After (finally) leaving Death Valley, I headed north for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: adjacent sister parks. The maps they give you at the visitor’s center include both parks, and you will find that much of the memorabilia in the gift stores are tandem. For example, there are not separate Sequoia and Kings Canyon bumper stickers — instead, you can get a sticker with the abbreviation “SEKI” to represent both of them.
I would recommend taking at least three days to explore both parks and allow time for some good hikes. Together, they make a medium sized park area, and driving from place to place takes time. There is only one main road, and it is winding and slow.
Here are five highlights (in chronological order) from my SEKI adventure:
1. Sequoia National Forest
There is a third entity at play here that doesn’t receive its fair share of recognition. The sister parks are surrounded on all sides by national forests, including the Sequoia National Forest to the south and southwest. You also drive through a section of the national forest when traveling in between the two national parks.
Approaching Sequoia National Park from the south through the national forest was one of the most memorable drives I’ve ever been on. As I transitioned from the desert landscape of Death Valley into the mountains, there was an interesting section where clusters of Joshua trees intermingled with pine trees while I gained elevation.
As I wound my way up into the Sierras, I passed through many quaint mountain towns ranging in population from 50 to 300, and they made me long for my own little log cabin hidden away in the woods. I drove along Sierra Way, which turned into Mountain Highway 99, which turned into M-90, and then connects with CA 190.
There are a whole slew of free campsites available through the national forest along Sierra Way and Mountain Highway 99, although many of them were closed for the winter. I was so enthralled by the scenery that I stopped earlier than I had planned to stay overnight next to the scenic Kern River in a quiet campground with only a few other campers.
I would love to find an excuse to repeat this drive in the future.
2. Generals Highway
This is the main road inside the two parks. Much like the drive through Sequoia National Forest, it is a winding and scenic drive, and it must be taken slowly. The road is narrow and sharp turns are almost constant. You will be sharing the road with RVs, delivery trucks, construction crews, and other large vehicles. In addition, there is an abundance of wildlife to watch out for. Taking this road too fast could be fatal for you or someone else, and even a small incident could lock up the road for other travelers.
That said: the drive is immensely enjoyable, if not somewhat nerve-wracking. When coming into the parks, stop at a visitor’s center and ask about road closings. Rockslides and flooding are common. While I was visiting, there were a few sections of one-lane traffic on Generals Highway as workers cleared flooding debris after two days of rain.
3. General Sherman tree
Sequoia National Park is named after the focus of its parkdom: the giant sequoia trees. Simply called “Big Trees” by John Muir, these behemoths are the largest trees on earth and the largest living things by volume. Many of the particularly big ones in the park are named after American generals. “Generals Highway” is, in turn, named after these trees.
Perhaps the most popular attraction in the two parks, General Sherman is the largest known living tree in the world. There are other trees that are taller, wider, and older, but the General has the greatest wood volume. Before the plague of axes swept across North America, hungry for the grandest of giants, there existed sequoias that were even bigger than General Sherman. The General’s kind, Sequoiadendron giganteum, is endangered, making the National Park Service’s role in protecting them all the more important.
The trail around General Sherman’s trunk is lined with fencing and signs imploring visitors to stay on the trail. Despite their size, the sequoias have shallow root systems. Their strategy is to reach far for water, rather than deep. This makes their roots sensitive to trampling and erosion. While it may be tempting to score a photo of you hugging the big ol’ guy, it’s important to keep the preservation of these trees in mind.
The trail to General Sherman is crowded and includes plenty of less-than-courteous visitors, but a trip to Sequoia without seeing the General would be remiss. I needed to take a vertical panorama (I didn’t even know my phone could do that!) to get a complete photo of the General from top to bottom.
4. Buck Rock Lookout
I stayed at Buck Rock Campground in the stretch of national forest in between the two parks. If you continue along the forest road where the campground is located, you will climb up to 8,500 feet and find Buck Rock Lookout and a firetower. From this vantage point you will see sweeping 360 views of the Sierra Mountains and the nearby valleys and canyons. Often, the clouds dip into the valleys, giving you the sensation that you are above the heavens.
The firetower was closed for the season when I arrived, but you can still climb about halfway up the stairs before you encounter a blockade.
Keep in mind that Forest Service roads are often rough and unmaintained. Four-wheel drive is helpful but not necessary to make the climb up to Buck Rock Lookout. Take it slow and get out to clear debris off the road before driving over it. Make sure you have a spare tire on hand and the knowledge of how to change a flat tire on your vehicle. There is barely any cell service in this region and your chances of being able to call for help are slim.
5. Kings Canyon
I believe that Kings Canyon takes the cake for the most breathtaking and scenic drive I have ever been on. In my opinion, Kings Canyon is even grander than Yosemite Valley, and you will feel like you have the place to yourself, in stark contrast to Yosemite’s overcrowding.
I found the diversity of Kings Canyon refreshing. No two cliffs are the same, and the peaks and domes take on a variety of shapes. As I descended into the canyon, I was enamored with the strings of clouds curling around the Canyon’s domes. Grizzly Falls in the national forest section and Roaring River Falls in the national park section are accessible via short and easy trails that would be manageable for most everyone.
Kings Canyon National Park may feel small if you’re only exploring it from the road in a fast-moving vehicle. But there is an entire section past the “Road’s End” that is only accessible by backcountry hiking, requiring a permit. I look forward to returning to this park in the future to explore its hidden and lesser-known wonders on foot.
A final note: Please adhere to park rules and treat wildlife with respect!
Treating wildlife with respect means leaving animals alone. Before visiting these two parks, educate yourself about how to camp in bear country. Bears who get their paws on human food are never the same, and often become nuisances that the National Park Service is forced to eradicate. Do not be responsible for the death of black bears. Use the bear boxes provided in park campgrounds, and if you are camping beyond national park boundaries like I did, know how to hang your food in trees or rent bear canisters from the visitor’s center. I used a combination of tree hangs and bear canisters while I stayed at Buck Rock Campground. Leaving food in a locked vehicle is not adequate — you will only end up with smashed windows and a bear in your car.