If you only have 1-day in Sequoia National Park (and Kings Canyon!), here’s what I recommend seeing. Everything on this list can be accomplished in a day or under as part of a relatively quick stop on a California road trip. In fact, that’s the only way I’ve ever visited Sequoia National Park–driving up from Bakersfield, driving through along Generals Highway, and then exiting out towards Fresno.
We actually just returned from a weekend trip during which we did just that. We started at Death Valley National Park and then made our way to Sequoia National Park. In the past, we’ve done Sequoia National Park on the way to Yosemite National Park (it’s an easy diversion). The siren’s song of Yosemite always seems to pull me that way when in Northern California, so normally I spend the majority of time there.
On this weekend’s visit, we did not venture on to Yosemite, instead returning to Southern California via Los Angeles at night after spending the day in Sequoia National Park. I think doing Sequoia National Park as a side trip when visiting other spots on a California road trip is a great way to approach the park. With these tips, it’s easy to accomplish as a one-way diversion en route to other places…
Before we dig into the tips, let’s start with a little background on the park. Sequoia National Park is one of California’s many parks dedicated to cool trees. Early settlers in California must have had a fixation on trees and used some crazy science or dark arts to plant the seeds of what would become some of the most interesting and awe-inspiring trees in the world.
In addition to the giant sequoia and coastal redwood (and National Parks dedicated to them) the state also has Joshua tree, and a variety of other incredible aspens, palms, and other trees. I suppose the amazing ecological diversity of California is evident in the trees as much as the rest of its landscape.
Actually, Sequoia National Park is much more than the giant sequoias…that just happens to be the most iconic element of the park, and what most guests (myself included) focus on in the park. Beyond these giant trees, there’s a lot to see…
Kings Canyon National Park – Okay, so it might seem odd that the first thing to do in Sequoia National Park is…a different National Park, but this one is mostly for the sake of clarification. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are technically two different parks. Sequoia was granted National Park status first, in 1890, with a separate act of Congress for Kings Canyon in 1940. The two were consolidated in 1943 and have been under joint administration since. They have a single entrance fee and are directly adjacent to one another.
The average guest may not even realize they are traveling between the two (and Sequoia National Forest) if they miss the small sign while driving along Generals Highway. Aside from a small spur on the north side of Sequoia National Park, the vast majority of Kings Canyon National Park is backcountry that can be viewed from some scenic overlooks, but cannot be traversed via roads. As the more recognizable of the two, it’s easier to just refer to the parks as Sequoia National Park, although the National Park Service does view them as separate parks. (On the plus side, it’s an easy 2-for-1 if you are trying to visit as many National Parks as possible!
Enjoy the Drive – There are few drives in America that are as enjoyable as Generals Highway that runs through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. For me, it’s right up there with Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Pacific Coast Highway.
Since I’m a total dork, I like to make the drive a total sensory experience. If you roll down the windows, the crisp smell of the trees permeates the vehicle, and I like to add music befitting of the experience (here’s my soundtrack of choice). It’s cliche, but in Sequoia National Park, the journey is just as good as the destination.
Giant Forest Museum – If you’re coming from the south and want the full wow experience, make the Giant Forest Museum your first stop. This is because when you first get out of the car, you will really be hit be the size and smell of the sequoias all around the parking lot. Standing up the giant sequoias for the first time is one of the best National Park “wow” moments, and this is a great spot for that experience. (Additionally, I think The Sentinel Tree is one of the prettiest in Sequoia National Park.)
Second, it’s because this museum was designed to serve as the starting point for visits to the grove; Giant Forest Museum provides an opportunity to learn the story of the giant sequoias, and the unique ecology of the area and its trees. This informs your visit, and makes you appreciate the park even more. The exhibits are all engaging and interesting for adults, with some hands-on options for kids.
The General Sherman Tree – If you’ve ever needed an ego-check, all you need to do is stand under this tree. Walking through the path of giant sequoias that leads to the General Sherman, you feel small, and it has a way of putting things into perspective. General Sherman is the largest tree in the world (by volume), standing at 275 feet tall, over 36 feet in diameter at the base, and 52,508 cubic feet tall.
The General Sherman Tree is accessible off Generals Highway, and the hike to the tree varies. In the summer, parking is farther from the tree, making it a half-mile hike. In the winter, a closer parking area opens (which is reserved for handicap parking in the summer) and is a much shorter distance. There are a number of hikes around the General Sherman and in this immediate area, ranging from about a half-mile to 2 miles. I’ve done a few of these and the ones I’ve done are more “leisurely strolls” than they are hikes.
Hike the Forests – Speaking of hikes, doing one is highly recommended. There are trailheads all over the place along Generals Highway, and they range from wheelchair accessible, short hikes to much more strenuous and long ones. What all of these hikes have in common is that they are excellent ways for escaping the crowds and walking among the giants.
