Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are two of California’s best National Parks and happen to lie side by side. In 2017, we decided to take a family road trip over Memorial Day weekend that started in California’s San Francisco Bay Area and included Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley Valley National Park, and the back side of the Sierra’s up to Mammoth, a popular ski resort area. What fun!
In our case, we had been to all of these National Parks before and had planned the trip last minute enough that accommodations inside the park were all booked up. So, we planned our road trip around a full day inside a particular park with overnights partway between our next destination. We really like driving, so this was a good strategy for us, but it definitely isn’t for everyone. The important thing when planning a trip is to know yourself, and particularly know the things that make you and the rest of your family tick!
Since we had the 4th Grade National Park Pass through one of our kids, entry was free to all National Parks, and we did not need to worry about how long we stayed to get full value out of the entrance tickets. If you have a 4th grader in the house, take advantage of this wonderful opportunity and visit as many National Parks as you can!
The disadvantage of staying outside the park meant that if we wanted enough time to see both Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park, we would have to stay an hour or so away, and then drive back in the next day. This was not our idea of fun and we were running short on time, so we decided that since we had spent some time in Sequoia National Park the previous year, this time around we would focus on Kings Canyon.
Getting To Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park is in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, about 4 hours away from either Los Angeles or San Francisco. If you are going to take a road trip to either of these parks, there are a ton of options to see some other really neat areas of California.
In our case, we decided to add Death Valley and the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. We considered also driving through the Lake Tahoe area as well, but we had been there recently and decided to skip it.
If you want to spend a few days at the park and stay inside the park, you will probably need to book accommodations/camping somewhat in advance. Having failed to do this and if you are willing to drive an hour or more each way every day, there are quite a few other options. Coming from the Bay Area (north) side, Fresno has inexpensive hotels, but though isn’t super close. Simply look for towns that are close to either the Big Stump entrance of Kings Canyon National Park, or the Ash Mountain entrance of Sequoia National Park.
Since we were planning on heading out of the San Francisco Bay Area after work, on the way to Kings Canyon we decided to get a hotel on the far side of Fresno for our first night. This was close enough to give us the ability to leave the Bay Area after work without exhausting ourselves, get the kids to bed at a reasonable time so they wouldn’t be cranky the next day, stay in a place with a lot of choices for reasonably priced hotels, and left us with only an hour drive to the Big Stump entrance of Kings Canyon National Park in the morning.
After spending most of the day in the Kings Canyon, we wanted to end the day close to Death Valley National Park, so by late afternoon, we wrapped things up and headed towards the Ash Mountain entrance of Sequoia National Park, then started out for Ridgecrest, about a 3.5 hour drive away. If you have more time for your road trip, or know that you won’t have energy for a drive like this after a full day of exploring, consider staying either closer to the park, or near Bakersfield, which is only 2 hours from the Ash Mountain entrance of Sequoia National Park. In our case, we pulled into Ridgecrest about 8:30pm, which is about as late as we like to arrive with kids in tow.
What We Did
There are a ton of options for what to do! The first time we visited this area in 2016, we focused on Sequoia National Park, but also touched a little on Kings Canyon. This time around we decided to head a little further into the park and see the best of Kings Canyon National Park, and then do a quick drive through Sequoia National Park on our way out. With only one day, we could only scratch the surface, but we made the most of it!
We managed to get an early start (important for California’s most popular National Parks), but after lots of driving in the morning and the evening before, we knew the kids needed something to delight the senses. Since it was one of the both closest and busiest parts of the park, we decided to start with the General Grant Tree Trail. Popular parts of the park can fill up fast, so if you want to avoid the need for the shuttle, get an early start and don’t move your car until you must.
When the kids spotted the Fallen Monarch, they couldn’t believe that they could stand upright inside the fallen trunk! Even more impressive was that Jeremy had plenty of room as well!
We then made our way to the General Grant tree, which at 267 feet tall and almost 29 feet wide, is the second largest tree in the world! If you want to see the largest, all you need to do is continue into Sequoia National Park and find the General Sherman tree. Note that parking is even more difficult at General Sherman, so start there if it is a must on your itinerary.
The main walk is only 1/3 of a mile, but there are plenty of other walks to do in this area. Since we were worried about giving up our parking spot, we decided to stick with the North Grove Loop (1.5 miles) in addition to the General Grant Tree Trail (0.3 miles). The walk was beautiful!
And now you get the real reason we added this National Park to our itinerary. We had visited this park the year before and one of our kids decided to use his allowance to buy a stuffed fox, but the other had already used his allowance money and didn’t have enough money to buy an identical one. After a full year of their constant bickering, we NEEDED to stop by the visitor center shop and buy another one! To our delight, they had one in stock! Problem solved!
Cedar Grove Area – Waterfalls and Hiking
From here, we decided to head towards the Cedar Grove area, which has a beautiful river and plenty of easy hiking trails. It is a less visited part of the park, so we found parking to be quite easy.
The main part of our itinerary was to drive along the South Fork of Kings River and do some waterfall spotting, stopping for whatever hikes caught our eye. The Grizzly Falls are in the Sequoia National Forest (separate from Sequoia National Park) part of the drive, and the Roaring River Falls are in Kings Canyon. In 2017, California had a particularly lush spring, so the waterfalls and plants in late May looked amazing.
At some point we stopped for a picnic lunch and took a short hike.
Cedar Grove Area – Zumwalt Meadow
Our next stop was Zumwalt Meadow, which ended up being much more fun than we expected! Who knew we would need to take our shoes off and wade through frigid water? The boys were delighted!
Unfortunately, it appears like this flooding got a lot worse in 2019, and this path may be no longer accessible. Check out the Cedar Grove trail suggestions for updates on the flood levels, repairs to the trail, and accessibility.
Our Last Hike
By this point, we were happy with how our day had gone, and decided to head out of Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park, and towards Death Valley. On the way, we made some quick road-side stops if there was parking, or simply snapped pictures from the car if there wasn’t.
To our (expected) disappointment, there was no parking available at the General Sherman Tree area. There is a shuttle from the overflow lot. But given that we’d already seen General Sherman well the previous year, we thought about it and decided that we were happy with what we’d seen for the day. We had 3.5+ hours of driving in front of us, so we proceeded to the Ash Mountain Entrance, and said goodbye. After leaving the park, there’s a nice stop for ice cream near Three Rivers that our boys really like.
What a great start to our California family road trip!