SEQUOIA & KINGS CANYON
WHAT TO DO IN SEQUOIA & KINGS CANYON
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
See the sequoias as a vast jungle spread out below you over nearly five square miles from the Redwood Mountain Overlook. It’s a different view than the one on boardwalks among just a few trees with names.
Stand in the middle of the outline on the trail to the Sherman Tree. It’s the big tree’s footprint and besides being a great photo opportunity is a good way to appreciate the biggest Sequoia’s hugeness.
Appreciate the architecture at the Giant Forest Museum. Though a lot more modest than some of his other works, it was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, famed for grand national park lodges like the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.
Meander in Zumwalt Meadow, training your eyes to the rocks above here and there to see if you can spot the Sphinx.
Hugely Varied Terrain & Lots of Wilderness
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI) are sometimes called “Land of Giants” — a fitting name for a place where things contrast on a grand scale.
It’s home to some of the Sierra’s tallest mountains as well as its deepest canyons. In its forests, the massive giant sequoias dwarf other trees.
Even the climates vary dramatically given the major changes in topography. Sequoia has the greatest range of altitudes in all of the national parks south of Alaska. The high point is Mount Whitney (14,505 feet), and the low point is the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River (1,370 feet), making for a variation of more than 13,000 feet.
But experiencing all of this takes some doing. The parks lie amid some of the Sierra’s most rugged terrain. To put it into perspective, consider this: though Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, it can’t be seen in most of SEKI because the sub-range to the west of it — the Great Western Divide — is nearly as tall as the High Sierra crest next to it, thus hiding the mountain.
And so Sequoia and Kings Canyon maintain an enduring air of exclusivity. The two combined host not even half as many visitors as Yosemite.
Making Your Way in SEKI Seclusion
The vast majority of visitors here see only a hint of these lands that have been preserved for them because really seeing Sequoia and Kings Canyon requires a bit more in the way of adventurous spirit. Roads provide access to only a tiny fraction of the parks, and more than 95% is treated as wilderness, meaning that much of it remains hidden unless exploring without a vehicle.
No Way Through
This is a destination, not a stop along the way to somewhere else. For one thing, there’s no road across the mountains. Coming in means going out on the same side — the west. And even though a western approach to the Sierra Nevada is gentler than the sudden rise of mountains on the East Side, the two ways into Sequoia and Kings Canyon are a little less welcoming at this southern point of the range.
Compared to further north where the Central Valley gives way to hilly Gold Country and then more substantial foothills, the change in topography is more dramatic enroute to the Big Stump and Ash Mountain entrances as citrus groves quickly give way to rock.
Inside, nearly every route terminates in a dead-end that requires going out the same way you came in. The only real exception is Generals Highway, which connects the two major roads that provide the parks’ entry points. (Highway 180 comes to the Big Stump Kings Canyon entrance from Fresno, and Highway 198 passes through Visalia and Three Rivers before coming into Sequoia at Ash Mountain.)
Sequoia and Kings Canyon require a bit of bravery, but they also richly reward their intrepid explorers with scenery that rivals Yosemite and a bit more privacy to enjoy it.
Driving in SEKI: Hairpins, Plunges & Climbs
What’s more, these roads that must be traveled twice are often narrow, winding, steep and complemented by a mix of sheer granite cliffs that close in and dramatic drop-offs that give way to a void. Signs at several points warn to switch to lower gears to prevent brake damage, and vehicles over certain lengths (22 feet in some spots, 24 in others) may be restricted.
Sequoia’s Path to National Parkhood
Sequoia is the second-oldest national park in the United States, beating Yosemite to become California’s first in 1890.
Like Tahoe, Yosemite and other areas of the Sierra known for their natural beauty, the southern Sierra also suffered abuse from early settlers. The issues were similar: meadows destroyed by grazing animals, mountains excavated by mining, and shrinking forests as logging took shape as a major industry.
John Muir was on the scene by 1873 and dubbed Kings Canyon a wondrous rival to Yosemite. He would pay additional visits, including one in which he focused on seeing as many sequoia groves as possible. As he did in Yosemite, he studied what he saw and wrote about it so that others would gain awareness of the natural marvels in the Sierra. And, as had happened in Yosemite, the southern Sierra started attracting sightseers later that decade.
