TJ: Last weekend we ventured to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, one of the last national parks we had left to visit in California.
Dara: It was also our first planned backpacking trip, as our overnight in Joshua Tree wasn’t exactly what we had initially wanted to do…
TJ: And even this trip had an auspicious start…
Dara: We had a collective heart attack the Friday before we left when TJ finally read the fine print of our reservation and found out that our backpacking permit needed to be picked up before 9am or it would be given away (unless we asked for late pickup, which we hadn’t).
So we got up at 6:30am Saturday morning, zoomed off at 7am (not that we would have gotten there in time – Sequoia/Kings Canyon is about a 4 hour drive from LA), and immediately called the permit office when it opened at 8am.
They didn’t pick up the first time I called, which was terrifying because I assumed that meant they already had a line out of the door when they opened and were super busy this weekend. So I left a semi-frantic voicemail and called again 5 minutes later.
We connected with them that time, and they guy kind of chuckled when we said why were calling because he had just listened to the voicemail. It turns out that the 9am rule does not apply on summer weekends (a fact that is not written anywhere in the confirmation of on their website).
Our permit was for a part of the park called Redwood Canyon, so we headed off to the nearest visitor center to there – the Kings Canyon visitor center – to pick it up.
A side note: Sequoia and Kings Canyon are right next to each other and share an official National Parks Map. We’ve yet to figure out why they aren’t just one park.
Permits are easy to get but in high demand so make sure to plan very far ahead, especially for popular trails. Sequoia is not in as high of demand as say, Yosemite, but permits do sell out.
To get a permit, simply call or email following the instructions found here – you can check trail availability here and can find descriptions of said trails here. It’s $20 for a permit, and $30 for the park entrance fee (these fees vary slightly depending on the park and the trail).
Because we left so early, we had a lot of extra time after getting our permits, so we relaxed and had a nice sit-down early lunch at the newly renovated Grant Grove Restaurant. The prices were about equal to what they’d be in LA, and as Dara will tell you over and over again, the bacon was amazing.
Next we went to General Grant Grove – a grove of enormous trees close to Kings Canyon centered around the spectacular General Grant tree – the second largest tree in the world.
It’s hard to overestimate how big these trees are. Much like the Grand Canyon, you have to see it to understand. General Grant’s circumference is 107ft and it’s 260ft tall. Plus, it’s surrounded by trees in the grove which are all almost just as big. It feels like you’ve been shrunk two sizes.
As we learned, Giant Sequoias are nearly indestructible. Their bark is unusually fire resistant so they rarely die in forest fires. In fact, they rely on forest fires to open and spread the seeds from their pinecones. Not only are they the largest living things on earth – they are also some of the oldest. General Grant is over 1,600 years old, and the oldest Giant Sequoia is over 3,500 years old. That puts it at middle-age when Jesus was born.
With our extra time, we also decided to drive over to the Road’s End at Kings Canyon – winding down the hour or so drive to the bottom of this incredible valley. There are several great stops along the way – among them, Grizzly Falls, and Hume Lake.
Road’s End itself is not much to see. Instead, we’d recommend getting out and walking along the valley floor, in the meadows and trails, where you can look up at the very cool cliffs.
We were about 3 minutes into looking at cliffs until TJ realized that he couldn’t find one of his camera lenses. We had thought he lost it somewhere at Grizzly Falls so we rushed back there… only to realize that the lens had rolled under a seat in the car.
Whoops! haha. Still, the valley is beautiful. Much like Yosemite Valley, it’s lined with huge granite cliffs and waterfalls. Its gems are more hidden – and include many beautiful lakes in the high-up areas that we didn’t have the time to visit.
One cool thing we did get to do on the way back to the trail where we’d be camping out for the night was to get gas from one of the world’s oldest double-gravity gas pumps. I’ve never even thought about what gas pumps used to look like and how they worked so it was cool. Probably not the best for the engine but it was fun.
When it came to backpacking, we had packed up everything before we arrived, so once we got to the trailhead we were ready to rumble. Check out our Joshua Tree and Yosemite posts for a rundown of all our supplies, and if you’re new to camping you should also check out this list from REI if you do go camping. It’s super important to be prepared for the worst when you’re spending a night out in the wild so always always always over-prepare.
We picked a beginner/intermediate trail for our hike that could get us to some great views. Hiking the incline sucked but it was worth it!
We hiked just a couple of miles down the trail and found a fantastic spot on top of a ridge, overlooking Redwood Canyon on one side, and Fresno on the other.
It was incredibly beautiful and very isolated. Only 4 other people had permits for the vast area we were in, so we were basically alone in the wilderness.
We set up camp, had a few snacks, then watched the sunset over the mountains from a rocky perch above our tent. Post-sunset we cooked dinner on our camping stove (ramen!), hung up all of our food/cosmetics products to protect from bears, and then went to bed early cause we were exhausted.
Though of course we spent a bit of time before bed looking at the stars, which are plentiful in the dark sky at the park. It’s always one of my favorite things to do when we’re out camping, and I never ceased to be amazed by space.
The next day we took our time in getting up to leave – I woke up at 7 and walked around taking photos around camp in the morning light, while Dara slept in. We made our typical oatmeal breakfast that morning because oatmeal is great for camping. In general, anything that’s ‘just add water’ is perfect camping food.
After relaxing for a bit, we packed up our camp and headed back down the trail to the car. It was the farthest I’ve ever hiked (on an incline!) with that much weight on my back, so I felt like that deserved a celebratory selfie.
The rest of that day, we focused on southern part of Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park that day, with our first stop at the famous General Sherman tree.
General Sherman is much more famous than General Grant, as it’s officially the largest living thing on earth. It’s not the tallest, it’s not the widest, but it has the biggest mass, and it is spectacular. (See: our amazed faces on the featured photo)
It’s also the busiest area of the park – there’s a large parking lot from which you can hike half a mile, or take a shuttle to the tree. We recommend the walk.
Then our last stop before heading home was the Giant Forest Museum – a very fun, interactive, and informative look at the forest. It has cool size comparisons between the trees and things like dinosaurs and the Statue of Liberty and other exhibits on forest fires and the wildlife that lives in and around the trees.
There are two other main stops to try that we didn’t have time for: Morro Rock, which reportedly has a great view over Sequoia National Park, and the Tunnel Tree – a nearby tunnel through a fallen tree which you can drive through! It’s not the huge, famous one that recently fell, but it still looks cool.
Overall the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks were incredible to visit and the trees are a must-see. For an awe-inspiring weekend, we definitely recommend you try backpacking with the Giant Sequoias.
COST REPORT: $$*
PARK ENTRANCE FEE: $30
CAMPING PERMIT FEE: $20
GAS FROM LA: $25
ESTIMATED FOOD: $40
*excluding backpacking equipment, if applicable.