If there’s one thing California does not lack, it’s national parks. From north to south these protected wilderness areas and vast expanses of varying terrain dot the California map, ranging from bubbling fumaroles to deserts to snow-capped mountains and giving it reigning status of the having most national parks of all 50 states.
A goal of mine is to visit all 59 National Parks in America in my lifetime. I have a deep appreciation for those who had the foresight in the early 20th century to make protecting these areas of the country a priority. (Teddy Roosevelt, despite being an avid hunter, created 5 national parks and 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon). The National Park Service is celebrating 100 years of conservation and outdoors recreation this year — no better time to #FindYourPark.
I recently visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, two adjacent national parks, connected by Sequoia National Forest with Kings Canyon to the north.
Sequoia: I drove directly south from San Francisco to Sequoia and booked a hotel room in Tulare, CA, about an hour and 15 min away from the park.
Pro-tip: when driving at a steep incline for extended periods of time, it's best to make sure your car will actually make it. Being not-at-all a pro, I made the error of not filling up my gas tank before entering the park (no gas stations anywhere inside). As I watched each hairpin turn up the mountain shave off several miles to go until empty, I pleaded to my Nissan Altima rental car, please, please just let me make it to the Sequoia Grove and I’ll turn right around and coast down with no air conditioning or music. (Turning around to fill up was not an option as entering and exiting the park takes at least an hour, depending on how well you handle twisting mountain roads).
Rookie mistake aside, my afternoon in Sequoia was successful (and luckily without any embarrasing car mishaps). The scene changes dramatically as you drive into the park. Before you know it, the dry, amber California plains disappear behind a curtain of deep green leaves and solid brown trunks. Sequoia is home to General Sherman, the world’s largest living tree by volume as well as many sequoia groves. The tree canopies make the air cool and crisp. While walking through the groves, I craned my neck countless times, imagining the point of view from the top as tourists wandered around me with selfies sticks, struggling to encompass the height of the trees in the picture frame.
Sequoias are known for being some of the oldest trees on the planet — here you stroll amongst living organisms who have stood in the same spot for centuries.
Places to see in Sequoia:
+Giant Forest Grove (this is where General Sherman, named after William T. Sherman, stands at 275 ft)
+Giant Sequoia Museum
+Crystal Cave (closed during the winter)
Kings Canyon: I woke up the next morning and drove straight to Kings Canyon National Park (FILLED UP MY GAS TANK), and arrived just as the ranger station was opening up. After stocking up on coffee and snacks for the day, I strolled through Grant Grove, enjoying the cool morning air, stumbling upon a family of deer grazing and chatting with a fellow park-goer.
I decided to drive the length of Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and pull off at sights along the way. There are endless view opportunities along this route and I found it difficult to stop myself from pulling over at every sweeping panorama. The park was surprisingly empty — at several points I was completely alone, passing a car only every few miles.
I drove all the way to Roads End Permit Station, where hikers and campers are issued backcountry permits. I walked around a bit, observing everyone getting prepared for overnight stays in the woods or day long hikes (this was the most people I had seen all day). At the visitor center, a Santa-Claus doppelgänger park ranger had told me to stand on the same rock John Muir used to give informal talks to those he invited to see Kings Canyon in the early 20th century (truly living up to his nickname “John of the Mountains"). Here I explored then headed to Zumwalt Meadow for a short hike.
Places to see in Kings Canyon:
+Convict Flat (for the best neutral color palette you’ll ever find in nature)
+Roaring River Falls - A calming little oasis and my favorite spot in both parks.
+Zumwalt Meadow: A short hike along Kings River and across an old steel bridge takes you to a grassy meadow, sandwiched between looming granite mountains.
Kings Canyon is apparently known for its many bear sightings and I was surprised at how many bear warnings there were posted around the park (as well as this highly dramatic river drowning sign). No bear sightings occurred for me, but this seems like the place to do it!
I love this collection of National Park guides from Huckberry. Not every national park is listed but I enjoy browsing and getting inspired for my next park visit (and retro National Parks gear is always fun).