance tickets from the Lodgepole or Foothills visitor center. Be sure to take a jacket along; it’s 50 degrees inside, year-round.
Giant Forest is home to one of the most-bang-for-your-buck walks in Sequoia—the Round Meadow Trail, a gentle-one-mile loop that gets you up close to lots of giant sequoias without having to climb steep trails. Near the trailhead is the Giant Forest Museum, housed in an old market building designed by famed architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood (Ahwahnee Hotel), which has a great exhibit portraying the life cycle of the big trees.
Nowhere in the world is there a greater concentration of giant sequoias than in Redwood Canyon in Kings Canyon National Park, home to no fewer than 15,000 giants, which you can see on two equally enjoyable loop hikes. The 6.5-mile Sugar Bowl loop climbs and then drops into a bowl containing a very dense stand of giant sequoias, including many young ones. The 7.3-mile Hart Trail loop leads by awesome giant trees, passes right through Fallen Tunnel Tree, and reaches the Hart Tree, 25th-largest giant sequoia in the world. The trails start 1.7 miles down a dirt road that’s generally just fine for passenger vehicles. We direct you there, of course.
One of the most remarkable roads anywhere is Generals Highway, the twisting, winding passageway that connects Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. In the southern part of Sequoia National Park, the road becomes very narrow, steep, and winding. It may not be for the queasy, but you have to admire this relentlessly scenic drive that was built in the early 1930s. The idea was to build a drivable road that would switchback its way up the mountains, curve through forests of the largest trees on earth, cross over lovely stone bridges, and connect the two national parks—all while harmonizing with the natural environment. That’s exactly what it does, and Just Ahead calls out all the viewpoints and highlights along the way.
General Grant Tree
The General Grant Tree, second largest in the world, may be the runner-up to General Sherman, but it has its own distinct appearance and setting, in Kings Canyon National Park’s Grant Grove. Its base is 40.3 feet in diameter—107.5 feet around—even larger than the General Sherman Tree, but it tapers a bit more quickly, so the Grant Tree is slightly smaller as measured by total volume. General Grant stands 268.1 feet high and is about 1,650 years old. The walk to the tree entails an easy one-third-of-a mile loop. Along the way you’ll see the Fallen Monarch—a hollowed-out stump so huge it once served as a hotel and saloon.
Mineral King is a favorite with aficionados of Sequoia National Park. It’s a spectacular subalpine glacial valley surrounded by High Sierra Peaks that soar as high as 11,000 feet. Trails lead out of valley to gorgeous alpine lakes, making it a favorite jumping-off spot for backcountry hikers. It takes a 25-mile side trip to get this enclave in the southern part of Sequoia National Park, on a road that traces the East Fork Kaweah River, offering great views of that dramatic river canyon along the way. Mineral King Road is typically open from Memorial Day weekend till November.
Big Stump Meadow
Why would you want to see a bunch of tree stumps? Because these are some of the largest tree stumps you’ll ever see, and they tell a story. For one, you learn just how incredibly difficult it was to log these trees back in the late 1880s, when a lumber mill stood on the site of the meadow that is now dotted with giant stumps. They also tell a story of a change in mind-set, from anything goes (back then) to full protection today. Be sure to walk as far as the Mark Twain stump, where a staircase leads you up to the gigantic platform left behind after the 13 days it took to cut the tree down in 1891. The meadow lies just inside the Big Stump Entrance to Kings Canyon National Park.