At the same time, agriculture in the mountains would continue, along with industry. Mining ultimately didn’t prove terribly fruitful beyond the silver found in Mineral King, but logging did — big time — and a number of timber operations emerged, some becoming large operations that would wipe out entire groves of giant sequoias.
But SEKI’s path to protected land was a winding one, with lots of twists and turns along the way. Here’s a short-hand version:
An Influential Camping Trip: The Mather Mountain Party
In 1915, Stephen Mather took up a newly created government position to whip its growing collection of parks into shape. An avowed nature-lover and Sierra Club member, he was offered the post after writing to the Department of the Interior about his frustration over what he considered sorry conditions (bad roads) and poor management. Once installed, he became a passionate booster of the parks.
One of his most impactful efforts was organizing a Sierra trek with people that could be influential in his cause. The group included National Geographic editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor and other journalists, a congressman, a railroad titan and others with deep pockets and/or persuasive power. George Stewart was also along.
Early Glamping in the Sierra
A consummate host, Mather made sure his esteemed guests experienced Sequoia in supreme comfort. He hired a renowned Chinese cook named Ty Sing to prepare sumptuous meals as the “Mather Mountain Party” camped and traveled by mule and horse. Sing spent many years working for the US Geologic Survey and was an expert at camping cookery. (The Sierra’s Sing Peak is named for him.)
It took two animals to carry the extensive roster of ingredients and supplies that he brought to prepare meals served on white tablecloths and lit by Chinese lanterns. The spread included steaks, fried chicken, salads, soups, fresh biscuits, and pies and other desserts. Mather also ensured that his group was well-rested, securing air mattresses to cushion their sleeping bags.
The extensive week-long tour included Giant Forest and Moro Rock and then a trip across the Great Western Divide to Mount Whitney. At the end, Mather made his case for creating a National Park Service that would ensure such places be managed in a way that would protect them and allow enjoyment for everyone. It worked. His powerful friends were won over and became allies in the push to create the National Park Service. It was established the following summer on August 25, 1916, and Mather was chosen to head it up the following year.
Conjoined Confusion: Figuring & Refiguring Sequoia & Kings Canyon Boundaries
Today the greater Sequoia and Kings Canyon region consists of two parks and a national monument. Sequoia and Kings Canyon are managed jointly as one park and the Forest Service oversees the monument.
While General Grant National Park protected the General Grant Grove, the rest of what is now Kings Canyon National Park wasn’t made a national park until much later.
The Trees that Stir Up All the Fuss: SEKI’s Sequoias
Some may not even realize that California’s national parks were built on trees more so than the mountains, and there’s some irony surrounding the many battles to protect them from logging. Sequoia wood is brittle, meaning it isn’t all that good for lumber. (That didn’t stop Hale Tharp from making a home from one, though. The first settler in Sequoia made a cabin in one of the massive trees that had been hollowed out.)
Kings Canyon: North America’s Deepest
SEKI has several impressive canyons. Deep Canyon, for example, surrounds the Kaweah River and Kern Canyon and is 5,000 feet deep for a stretch of 30 miles.
But Kings Canyon has the distinction of being the deepest in North America. At its steepest point, which is just outside park boundaries, the Kings River lies more than 8,000 feet below the surrounding cliffs.
The mighty river was christened by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga in 1805. The Spanish name he chose translates to River of the Holy Kings and honors the biblical three magi who came to visit newly born Jesus. (Moraga also named the Merced River, which runs through Yosemite.)
SEKI’s Rivers: Enticing & Deadly
SEKI’s three rivers are fierce, with powerful currents even in places that appear placid. The deceptive nature proves deadly each year. The point is made most abundantly clear at the Kern, where signs keep a tally of drowning deaths. The latest count is 271 since the posts first appeared in 1968. Other park signage explicitly states the danger in two languages announcing “Deadly River” and “Rio Mortal.”
