The mountains, trees and nature: just a few of my favorite things to put me in my ultimate happy place. Sure, I love the beach and the cityscape too, but there aren’t many better feelings than being tucked away in the midst of the forested mountains with no cell service, completely beside yourself with nature.
In 1890, one of the most perfect nature sanctuaries, Sequoia National Park, was established after local residents urged Congress to protect their land. Exactly 50 years later, the National Park Service added Kings Canyon to that list and both have been managed jointly since WWII.
Most times, visitors opt for the more popular neighbor to the north, Yosemite, but Sequoia & Kings Canyon are no doubt a close competitor to the surrounding parks.
Here’s a 1 Day Driving Guide to See it All in Sequoia & Kings Canyon:
Use this driving map to follow the route I’ll be taking you on through the park!
For the route through Sequoia National Park: Use CA 198, or Generals Highway (yellow), until you enter the Sequoia National Forest.
For the route through Sequoia National Forest: Use CA 198 until you “T” up to CA 180. There are 2 different route options for Sequoia National Forest, depending on what you want to see. More explained below.
For the route through Kings Canyon National Park: Use CA 180 or Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
5 AM: Wake Up
Start your morning off early to get a head start on the day. We stayed the night at a campground in Woodlake, CA and made it to Munchie’s Coffee by 5:15 am for a cappuccino and a breakfast sandwich.
6 AM: Entrance to the Park
In the summertime, these National Parks fill up with tourists from all over so it’s best to get inside and ahead of traffic since most roads are only 1 lane. If you’re beginning near Three Rivers, CA, the drive to the entrance of Sequoia will take about 15 minutes.
Before heading into Sequoia National Park on CA 198, Generals Highway, decide whether or not you’d like to take the time to go down the highest road in Sequoia at 7800 feet (Blue route on the map). Mineral King is closed from October 31 to late May but it’s definitely the path to take if you’re looking for some more in-depth hiking. After 10-15 miles once you’ve turned off of CA 198, you’ll reach the Lookout Point Entrance to pay a small fee to continue on the road.
If you want to learn more about what to do in Mineral King, click here.
Check out the current rates for entrance to the parks here, but a single vehicle pass is usually around $35 which is paid at the Foothills Visitor Center. As soon as you enter Sequoia, the Generals Highway begins climbing, supplying you with some amazing views of the surrounding Sierra Nevadas. If there are fires in the area like there were on our visit, the visibility won’t be the best but it’s still beautiful!
First Stop: Tunnel Rock
After coming through the gates of Sequoia in about a mile and a half you’ll notice a turn out on the right side of the road with this enormous boulder to the left. Safely cross the road to get over to the Tunnel Rock. Before the highway was widened in 1997, this was the only route to get through to the Giant Forest. Even though it’s closed to vehicles today, you can still check it out up close.
Other Things to See & Do in the Foothills:
Marble Falls Trail, Hospital Rock, and Paradise Creek. Read more here.
7 AM: Drive to the Giant Forest
Although it’s only about 15 miles from the Foothills to the Giant Forest Museum where you’ll be stopping next, it takes about 45 minutes by car. Generals Highway zig-zags you at a steep incline around lush trees and cliffside bluffs. Take the time to pull off at the turnouts to catch the various views you get around each turn.
8 AM: Arrive at the Giant Forest Museum
You’ll know instantly once you’ve entered the Giant Forest because the trees become more prominent and the smell of fresh pine floats through the air. I couldn’t help but reminisce back on the Black Forest in Germany while coming through this area because I could hardly tell the sun was even shining due to the massive Sequoias blocking the sky.
- Park at the Giant Forest Museum and utilize the shuttle services to get around. There are small parking lots based at each different sight in the Giant Forest but parking is very limited with only about 10-15 spots.
- The parking lot at the Giant Forest Museum fills up completely at around 9 or 10 AM so arrive early!
- This is about the only place you’ll be able to park in this area as pull-outs and parking lots are very limited.
- Place all food in the bins provided while you are away from your vehicle to prevent black bears from breaking in.
- Bring your park map with you while you utilize the shuttle services in case you want to do some hiking.
Before getting on the shuttle, walk around the area to check out the enormous Sequoia trees. You’ll be blown away by how small you feel next to these amazing things! The Giant Forest Museum is open daily from 9 am – 6 pm where exhibits on Sequoias can be viewed or souvenirs can be purchased.
