Have you walked among the giant sequoias? It’s always been a wish of mine, to wander among some of the world’s biggest trees. I’ve always admired big trees. I just moved into a house that is on a city park and my office windows face a soccer field that’s dotted with a few old growth trees. Trees with gnarled limbs and bark. Tree limbs that must span a hundred or more feet across. Trees that beg to be climbed with perches to rest on.
Seeing the sequoias has always been on my bucket list. I thought I would get up to Redwood National Forest actually first, but luck would have it that I found myself outside of LA.
While a lot of people save up vacation time or have enough to take a week and spend it inside a park, that’s not really what fits my life right now. I had two and a half days. With such a short time available, is it really worth it to try and cram as much of the park as possible into a list? After my visit, I would definitely say yes.
I spent two and a half days of exploring, camping and looking up in awe at trees that are over 2000 years old. Trees that have had generations of families and native Americans gather around them. Time marches on, but these giants stand tall. But visiting Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon is so much more than just visiting the giant sequoia groves. And you can pack a lot into a couple days.
The first day was traveling into the park and setting up camp. I left about mid morning because I knew the drive would be close to six hours and I wanted to be able to get to my campsite with plenty of daylight time.
Driving in from Visalia and heading through Three Rivers, you’re going through a lot of foothills. And believe me, I was anxiously anticipating the moment when I would finally see the tall trees.
I have to say the highway past Potwisha Campground was super curvy. Actually if you have a vehicle over 22 feet long or with trailers, it’s not recommended that you use the road from . And once you drive it you’ll figure out why.
But as you crawl out of the foothills, you’ll begin to anticipate what’s to come.
Once I got to the Sequoia Park Boundary I picked up my map, entering through the Ash Mountain entrance . Make sure you take care of it because I had heard that to conserve resources, only one per car is given. It’s likely you won’t have cell service in the park, or will only get service in specific areas. However, there is complimentary wifi at the first visitor center you get which is the Foothills visitor center.
Besides a photo op of the National Park Sign, you might want to check in and ask questions. And for those people who want to visit Crystal Cave and didn’t get your tickets online – which is highly recommended – you can find out if there are spots open.
When you drive through Generals Highway, there’s this turn where all of a sudden you’re there – among the Giants. It’s the say out loud, “stop the car, I need to get out and walk among them”. And then you realize, it’s just me on this trip.
Luckily there are pull offs along Generals Highway for people to get out and marvel at the ancient trees. To crane your neck and look up. And up. To wander on over 40 feet of trails in sequoia groves and see trees that are well over 200 feet tall and twenty feet or more at the base – like the worlds largest tree by volume. The General Sherman Tree.
But I drove past the turnouts for some of the most famous tourist spots for visitors – like Moro Rock, Tunnel Log, the Giant Forest Museum and General Sherman Tree. I was trying to make it to my campground to set up my tent and get situated before it was too late in the day.
I decided to stay my first night at Lodgepole Campground. It’s a great base for exploring the Giant Forest area of the park. It’s also pretty crowded. It’s like a small city. Over 200 campsites with full facilities such as a camp store, post office and even showers and laundry. However, I lucked out and secured this semi-private site where I truly did feel that I was on the edge of the wilderness. Also some great trails can be accessed from the location.
Setting up my tent was actually not so bad. If you listened to my Tips for Solo Camping episode, I go into more detail about the camping experience – including prepping for it.
After getting set up, I decided to head to the Sherman Tree Trail. This trail leads to the largest tree in the world by volume – The General Sherman Tree. While many people make a beeline to the General Sherman Tree and then head out, I’m going to give you a couple reasons to branch out a bit. First, the trail is paved and it’s a half mile down to the trail. However there’s lots of exhibits along the way that explain the natural history of the giant sequoias. Since the walk back to the car is all uphill, you might want to save some of that for breaking up your return. A quick tip. If you’re looking for a more serene route to the trail, use the Lodgepole Sherman Tree trail that you can get from the Lodgepole campground. It’s travels 2.8 miles from the trailhead to the Giant Forest and you’ll definitely have more solitude for part of the journey. On the Sherman Tree Trail, there’s definitely more to see than just the General Sherman Tree.
One of my favorites was the Tough Twins with fire damage at the base of the trees. One thing to also think about is acclimating to the elevation. This trail is at 7000 feet. I decided to leave the crowds behind and explore the adjoining Congress Trail which is also a paved loop. It’s a pretty quiet trail overall. And if you’re like me and seek out solitude in nature – I definitely look for any ways to get away from the crowds. And you’ll find that even in a busy park like Sequoia, there are ways to do this.
