I am in no way an expert on Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Preston and I spent one day sight-seeing during our crazy road trip Labor Day weekend. But I had an awesome trip there, saw the highlights, and have some thoughts to share. Okay, a lot of thoughts. This is a LONG one.
The Friday before Labor Day, Preston and I drove down to Kings Canyon when I got off work. Many of the campsites are first-come-first-serve. We thought about winging it and seeing when we could get there and deciding where we wanted to camp after looking around awhile. BUT we’re both kind of obsessive about things like that and decided just to make a reservation to calm ourselves. (Plus, our departure time was completely up in the air. My office lets off early on Fridays, but we never know when… usually between 3-5 but before holiday weekends it has been as early as noon. We just find out sometime during the workday Friday. And I decided not to take any vacation time that day because I have very little left 😉 )
We got a reservation Friday night and that turned out to be a miracle. It was so crowded for the holiday weekend that (1) we could NOT get a reservation anywhere in either park for Saturday night; and (2) if we had driven in ANY time Friday, we probably would not have gotten a first-come-first-serve site. We met some folks who had to enter a lottery for the last couple first-come sites on THURSDAY.
Just by sheer coincidence, Preston’s coworker was planning to go to Sequoia that weekend too. He and his wife planned to grab a first-come site on Friday and made reservations on Saturday for a lodge. Sadly, they wound up unable to make it and we decided to splurge and take their lodge reservation for Saturday night. Naturally we were disappointed to lose good company, but it could not have worked out any better if we’d known how things would turn out. WOW.
Moral of the story on lodging: If you plan to go during a holiday weekend, I HIGHLY recommend doing whatever possible to get a reservation lined up for somewhere to stay. Or go probably mid-week before the weekend and snagging a campsite for the duration of your stay.
Sunset Campground, Kings Canyon: Our Friday night digs. This campground was actually ENORMOUS. There were over 100 sites, in pretty clearly marked loops. We honestly didn’t spend much time at all here, which was a bummer. I didn’t get off work early at all, so we pulled in after dark and left fairly quickly in the morning. But our site was killer. It looked like most of them were nicely separated by at least a few trees and/or large rocks, which is always a plus. Our site went back pretty far and backed into a little cluster of rocks and trees and the top of the rock cluster had an awesome view.
Wuksachi Lodge, Sequoia: Our lodging Saturday night. As far as the room itself, nothing special at all. Boring decor and it felt weirdly muggy. But it had super hot water, a comfy bed, a spectacular restaurant, a shuttle stop for easy touring, and really nice staff. And we walked WAY more than planned on Saturday, so it was incredibly nice to have a bed and shower to come “home” to in the evening.
This little foodie was actually really happy with our dining options in the parks. We didn’t pack any food and just winged it as we went. Mostly that worked really well since we had good options, but since we rolled in so late Friday night we were starving for breakfast by the time we packed up camp and hit the road Saturday morning. Luckily, about 3 minutes after pulling out of the campground we found the Kings Canyon Visitor Center (the one in Grant Grove) next to a store and fantastic food truck with REALLY good breakfast burritos. And I hate breakfast burritos. They’re also in the process of building a nicer restaurant there. I stopped in the market and got a few granola bars, trail mix, and pringles for snacks. They didn’t have many healthy options, but they had at least a few. I even noticed Suja juices!
BUT I didn’t take any pictures 🙁
Lodgepole Market Center, Sequoia: A great place to stop for food as there are lots of options. I had pizza that was actually EXCELLENT. And they had trouble cutting the slices apart, so just gave me two that were stuck together for the price of one. So… winning. It’s convenient because it’s right on the shuttle line.
The Peaks Restaurant, sequoia: The restaurant at our lodge. SO GOOD. It was much pricier than we would normally pay while on a camping trip, but we planned to have two splurge-worthy meals on our trip and given the crazy walking we did during the day, we had no qualms whatsoever about going all out. The food was incredible. Preston had broccoli soup, a pork chop, potatoes, and veggies and loved it. I had a salad and linguine pomodoro and it was spectacular. (I’d heard the fish was great and planned to get it, but in the moment pasta made my mouth water, so it had to happen.) Preston’s potatoes were unbelievably flavorful… it was kind of crazy. They had to be baked (or maybe boiled first???) in huge amounts of salt or something. Unbelievable.
Ahhhh, the whole point of the trip. I didn’t really know exactly what I expected to see in these parks and didn’t do any research at all before going (so unlike me…) but DANG was I impressed. I knew the trees would be huge, but it’s different to see them in person (and I didn’t actually know they are the biggest trees in the world!)
We lucked out and talked to a ranger right away Saturday morning in the visitor’s center at Kings Canyon. She asked us how long we had, what kind of car we drove, and if we had anything picked out already. And then she mapped out our whole day for us so we could see the highlights. We only had Saturday and maybe a bit of Sunday morning, which is certainly enough to see the biggest highlights. But there’s so much you can do there, you could probably fill a whole week.
General Grant: Our first stop to see the sights was super impressive. General Grant is the second largest tree in the world, in a pretty small cluster that’s STELLAR. There’s a hollowed out fallen tree you walk through, which is really impressive. Loved it.
