Everyone knows Yosemite, at least by reputation, but far fewer people know the national park just to its south, Kings Canyon. It forms the northern part of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park, and even within this two-park system, Sequoia overshadows the other due to its world-famous, enormous trees. Adding to the obscurity, there is essentially one road into and out of Kings Canyon, California State Road 180, and it is a dead end. Most of Kings Canyon is wilderness and it attracts a more nature-loving and back country crowd than Yosemite.
For a great map of the two parks, go here.
Many of the best camping sites in Kings Canyon are first-come-first-served and aren’t reservable. That makes this park less interesting to tourists who plan their vacations down to the hour…not the kind of people we want to hang with, anyway. We like Sheep Creek, near the Cedar Grove Ranger Station, for its great sites, tall pines that provide wonderful shade on a hot day, and proximity to the South Fork Kings River, the main waterway of the park. If this one fills up, the rangers open more sites in nearby campsites, so don’t worry too much. Our method is to arrive when the sites become available at 11am, and try to avoid Friday and Saturday arrivals, as you’ll be competing with more of the public. The sites are $18 per night, with a maximum of six people per site (though no one is counting too closely). There is a small convenience store in Cedar Grove only a half mile away that makes any last-minute shopping expensive but easy. One thing to remember…there is no reliable gas supply in Kings Canyon, so fill your tank in Squaw Valley on the way up from Fresno. Last piece of advice…no matter how much the map makes other routes into the Canyon look shorter, stay on Route 99 until the exit for Yosemite, then take the 180 exit shortly after. You’ll be very glad you did and won’t have sick passengers.
Day 1 – Easy access fun
The biggest single attraction for people camping in Kings Canyon (or staying at the Cedar Grove Lodge) is Muir Rock and “The Beach”. These two sites are adjacent to each other and are a very short trail (100 m) from the parking lot at Road’s End, which is, simply put, the end of the road that passes through the canyon. Generations of people have been jumping from the rock into the Kings River, and generations have urged the more timid to make the leap into the fast, cold current. Just below the rock, the water is crystal clear and deep enough for diving or the more typical feet-first leap. The Beach, just up river, is the perfect vantage point to watch the action.
Day 2 – Mist Falls
The hike that is required of anyone spending time in Kings Canyon is Mist Falls. It is a 8.1 km (4.9 miles) hike that starts in the same parking lot as The Beach and Muir Rock. While the distance many seem large to some, a great portion of the hike is on relatively flat ground and isn’t too challenging. The views approaching the Falls are well worth the hike and there is a large, flat area that provides a remarkable view of a rock formation to the west known as The Sphinx. Even without the Falls just a little further ahead, this view is one of the best in the Sierras. From this spot, the hike to Mist Falls is less than thirty minutes. The most important things to remember about this trip are that the first three miles can be hot later in the day so leave early and bring plenty of water and mosquito repellent. There is just one section on the trail where the annoying insects are laying in wait for unprotected hikers. Save your lunch for the Falls, and find a great spot that isn’t too close, as mist falls continually and you’ll want to keep your sandwiches dry.
One of the best aspects of each hike we took from Roads End (up next, Days 3 and 4), is that Muir Rock and The Beach await the end of each adventure. Rather than getting into your car, take the short walk and wade or jump into the river to clean up and cool off. We were fortunate and had friends waiting with snacks and drinks to make the perfect end to our hikes.
Up next, Day 3 of Four perfect days in Kings Canyon – Roads End to Sphinx Creek.