Big Trees Trail
Another suggestion before hopping on the shuttle is to check out this easy 2/3 mile paved loop trail complete with exhibits about the giant Sequoias. The trailhead can be accessed at the Giant Forest Museum and should take around an hour to complete.
9 AM – 12 PM: Exploring by Shuttle
You’ll see the shuttle stop on the south side of the Giant Forest Museum. Hop on it to take you to your first stop:
One of my favorite parts of Sequoia is Moro Rock. This steep stairway trail has over 400 steps and climbs 300 feet in 1/4 of a mile. It can also get incredibly narrow at some points. We passed many people retreating back before completing the hike because it was a little more difficult than anticipated (I was out of breath in an instant!) Be sure to prepare accordingly!
If you do make it to the top, you won’t be disappointed by the unbelievable views of the Sierra Nevadas.
After completing your hike at Moro Rock, wait at the stop at the bottom of the trailhead for the next shuttle to go to Crescent Meadow. If you feel like hiking, it’s only a couple of miles away and multiple trails around Moro Rock lead you in that direction.
Crescent Meadow is of the most fragile wetlands in Sequoia. It has multiple trails leading to various parts of the park. Take a 1 mile hike to Tharp’s Log, a cabin that was built into a fallen Sequoia tree; or, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, take a few days to hike on the High Sierra Trail, ending 60 miles later at the highest mountain in the lower 48 states: Mount Whitney. If you just want to walk around the meadow itself, be sure to stay on the trails or use fallen logs to climb on top of because the wetlands are so delicate that the traipsing of people can ruin the vegetation here.
An iconic thing to see in Sequoia is the Tunnel Log. It’s the only tree you can drive through in this park and, like the Tunnel Rock in the foothills, it used to be the only option of a road to get through to Crescent Meadow.
Unfortunately, the shuttle that takes you from Moro Rock to Crescent Meadow bypasses the Tunnel Log but you can hike the 0.7 miles back to it from the Crescent Meadow. Simply backtrack down the road from the parking lot at Crescent Meadow until you make it here. To catch the shuttle back to the Giant Forest Museum, wait here at Crescent Meadow.
How much time you spend in Crescent Meadow is really up to you. There’s various options of trails to take that could take up an hour of your time or multiple days.
If you do park here at Crescent Meadow & decide to hike in, take all food out of your vehicle and utilize the food storage bins to ensure that the black bears don’t get ahold of any!
Crystal Cave Tour
While we didn’t have the opportunity to do this tour, I hear it’s one of a kind. Hike the steep 1/2 mile trail to the cave where you’ll discover the chambers decorated with stunning formations, rare minerals, unique animals and a marbled stream. The highest temperature in the cave is 50 degrees so remember to bring a jacket!
Tours for the Crystal Cave operate from May 25 – August 26. Tickets can be purchased online here 48 hours in advance or first thing in the morning on the day of at the Lodgepole or Foothills Visitor Center.
12 PM: Drive & Hike to the General Sherman Tree
After those few hours of exploring, drive the 2.2 miles on CA 198 to the entrance of the General Sherman Tree. Handicap parking is available at the base of where the tree is with the other parking lots based near the Wolverton Visitor Center. Simply take a right on the road after you see signs for the General Sherman Tree. The first road you can turn right on after that can sometimes be packed full of cars so continue on north until you make it to a gravel parking lot at the Wolverton Visitor Center.
Although the General Sherman Tree is only about a mile and a half hike from here, you pretty much have to make your own trail and it treks through a wetland (uhhh, snakes!) Stand by the bus stop to catch the shuttle.
The General Sherman Tree
The General Sherman Tree is possibly the most famous part of Sequoia National Park. While the tree only stands at 274.9 feet tall, the volume of the base is 52,500 cubic feet, making it the largest tree in the world. It’s estimated to be about 2000 years old and, interestingly, the top of the tree is dead but the base continues to grow in size.
The shuttle service will drop you at the beginning of the trailhead for the General Sherman Tree. The main trail is 1/2 mile down with some stairs but plan accordingly as the hike back is straight uphill.
1:30 PM – 3 PM: Sequoia National Forest
There aren’t many other places to explore around this area unless you’d like to do some random hikes or stop for a picnic. If you continue on CA 198, you’re met at the Kings Canyon visitor center near Grant Grove Village. No worries, you don’t have to pay an entrance fee again!
If you want to see the General Grant Grove area, follow the Generals Highway until you’re met with a fork in the road, taking a right on CA 180 (Red route on the map).
