The Canyon of Earthly Delights

Kings Canyon National Park

In 2009 we returned to California for a second helping of vacation. Our time spent along the Big Sur Coast had left us more than suitably impressed enough to go back for seconds.

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Our first visit to California had at least one member of the expedition staff ready to fly back by any means at their disposal

Brian especially wanted to see John Muir’s celebrated range of light, the Sierra Nevada. On our first trip, which had been in winter, we had barely glimpsed it…a white ghost of a mirage that shone through the eastward haze as we came up I-5 on our return leg.

As any outdoor lovers would be, we were also very keen to see that beloved jewel of the National Park System, Yosemeti. Brian had already been to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, plus Glacier (twice) and the Grand Canyon (three times), so Yosemeti remained as the only member of the ‘crown jewel’ national parks in the lower 48 that he had yet to see (excepting, perhaps, Mount Rainier.)

This would also be the last trip we would take as singles. In July of that year we were planning to get married. We wanted to do a larger wedding ceremony the following year so that all of Sylvia’s widely scattered family could attend, with an ‘official’ honeymoon to follow. The California trip would effectively become our ‘pre-honeymoon.’

(We would also do a post-pre honeymoon at Myrtle Beach but…But enough about that.)

Our original destination had in fact been Yosemeti; we had actually gone as far as to book some lodgings in the area. But as events unfolded, too many flaws appeared in the Yosemeti Plan. Reservations were needed for seemingly everything in the park, and we simply weren’t able get them for many of the things we wanted to do. Some were booked up, others were simply outside the constraints of our budget.

Just the very idea that everything had to be reserved so far in advance or left to chance as a ‘first come first serve’ option grated on Brian. Every other time he had visited a major National Park he’d made no reservations at all; he just showed up. His appetite for dealing with the hordes of people and the inarguable necessity of regulations in Yosemeti during peak season waned.

Since the ten year challenge seems to be the in thing, here’s the us of ten years ago just prior to the start of the trip. 

Another factor that influenced our decision was our visit to the Grand Canyon in March of that same year. This was Brian’s third visit to the celebrated gorge carved by the Colorado…but even so, he was completely stunned by the both size and the rudeness of the crowds on the South Rim. Two visits in the Autumn some years earlier had not prepared him for the onslaught. Even in those few intervening years, things had changed. The crowds greatly dampened the experience, leaving Brian determined not to let this happen again.

As we scratched our heads and did the research, an intriguing alternative began to attract our attention. Just to the South loomed another pair of parks, reputed to be great in their own right. This was the OTHER Canyon in the National Park System. No, not the Grand…and not Zion, either. We’re talking about Kings Canyon and it’s smaller but slightly more popular companion, Sequoia.

Since the herds were intent on flocking elsewhere…Why not go to King’s Canyon?

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Brian had longed to see the Sierra Nevada for himself

They had been on Brian’s radar for some time. Home to both the largest trees in the world and the largest mountain in the lower 48 states, the names are not household ones but the outdoor community knows them well. All our research seemed to indicate that Kings Canyon alone closely rivaled Yosemeti in most ways except for crowds. Camping and lodging would be FAR easier to secure in KC/SNP and fewer hikes there were restricted by quotas.*

(*Definitely true at the time and still mostly true today, Many back country trips in Kings Canyon are now subject to restrictions and quotas in peak season, but it is still FAR easier to show up and hike here than it is in Yosemeti.)

We visited the park just as peak season was getting underway — between the last weekend in June in Fourth of July weekend. The crowds steadily increased as the Independence Day weekend approached but were never insufferable. Much of that time was spent in the Canyon itself, based out of one of the campgrounds along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway — AKA California Route 180, the lone road into the canyon.

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That is a big pine cone.

The road terminates at the appropriately named Road’s End, beyond which is only the vast, undeveloped wilderness made famous by the writings of John Muir. (Muir supposedly called Kings Canyon “A yet Grander valley” than Yosemeti.)