Going Inside the Sierra: SEKI’s Caves
Like Gold Country, the southern Sierra has a number of caves. SEKI has more than 200 marble caverns and hired its first cave specialist in 1992. Many of the caves have been extensively studied, mapped and restored to remove graffiti and mud obscuring cavern walls.
But only a few are open to the public.
Some are simply too delicate or dangerous, while others have been set aside for research purposes. (One such cave devoted to study is SEKI’s longest; Lilburn’s interior maze extends more than 17 miles). Others are still secret. In 2006, a group of amateur explorers found a huge one that goes more than 1,000 feet into the Earth. They decided to call it Ursa Minor for the bear skeleton they found inside.
Sequoia’s Crystal Cave is the most well-known and has been a popular attraction since 1941. It has rare cave formations like disc-shaped shields and multiple subterranean rooms. The largest is Marble Hall — 150 feet long, 60 feet wide and 60 feet tall. But it’s accessible only in summer and fall, and tickets have to be purchased in advance.
Moro Rock: The Hair-Raising Dome
It’s not quite the same as trekking up Half Dome’s cables in Yosemite, but the steep staircase up Sequoia’s Moro Rock — 400 steps in all that together are on the National Register of Historic Places — does take you to the top of a massive granite dome that offers views across the western portion of the park to the Great Western Divide.
But even from this lofty vantage point at nearly 7,000 feet, the sub-range obscures Mount Whitney. With peaks that rise above 13,000 feet, the Great Western Divide essentially gives the Sierra a double crest near its highest point.
Moro Rock also provided the setting for a famous 1975 photo in which two brothers stand smiling with hair standing on end before they were struck by lightning. (The hair-raising effect and tingling sensations are key precursors to a lightning strike.)
Why Lightning in the Mountains is Scary
While “being struck by lightning” is often used to equate something being against the odds, mountains are particularly dangerous places to be during a storm. Exposed areas make you more likely to attract a potential hit because bolts will seek out the highest object (a reason why tall buildings, mountains and the larger trees atop them tend to get more strikes).
Lightning has killed not only on Moro Rock (though the two brothers in the photo survived), but also on Mount Whitney, Yosemite’s Half Dome, on Grand Teton in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, Colorado’s Longs Peak, Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro (where explorer Ian McKeever was killed by a strike in 2013), and other famed mountains.
Angels Wings: Sequoia’s El Capitan
Though hikers can trudge up Mount Whitney using the Whitney Trail on its eastern side, climbers attacking that peak and others from within Sequoia need to be much more experienced. And committed — most popular climbing spots in SEKI require a day of backcountry hiking to reach them.
El Capitan is a Yosemite icon, but Sequoia has its own daunting sheer face. At 1,800 feet, Angels Wings is a bit more than half the height of El Capitan but has some of the toughest climbing in the Sierra. Located at the entrance of the Valhalla Cirque, it’s a 16-mile walk to the largest rock wall in the park.
And once the climb starts, multiple points rate 5th class on the Yosemite Decimal System that scores difficulty. The ratings don’t go any higher in full points after that, just decimal places.
The CCC Legacy in Sequoia
A popular photo stop at Sequoia is the wooden entrance sign at Ash Mountain. The carving of an Indian in profile was made by George Muno, a young man who had enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. He made it from a fallen sequoia, and it was installed in 1935.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the CCC in 1933 as one of the first initiatives in his New Deal program to provide jobs. The CCC focused on young men specifically and jobs in the outdoors that benefited the environment, meaning that most projects focused on parks and forests.
Enrollees from around the country planted billions of trees and came to be called the “Tree Army.” They also fought forest fires, repaired damaged grazing lands and built roads, trails and many structures to improve existing parks and create new ones. In Sequoia, the CCC also cut the tunnel in the fallen sequoia that is now Tunnel Log. When a giant tree fell cross Crescent Meadow Road, a CCC crew cut the tunnel that allows vehicles to pass through it.
Marmot Country: Check Under Your Hood
A bear sighting always generates a lot of excitement, and many park visitors (foolishly) spend time trying to feed deer and squirrels. But at higher Sierra elevations, there’s another furry creature that can give photo opportunities — and also create some expensive trouble.