After this, I went back to camp and decided to scout out a couple of the trailheads that are located centrally at Lodgepole campground. There’s Twin Lakes and Topokah Falls trails. Twin lakes is about 7 miles one way hike and Topokah Falls about 2 miles one way. Given that I wanted to have some opportunity to explore a few other places the next day, I settled on Topokah Falls. I lingered for a moment at the beautiful Marble Fork Kaweah River at golden hour and then walked back to my campsite to settle in for the night. I planned for an early wake up, to hit the trailhead right at the morning light.
I didn’t sleep too well. At 7000 feet, it was pretty chilly. But I slept in my hat, base layers and even my puffy. It was my first time ever camping on my own. Morning was coffee and oatmeal with a few snacks in my backpack for along the way.
I realized that even with a lack of good sleep, I felt more well rested than I had in a very long time. There weren’t many other campers stirring at 6 in the morning, but I loved the idea of having the trail to myself on this crisp June morning in the Sierra Nevada.
A little bit about Topokah Falls. So the trailhead sign says it’s a 1.7 mile trek one way. Online I’ve read that it’s 4.2 mile roundtrip. My Garmin InReach Mini tracked close to 5. Topokah Falls is actually the tallest waterfall in Sequoia National Park at 1200 feet. But it’s not a free falling waterfall, it’s a series of cascades.
The trail follows the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River for a bit. You’ll see some campsites along the other side. The trail goes through a forest of tall pines and some pretty meadows. There were gorgeous pink wildflowers that carpet the floor of the forest. And the river flows over large rocks and boulders. A little less than half hour into the trail, the Watchtower Peak rises up over 1600 feet above the valley and it’s a striking view. I have links to my photo album in the show notes. Prepare for some small stream crossings and before you get to the Falls, you’ll exit the woods and come into an exposed and jagged boulder filled section of the trail which leads up to near the base of the falls. You’ll also commonly see marmots along this section of the trail. There’s close to 600 feet of elevation gain through the hike.
During Spring and early Summer, there will be a lot more water flow than later in the year.
There’s a huge contrast between the huge sequoias that I just visited the night before and this trail. But the glacier carved granite canyon, alpine meadows and pine woods. It actually gave me a taste of what was yet to come in Kings Canyon.
While this isn’t as busy as General Sherman Tree trail, this is a very busy trail since its not too difficult.
I enjoyed the views and solitude. It’s an Out and Back trail, so I headed back to camp to break down my tent and hit the Generals Highway to find my way to Kings Canyon. Actually to the very end of Kings Canyon National Park.
The drive to Kings Canyon from Lodgepole will take you first into Sequoia National Forest, then into Kings Canyon, back into the National Forest and then into Kings Canyon again. Along the way there are vistas, beautiful meadows, trails and campgrounds and a whole bunch of change in elevation. On my agenda for the day was checking out Grant Grove Village and the General Grant Tree. It took me a couple of hours to get to General Grant grove where the third largest tree is.
The trail itself is less than a mile and unlike the General Sherman Trail, there’s little change in elevation. Take note to pick up a trail guide for a buck fifty at the trailhead. It will lead you through a guided hike with information on fifteen numbered stops. What’s pretty cool about this hike is that you actually get to walk through a Fallen Monarch. Be sure to take the entire loop around The General Grant Tree so you can see the fire scars. Also as part of this trail you can view a reconstructed cabin originally built in 1872 by the Gamlin family. I think the most poignant part of the hike was viewing the Centennial Stump which was cut and a 16 foot section reconstructed for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Another cool feature of the trail is the Twin Sisters where two trees are fused together. This trail isn’t difficult but it is popular. Prepare to be among the crowds.
The drive from Grant Grove village to Sentinal Campground had to be one of the most beautiful and scenic I have ever been on. It took me an hour and a half to get back to the Kings Canyon National Park border and signage, dropping over 3000 elevation along the way.
The mighty South Fork of the Kings River is one of the most awe inspiring and powerful rivers I have seen. Sheer cliffs and jagged mountains rising up, made this a jaw dropping drive and a little nerve wracking. Keep your eye on the road. You might just see a mule deer and also have to avoid some fallen rocks – like I did. I made a few stops for photos but finally got to Sentinal Campground a bit after 4. Camping here was definitely not as private as the Lodgepole site, but nonetheless a decent spot.
After setting up camp, which I might add was getting quicker for me, I decided to head down to Zumwalt Meadow. I found that when I went to the trailhead, an alternate route was suggested. Because half of the loop trail was closed due to flooding. A sign instructed me to go to Roads End and take the River Trail to the red bridge and turn right then follow the river downstream and at the loop junction keep left for some great views. And then turn around when you hit water. Even more so than Topekah Falls, I truly felt that I was in the wild. While the trailhead was packed, I found out those cars were likely for Roads End – where you can go to Mist Falls and also get backcountry permits.
