Did you know that there’s an even deeper canyon in North America than the famed Grand Canyon? It lies in one of the California’s hidden gems, King’s Canyon National Park, which we visited last Veteran’s Day weekend (November 2011) as part of our quest to visit more national parks. This lesser known park filled with canyons and mountains was as equally spectacular as its neighbors, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.
We weren’t quite prepared for the 40-degree weather and snow early this time of the year though but it made for some scenic pictures of the largest trees on earth, the Sequoias, sprinkled with snow. Our kids were more than excited to play in the snow. They treasure these rare snow days having lived in sunny San Diego all their lives.
Fees which are $20 for seven days must be paid at a ranger kiosk in front of the Visitor’s center in Grant Grove Village. Though, we also timed our visit during one of the few weekends when admission was FREE. Check this site for specific dates in 2012 for free visits to National Parks. We’ve always bought souvenirs at gift shops or donate during visits and especially during the free admission days as the parks are underfunded and could use all the help they can get.
The visitor’s center was actually more than a place to get a map and get the kids’ Junior Ranger packet. We were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of interactive exhibits inside and a small theater. Movies about the park were available to watch at the theater with a simple request at the rangers’ desk.
Kids can see the different cones in the park, animal foot prints and a fun way to see how the canyons were created. We really liked the room with murals of the meadows covering the entire walls. It almost made us feel like we were outside. The rangers were helpful and friendly here too. So, don’t hesitate to ask any questions, including touristy ones like where the park sign is to pose for pictures. FYI, it’s about 20+ miles from there at the bottom of the canyon.
Before entering the main area of King’s Canyon park, we drove through a large region of Sequoia National Forest. The two-lane highway took us through some impressive vistas of the canyons and river. On some areas, the road was between rock walls and the cliff below. The steep, winding road can become somewhat unnerving but a great drive, nonetheless. If you’re prone to motion sickness, it may be a good idea to pop open that Dramamine. Thankfully our kids came out intact and clean from this drive.
Our favorite part of the drive is at the King’s Canyon Scenic Byway where it meanders side by side with the powerful Kings River at the bottom of the valley. The sounds of the river rushing and the beautiful fall colors of the leaves at the time of our visit was such a pleasant drive. It made the 36-mile drive to the end of the highway go by pretty quickly.
One of the great things about this drive despite the terrain was the large number of roadside turnouts. It was a welcome relief on a two lane highway and especially when kids needed to stop for some reason. (i.e. needing relief from motion sickness, forgotten snack in the trunk, leg stretches, etc.) Junction View was one of the best turnouts that offered a dramatic, panoramic view of the deep canyons and the mountain peaks. We got lucky and the sun was shining brightly and we were at eye level with the clouds.
This is off the highway on the way down to the valley. There were plenty of rocks to sit on to admire the picturesque setting around us of pine trees, the majestic mountains that seemed closer than ever and the snow-capped peaks. The deepest canyon in the North America is visible from here from the summit of Spanish Mountain down to the Kings River.
Attractions with kids
Grant Grove - This grove was only a mile from the village and our lodging. There were plenty of parking spaces here and we were greeted right away by the giant trees. Sequoia trees only grow naturally in the Sierra Nevada mountains between the 5,000 and 7,000 feet elevation mark and this was one of the 75 groves in the area. Pictures don’t do any justice to these majestic trees. They need to be seen in person to fully appreciate their size and immensity.
The half mile round trip loop trail took us to some of the biggest and oldest trees (2,000 to 3,000 years old) in the world. It was amazing to see how these trees have grown and withstood so much. Sequoias are actually resistant to insects and fungi and their thick bark insulates them from fires. Their downfall is usually caused by toppling due to a shallow root system. Our kids made up a game of who can spot the bigger tree along the trail. It was nice to see that they’re now old enough to entertain themselves.
We came across the Gamlin cabin in the middle of the groves. This was built in 1872 by Israel Gamlin, a Vermont homesteader, who along with his brother lived here for six years while grazing cattle. It was also used as storage by the U.S. cavalry who patrolled the park until 1913 and was later used as quarters of the first park ranger station here. Our kids were more fascinated with trying to read the various writings carved on the walls inside.
Do not miss The Fallen Monarch tree which allows visitors to pass through an actual hollowed out Sequoia. This tree has been here unchanged for over 100 years. Unfortunately, there were warnings of wasps nests and people getting stung at its roots when we were there.
We actually thought of running through it and just covering our ears and faces for the experience of walking through a giant, two thousand year old tree. Where else can you do this? But, the responsible parent won out over the adventurous parent. Plus, I had sudden visions of my kids with swollen faces so we decided not to risk it. This walk-through experience will have to wait for next time.