Marmots, larger relatives to squirrels, LOVE salt, including sweaty clothes and boots. They also have a taste for radiator fluid and will crawl under a vehicle’s hood to get it. And if their meal doesn’t disable your ride then and there, they might hitchhike home with you.
It’s happened many times. A marmot that rode from Yosemite to San Francisco eluded capture for a time and caused enough of a stir during its two-week stay that somebody created a Twitter feed and posted the animal’s thoughts on its city vacation. Almost immediately after it was returned to its May Lake home, it jumped into another car.
A Lost Ranger: Randy Morgenson
The ones patrolling the remote reaches tend to favor more solitude, and their jobs can include checking conditions for far-off trails and facilities, rehabilitating campsites and cleaning up messes left behind by irresponsible visitors, checking for unauthorized trails, campsites and fires, offering guidance on how to enjoy the area with minimal impact, and search and rescue operations in the parks’ more wild environs.
In 1996, one of Kings Canyon’s most experienced backcountry rangers went missing.
Randy Morgenson lived his life in the mountains, growing up in the heart of Yosemite Valley because his father Dana Morgenson worked there. The elder Morgenson became a well-known Yosemite photographer and author who also guided popular camera walks with park visitors.
His son worked 28 seasons in Kings Canyon and had also spent time climbing in the Himalayas before he disappeared. It would take five years to find his body, a period in which there was much speculation about what happened to the man who had mountains in his blood. Some theorized that he had perhaps decided to simply disappear.
But when his remains were found, it was evident that he perished on the job, likely falling through a snowbridge, and reinforcing that even those who know mountains best can fall victim to their dangers. Morgenson’s story has inspired several articles as well as a book.
Another Sort of Park, For Big Cats, Not Trees
Off the Highway 180 approach to Kings Canyon lies Dunlap, which is home to a different sort of attraction than those offered by SEKI.
Its Cat Haven is a sanctuary for lions, jaguars, leopards and other big cats and made news in 2013 when one of its lions tragically killed a worker.
And There Was Nearly a Disney Resort at Mineral King
It’s funny to think of national parks and Disney resorts having shared history, but Walt Disney wanted to build a ski resort at Mineral King.
A little more than a decade before it became part of Sequoia, Walt Disney Enterprises had support from the US Forest Service to develop a complex called Sky Crown there. The year-round destination designed to mimic the look of the Swiss Alps was to offer skiing and many other family-friendly winter sports as well as theme park-style attractions. The animatronic revue Country Bear Jamboree was actually first planned for Mineral King.
But the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit to block Sky Crown. The battle over Walt Disney’s last resort vision would extend years beyond his death in 1966. The lawsuit dragged into the 1970s and sparked various protests, including a March on Disneyland itself. There were also various bills proposing that Mineral King become part of Sequoia National Park instead, but it didn’t become so formally until more than 10 years after the Disney resort was proposed.
Kenneth Rexroth: Another Writer Who Loved the Mountains
Though he didn’t consider himself a Beat, poet Kenneth Rexroth was a central figure and is described by some as the father of the movement for his earlier writings.
He introduced Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and was master of ceremonies at the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco where Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Phil Whalen read their works. That night proved a seminal moment in the Beat era. Fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in the audience, and he offered to publish Ginsberg’s Howl through his City Lights (which continues to be a famed San Francisco publisher and bookstore). When the poem sparked an obscenity trial, Rexroth sat in the witness stand.
Rexroth also inspired the Reinhold Cacoethes character in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, though it’s a rather unflattering literary honor.
Like Snyder and Kerouac, Rexroth had an affinity for the mountains and was especially fond of the Sierra — the backcountry in Sequoia and Kings Canyon in particular.
He spent many summers there and said it was where he did much of his writing. He wrote extensively about his Sierra sojourns, including many poems and an unpublished WPA guide to camping in the West. (Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration also launched a Federal Writers Project during the Depression to give work to literary types. More than 1,000 pamphlets and guidebooks covering every state resulted, though many are now out of print.)
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