For much of my hike, I was alone – maybe seeing less than a dozen others. And the views were absolutely incredible. Strewn boulders, rocky outcrops and rising granite all around. And then a gorgeous meadow right smack in the middle. I finally came to the Trail closed sign and turned around, still taking my time to marvel at the views of the Sierra front country. The hike itself was around 2 and a half miles and took me less than 90 minutes – with a lot of stops for photos and taking in the view. The skies were strikingly blue that day and it was gorgeous weather. This is a pretty easy hike except for some rocky parts – watch your footing.
I decided after to do another drive from Cedar Grove area to Grants Grove – to get some cell service and a few souvenirs. Along the way I pulled off at Grizzly Falls. Grizzly Falls has a little picnic area and a very short walk to the falls. If you come during peak snow melt, you’re going to have a thunderous wall of water and mist coming off of it. It was pretty spectacular.
The mist was refreshing and cool on my skin and a nice spot to take a break before the long drive through the canyon and into Grant Grove Village. Following the South Fork of Kings River for a ways, there are a couple of spots along the river to pull off and camp in the national forest. On my way out, I stopped for a photo with the Kings Canyon National Park sign.
The next morning I was up early and ready to hit a trail. I stopped to marvel at Horseshoe bend. There are numerous pull offs along Kings Canyon byway. I rarely saw many others on the road. The Kings Canyon section of the park is much less populated than Sequoia. So if being away from the crowds is important to you, you’ll want to focus your time on this area of the parks.
Take some time to read the placards and informational signage along the pullouts where you can learn more about the geology of how Kings Canyon was formed. Also you’ll see some beautiful wildflowers hugging the roadside and even sprouting from the cliffside walls of rock.
I decided to do another short hike to Buena Vista Peak. There were just a couple other cars at the trailhead when I arrived around 9am. Buena Vista Trail is a two mile out and back and gives you incredible panoramic views from the summit.
The short hike through a mixed conifer forest is not too difficult and rewards you with views of Redwood Canyon, Sierra crest summits and Kings Canyon high country. Wildflowers are abundant. Vibrant hues of pink and orange dotted the way as I rose from lush green to granite summit. After a little break at the summit to have a snack and appreciate the solitude of having it to myself, I came back to the car and then drove out of Kings Canyon and back to Sequoia National Park…and the crowds.
A couple hours later and I was in the very crowded vicinity of the Giant Forest Museum. From that location though. You can drive up to Crescent Meadow though a narrow paved Crescent Meadow road that also takes you to Moro Rock. Along the way, I stopped at the Auto Log which fell in 1917 and was a tourist attraction where cars drove on it. It’s not safe for cars now, but you can walk along it. However, this afternoon my destination was Crescent Meadow which John Muir once called a Gem of the Sierras. Crescent Meadow is also the starting point for the High Sierra Trail, a route from the Giant Forest to Mount Whitney and one of the most striking backcountry trails in the country. The trail was built between 1928 and 1932, and joins the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails along the way. If you want to hike the High Sierra trail and do an overnight, you’ll need to get a wilderness permit.
So at that point I took a photo of the trail marker and made a mental note that this trail is going on my hiking bucket list.
I meandered along the trail circling Crescent Meadow, Log Meadow and also made a stop at Tharp’s Log. Tharp’s log was a fallen sequoia that became a home to Hale Tharp. You can peer into it and see the table, bed and the rest of his living quarters. As you make your way through the forest, there are plenty of giant sequoias to explore – including the hollowed out Chimney Tree. Crescent Meadow itself isn’t open to hikers, but you can sit along the edge and take in the lush green grasses. You can also do a longer 5 mile round trip hike from the Crescent Meadow Trailhead to the General Sherman Tree.
After leaving, I decided to definitely do the tourist thing and drive my car through the Tunnel Log.
A tunnel was cut through a fallen sequoia in 1937 and I got to admit I felt the glee of a little kid going through it.
And by mid afternoon, I was leaving Sequoia National Park and headed back to Los Angeles. A little wistful, a little tired from trying to pack so much into so little time but a good tired. After all, this had been my first time seeing a giant sequoia and my first time camping solo. While I didn’t get to do long mileage hikes, I got a taste of both parks and truly enjoyed my experiences. I also made some mental notes of what I wanted to explore on my next visit. Sequoia and Kings Canyon, I will be back and hopefully my boots will be on the High Sierra Trail next year.
Thanks for reading about my experiences. Have you walked through the Giant Forest or laughed like a kid driving through the Tunnel log? What did you enjoy about these two national parks? Drop me a comment about your own adventure.