If you wish to forego this part, skip on down past this to Hume Lake.
Grant Grove Village
Need a snack? Take a break at the market, open daily from 7 am – 9 pm, or stop in at the new restaurant, open from 7 am – 10 pm. There’s also the John Muir Lodge for accommodations and a gift shop open from 8 am – 9 pm to purchase souvenirs.
Giant Tree Trail
The Giant Tree trailhead is located a mile away from the Grant Grove visitor center. Continue north on CA 180 and follow the signs left to find it. Hike the 1/3 mile paved trail that visits one of the world’s five largest living trees that was named our Nation’s Christmas Tree by President Coolidge.
North Grove Loop Trail
Enjoy a quick mile and a half hike through the Big Trees and the quiet forest.
Panoramic Point Road & Park Ridge Trail
Take the narrow Panoramic Point Road to the 4 mile trail with a gorgeous viewpoint of the Sierra Nevada peaks.
Big Stump Basin
The stumps that decorate this meadow date back to the logging days in the 19th century. Hike the easy 1.5 miles in to climb the steps up to see the growth rings in the stumps, including the Mark Twain stump. Massive pieces of this tree can be seen in museums in NYC and London.
Instead of taking CA 198 to CA 180, turn right onto the Hume Lake road near Quail Flat (Yellow route on the map). This was the route we took and it had some of the best views! Hume Lake is a rare, historic dam that used to supply water to a flume that floated lumber 67 miles away.
3 PM – 5 PM: Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
Although I loved Sequoia, Kings Canyon took the cake for me; the Scenic Byway is unbelievable around every corner.
Be sure to check road conditions here before heading out on your adventure. The Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is only open for a little less than half of the year and many other road closures throughout these parks come about often due to construction, natural disasters and weather.
It’s important to note that CA 180 is an out and back road. Starting at the Hume Junction Gate, head east on the road. It is about 30 miles and, if you drive it straight through to the end, you’ll get there in about 45 minutes but, that obviously doesn’t include getting out for some hikes or some pictures. I’d say 4 hours is a good chunk of time to see all there is to see in Kings Canyon, although more in-depth hiking trails are available to make a lengthier stay out of the area.
Stopping at Pull-Offs
I’m not kidding when I say that the views of Kings Canyon change around every turn. You’ll find yourself constantly stopping to pull off the side of the road to breathe in the sights & snap some pics.
Convict Flat & Boyden Cavern
An awesome area on the scenic byway in Kings Canyon is near Convict Flat. This is when the scenery of Kings Canyon really begins to take hold as the one lane road hugs the edge of the bluffs while constantly twisting around the peaks. There is a pull-off near the Convict Flat campground; stop and look to the southeast to see a waterfall that drips from hundreds of feet above.
Boyden Cave is also located near Convict Flat and is a unique adventure to your Kings Canyon itinerary. Take the 45 minute guided tour beneath the 2,000-foot high marble walls of Kings Gate and explore the various formations in this amazing cavern.
5 PM – 7 PM: Kings Canyon National Park
Once you pass by the Cedar Grove Overlook, you’ve officially made it into Kings Canyon National Park.
As stated before, this road ultimately ends at the Roads End Permit Station so you will be coming back the same way you went in. There are hundreds of miles of trails that begin here in Kings Canyon and many other things to see.
Located a mile east of the Cedar Grove Village is this U shaped canyon that reveals the glacial history of Kings Canyon.
A California businessman began storing his fishing gear in this small cabin in the 1920s. It still stands today on the edge of a cliffside overlooking the canyon. The pullout for the cabin is on the north side of the road. Begin looking for signs about two miles in from the Cedar Grove Village.
Roaring River Falls
Another mile to the east you’ll come upon the Roaring River Falls, a waterfall that rushes through a granite chute.
My favorite part of Kings Canyon was the Zumwalt Meadow. It’s an easy 1.5 mile loop trail that takes you on a bridge over the Kings River then winds you through lush meadows and high granite walls of the surrounding peaks.
Be sure not to step off of the footpath here as the meadow is very fragile. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some wildlife! I was really on the lookout for a black bear the entire time but sadly, we never seen one. We did witness some lizards, deer and silver squirrels!
Mist Falls at Road’s End
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, hike the 9 mile round-trip trail from Road’s End to Mist Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in these National Parks.
After coming to Road’s End, you’ve reached the end of your journey! Simply turn back around and head back the way you came, exiting the park from CA 180.
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