A lot of these easier hikes start from major parking areas and lead around the groves of sequoias. If this is all you’re able to do, that’s fine–they are really enjoyable. The downside, though, is that none of these really get you away from crowds. Instead, opt for something a bit longer and more challenging (especially if you’re visiting during a busier season when the park is overrun with people). I’ve found that even something slightly off the beaten path tends to have far fewer people. A great compromise option is The Big Trees Trail; it starts from Giant Forest Museum, but is off to the side a bit and seems to be less-noticed than the main trails. The loop is around 1.5 miles, and is a relatively easy hike.
Tree Tunnels – This one bears mentioning for what it is not as much as what it is. It is not a standing sequoia that you can drive through–that was Wawona Tree in Yosemite National Park, and it fell over in 1969. Yet, this was such an iconic (and apparently, enduring) image on postcards and in media for years that people still ask park rangers about it today. In fact, every visitor center or museum in Sequoia National Park has a sign up “answering” this frequently asked question, as does the Sequoia National Park website.
What the tree tunnels in Sequoia National Park are is fallen trees that have been tunneled out. While driving Crescent Meadow Road in the Giant Forest, you can pass through Tunnel Log, which is a man-made passageway through a tree estimated to be over 2,000 years old. The tree died of natural causes and fell across the road in 1937, and was turned into a visitor attraction in the summer of 1938. Alternatively, and much more fascinating, in my opinion, is Fallen Monarch, a sequoia the length of which you can walk through. When it fell is unknown, but it was far longer ago than the 1930s. It’s a cool experience, and the tree’s history is intriguing. It has been used by a variety of people as housing (and a hotel!) and later served as a stable for the U.S. Cavalry.
Marvel at Mountains – Located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks actually encompass a number of California’s–and America’s–tallest mountains. The highlight of these is Mount Whitney, which is the highest mountain in the contiguous 48 states with an elevation of 14,505 feet.
While you probably are not going to climb Mount Whitney, other options in Sequoia National Park are a bit more accessible. Chief among these is Moro Rock, which is a granite dome (it’s like a poor man’s Half Dome 😉 ) with 300 feet climb up that offers sweeping views above the tree-line.
Kings Canyon Visitor Center – If you’re entering from the Fresno side, this should be your first stop upon arrival. No matter which direction, it’s a worthwhile visit with a lot of information about the varied environments of the two National Parks, as well as a 15-minute film.
Personally, I think the visitor centers and museums are a fundamental aspect of any National Park visit, but that’s especially true with parks like these. Not only do they provide a basis for understanding the ecology of the parks, but they offer historical context. Sequoia National Park was the second National Park to be established, and has a rich history with notable figures such as John Muir, Colonel George W. Stewart, and many others. In some ways, the early history of Sequoia National Park also reflects the genesis of the National Park Service.
General Grant Grove – This is one of the last stops if you’re coming from the south (or first from the north), and it’s technically in Kings Canyon National Park. General Grant Tree Trail leads you to the second largest giant sequoia in the world, The General Grant Tree, which is the centerpiece of Grant Grove. President Calvin Coolidge designated the tree as the “Nation’s Christmas Tree” in 1926, which was arguably his crowning achievement as president (although that really isn’t saying much). Make sure to walk the trail around the backside of the tree to see its fire damage.
Grant Grove also contains a lot of other interesting sights, including the above-mentioned Fallen Monarch, Gamlin Cabin, and a few other noteworthy trees on a looping trail.
Have a Picnic – As is the case with many National Parks, the dining options in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are scant. There are a couple of overpriced restaurant/mess halls, but you’re far better off bringing your own meal and enjoying it at one of the many picnic areas that are located right off the side of Generals Highway. There are bear-proof trashes and picnic tables at these locations, and most have adequate parking.
This really just scratches the surface on what you can do in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, with all of this being aimed at a single day trip as part of a California road trip. If you have more time, you most definitely should try to camp in the parks (although scoring a campsite can be competitive) or stay in one of the gateway towns and make it a multi-day visit.
Another thing to note is that Sequoia National Park can get crowded, and it was not designed (remember, this was America’s second National Park after Yellowstone) to accommodate the levels of crowds it sees today. As such, if you visit on a holiday or during the summer, you might encounter significant congestion (and mandatory shuttle use due to insufficient parking). If at all possible, go during the fall, winter, or early spring. Not only is it worth it to see a snow-covered forest, but crowd levels will be a fraction of what they can be during the summer.
If you’re looking to spend a significant amount of time (say, 2+ days) in Sequoia National Park, I’d highly recommend picking up Lonely Planet Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, which also offers insight into those other parks (and is free for Kindle Prime members!). For a longer trip, you’ll definitely want something like that, which does more than just offers a handful of items that can be accomplished in 4-6 hours.
If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do.
Where are your favorite places and things to do in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks? Are you impressed by giant sequoias? Would you recommend spending more time here than just visiting as a diversion during a California road trip? Any questions? Share any thoughts you have in the comments!