No east-west road passes through the park to the other side. In fact, as astonishing as it seems, there is still to this day NO road of any sorts that cuts across the Sierra Nevada between Tioga Pass in Yosemeti and well South of Kings canyon, a distance of almost 200 miles. Forever may it stay this way.

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“…A yet Grander Valley…”

During that week we paid a visit to the Grant Grove, where we did horseback riding; then the Giant Forest in Sequoia NP, to gaze at the General Sherman Tree; hiked out of Road’s end to Mist Falls, at the mouth of the Paradise Valley; and hiked right out of our campground through high meadows to the upper edge of the canyon itself. We also did tons of sightseeing along the Parks main road and visited more than a fair share of cascades and waterfalls, among the most impressive we have ever seen.

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To say that we were impressed with King’s Canyon – and the astonishing King River – would be an understatement. And we were equally staggered by the aptly named Giant Forest.

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The incredible King River itself was worth visiting the Canyon for.

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Visiting the Park

Sylvia and I flew into San Francisco, rented a car and drove directly to KC/SNP from the airport. The park is technically a little closer to LA, but the driving distance from either is roughly the same. The fact that SF is one of our favorite cities proved the decisive factor.

It’s about three and a half hours to the park on a good day. Note that when Brian returned a few years later, he did NOT have a good day. The traffic south of the Bay Area was MUCH worse; repeated delays lengthened the drive to well over five hours, causing us to arrive well after dark. The drive into the canyon is obviously much less scenic, as well as much more stressful, in darkness. Keep that in mind when you travel and leave yourself plenty of daylight.

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Alcatraz appears in this, one of Brian’s famously awful ‘shrunk’ poses.
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San Francisco has our seal of approval. (Yeah, I know it’s a sea lion.)

(Note that it is also possible to fly into the smaller Fresno airport, which is perhaps 75 minutes away, but it’s generally harder and pricier to get flights into there. We’re not sure how many people use that option, but we never have.)

The drive into King’s Canyon ranks as one of the most memorable experiences of Brian’s life, right up there with seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time or his first close up glimpse of the snowbound peak of Salkantay emerging from the clouds like a singular wall of light. From the first sequoia tree through the first jaw dropping lookout, down into the canyon and alongside the incredible King River thundering with snow melt, it was just a garden of earthly delights, one after the other.

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Our first glimpse if the Canyon from the upper edges along the road. The view looking straight toward the Monarch Divide.

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Approaching the parks from the east, one reaches a road fork south of the Town of Wilsonia, where 180 turns north, while Rte. 198 goes south and east to Sequoia NP. Most tourists go South into smaller but more car friendly Sequoia to see the celebrated trees that give the park its name. Fewer take the north fork to King’s Canyon.

Needless to say, we went North.

Almost everyone who does opt for King Canyon stops at the developed area around Grant Grove. In fact, many people don’t go any further than that, and boy, do they miss out. After the obligatory stop for snacks and a rest stop, it was onward to the canyon floor…another thirty miles hence…that we were bound.

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Grant Grove. Even the parking lot at the visitor center is something to see.
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Part of the winding road into the canyon. Attempt this in daytime if possible.

I simply cannot say enough of the experience of merely getting here.

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John Muir called the Sierra Nevada, with its extraordinary amount of brilliant exposed granite wreathed by ubiquitous pines, the “Range of Light.”

We spent most of our time in the park – six days out of seven – camped out in Sentinal Campground, the second to last of the four campgrounds on the valley floor as one goes eastward toward Road’s End.(One of them, I think Moraine, was closed, and another is for group camping.) We spent one night, I think the last one, in the nearby Cedar Grove Lodge (Brian felt compelled to give Sylvia something after enduring so many days in a tent, especially as she was suffering from neck and shoulder pain at the time. Thanks Love!)

For six days we dwelt among the pines.

From here we explored the park. Bear in mind that in takes an entire hour to drive from Cedar Grove/Sentinal back along the snaking road to Grant Grove. We did that drive a number of times on this visit, and did not regret it at all. We wanted to see as much of the canyon as we could!

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Brian tries never to overshadow his wife but, being taller…

Next up: Giant Adventures

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