The trail’s highlight is the General Grant tree which is the third largest tree in the world at 267 feet tall and 107 feet around its widest base. This is officially considered to be “The Nation’s Christmas Tree”. The smell of pine with the fresh mountain air was so enticing here that my daughter happily turned to me and said it “smells like Christmas”. A special celebration is held here every year on Christmas morning.
We stood there in awe and felt even smaller in this land of giants. Little fun fact: It would take 20 people holding hands to form a circle around General Grant Tree’s base.
Grizzly Falls – We love waterfalls so we had to stop here. Despite its name, it was actually a small waterfall off the main highway. It’s probably a lot stronger than this during the Spring when the melted snow creates a powerful runoff. There was a short, unpaved trail from the parking lot where there were picnic benches and restroom facilities. We saw a couple of rainbows created by the mist of the waterfalls. It’s nice quick pit stop.
Roaring River Falls – This small but powerful waterfall was at the end of a half mile paved trail. The water appears from between the canyon walls. There were plenty of rocks to sit and admire the scenery. The river currents here were very strong with plenty of warning signs about going into the river. It was a lovely and peaceful spot to visit.
Zumwalt Meadow – For some, this meadow is one of the nicest areas in the park. While parking at the lot we were surrounded by huge granite domes (Grand Sentinel and North Dome) which reminded us a lot of Yosemite. We followed the 1.5 mile loop nature trail to Zumwalt Meadow which snaked around the river. We stopped along the way for the kids to skip rocks on the water – simple things these suburban kids can’t do back home.
The trail led us to a small suspension bridge which our son, who has a fascination with them, was more than happy to run back and forth through.
There was a boardwalk on the riverbed where the water here was somewhat murky. The meadow that greeted us did not look anything like the pictures we had seen at the visitor’s center. Okay, so a lot has to do with it being Fall and the picture was blooming with Spring wildflowers.
The meadow was filled with dry, golden overgrown plants. Our kids pointed out that some of the plants looked like corn dogs protruding. It still offered some striking views of the pine tree groves in the midst of the massive domes and mountains.
There was something rewarding about coming here during their off season. At times, we were the only car on the road and we had the trails to ourselves. It was a bit eerie but I would take this anytime over waiting for a group of people to pass on a narrow trail or be stuck on bumper to bumper traffic on the road. We were able to enjoy the sights and sounds without the crowds and fully appreciate everything about the park.
Boyden Cave – This cave was under the 2,000 foot high marble walls once we reached the canyon floor. There was a small gift shop here which also sold the tickets for the cave entrance. Walking tours for 45 minutes are available from April 31 - mid-November. We missed the tour and another one wasn’t available for another hour so we decided to skip it and file it for things we need to do on our return visit. We saw the tours climbing a steep hill to enter the cave. For the adventurous type, they’ve also introduced canyoneering and rappeling here.
Kings Canyon National Park with kids thoughts and tips:
- Visit this park along with Sequoia National Park nearby. They complement each other and are connected by a scenic highway. Annual passes for the two parks are available for $30.
- Oh Ranger! Park Finder Mobile app – Use this free app available for the iPhone or iPod Touch which is an invaluable source of information for activities at many national and state parks.
- Visit the Grant Grove Visitor Center for maps and trail information and to see which animals have been spotted in the park recently.
- Get the Junior Ranger packet for fun and educational activities for the kids and to keep them entertained during the drive down to the canyon floor. The kids get rewarded too after completing the activities.
- Stay in the park. The nearest town is Visalia outside of Sequoia and that is still a long drive. We stayed at one of the park’s lodgings and it was so convenient to be close to most of the attractions. It was awesome to wake up and see giant Sequoaias outside our window.
- Warning: No phone service. We lost cell phone reception once reaching the park’s general vicinity. Wi-fi was available at the lodge we stayed in. So, for emergencies, ask people to contact you via email. It was actually nice to be unplugged from the world for once though.
- Pack Food (lots of it). Bring plenty of water, drinks, snacks, sandwiches, etc. There was only one store open during our visit and understandably with huge mark-ups. We ate our dinners at the Grant Grove restaurant. Once you’re traveling down the canyon, there is a limited number of places to buy anything and no signs of vending machines either but there were plenty of spots along the river for a family picnic.
- Gas Up! We only saw one gas station by Hume Lake throughout the entire park and that was about 50 cents more than the price outside the park so fill up the tank before going in.
Have you ever visited this special park? If so, please share other tips and fun adventures you’ve had here.