Kings Canyon: Alright, not to knock Kings Canyon, but now that I’ve seen what both parks have to offer, I’d probably go visit General Grant and skip most of the “sights” in Kings Canyon and just head to Sequoia. I loved our wooded and beautiful campground, and General Grant (and seriously, the breakfast burritos.) But the canyon? Not really my thing, and kind of a bore. Then again, I realized big time during this whole trip that I’m more of a forest kind of gal. Give me lush scenery over rocks and dry stuff any day. So maybe in the spring when everything’s green, I would have liked it better. But on a one day trip? Skip the canyon.
General Sherman: The biggest tree in the world. COOL. (and BIGGEST = WIDEST. The tallest trees in the world are in Redwood National Park.) I wouldn’t skip the tree that owns the label of biggest tree in the world. Trees make me beyond happy and that felt really cool to see. BUT I have a couple “complaints”: 1. it really looked to me and Preston like General Grant was bigger. Of course we are totally wrong, but my point is that once we’re talking about trees of this size they’re ALL amazing to see, so I don’t really care so much which one is labeled as #1 versus the next few down the list… though I’m clearly an outlier with that thought, given the crowds we saw. 2. There were SO MANY PEOPLE there! OH my gosh! I expected a lot of people, yes. But I didn’t expect that many. Apparently it was mostly because of the holiday weekend, but considering there was NOBODY at the second or third largest trees, this seemed ridiculous. (There were a few people at General Grant, but we literally didn’t see a soul at the third largest tree… it’s not like he’s some unimpressive puny guy!)
And I’m turning into a crotchety old lady because my patience for the disruption of my personal space, obnoxious kids, people REPEATEDLY climbing over fences and having rangers yell at them to get back to the paths and them NOT LISTENING, and the selfie sticks (OH, the selfie sticks!) really got to me.
Like I said, I wouldn’t skip the tree that’s labeled as the biggest one in the world, but I was more than happy with a quick walk around, a speedy picture, and then taking off and spending my time with the equally impressive 3rd largest tree (“The President”) that is a very short walk away, and the GIANT FOREST of all the other amazingly impressive trees that were basically empty.
Giant Forest: If I were to make recommendations for people going on a weekend as crowded as the one I went on, my biggest recommendation would be to head to General Sherman, give him a quick hello, and then take off on the Congress Trail and Alta Trail and take some easy hikes around that area. To me, that’s what I was really hoping to see while I was there. This was not a hiking crowd at the park (there’s a great shuttle system) so the trails were empty, beautiful, and so much fun. Oh, and they’re fairly flat. LOVED this part. Pictures above of the trees and clusters of them with labels are all from this part of the park. It was stellar.
The Shuttles: | Preston and I planned to be lazy (for once!) this trip and take shuttles in lieu of hiking. Partly because we just wanted a chill trip, and partly because we were on such a time crunch and wanted to see everything. There’s a great shuttle system that goes to all the big sights. BUT THEY WERE SO CROWDED! We got a crowded-but-doable shuttle from our first stop at the Lodgepole to General Sherman. When we tried to catch a shuttle from there to the next stop, the lines for the shuttle were insane (and were right next to the RANK-smelling bathrooms that made me super nauseous). A woman who was about 2/3 of the way back in the line we needed told us she’d already been waiting over 40 minutes. The next stop was only a little under 3 miles away, so we turned around and LEFT. Screw that. Who wants to spend their time in a beautiful park waiting by the disgusting bathrooms for a crowded 10 minute shuttle ride?? Not me.
We were really happy we walked because it was a perfect day, the trees are INCREDIBLE, and the trails were EMPTY. I think throughout all of our hiking between the big sights, we only saw 7 other groups of people. The whole day. But we wound up walking SO MUCH that day and we were not planning on it. Luckily we had snacks and our camelbacks, but DANG it was long and tough. And at the 7,000 foot elevation… whew!
The Museum: Meh, nothing special. Learned a few cool things, sure. But for a one-day trip? Not necessary. Unless you really love museums. Which I don’t.
Moro Rock: This thing is terrifying, physically difficult, constantly bottle-necked with waaayyyy too many people. But short and SO worth it. Crazy awesome views, and didn’t take hardly any time at all. The sad part is that the way back down just turned into yet another horrible shuttle ride. For some reason, Preston wasn’t into walking at first, until we waited awhile and got annoyed with people (seriously, PERSONAL SPACE please.) So he investigated how far it was to the next stop (1.4 miles) and we quickly ditched the line and seriously jogged part of the trail to the next stop.
By the way, we were arriving around the same time if not earlier on foot as the folks waiting for the shuttles. Only we actually got to see more of the park, breathe fresh air, and not get elbowed during the interim…
Cascading Valley: Really cool, but one of the less exciting stops. We went mostly because we were told there’s an 80% chance of seeing bears there, and poor Preston is dying to see a bear. (He’s lived in California for 5 years now and expected he would have seen a bear by now and is very upset by this, haha.) But there were no bears. A cute deer, pretty valley, and awesome humongous fallen tree to climb on though.
And an EMPTY shuttle line!!! Hoorah!
Crystal Cave: This is the only one of the main sights we had to cut out for lack of time. Next time, I’ll for sure go. I’m including it here for those of you who may actually plan a trip for longer than one day to visit the park.
Timing: Just a quick word for those planning trips. The shuttles along the main loop stop running at 9. But there are smaller shuttles (including the ones that go to campsites and our lodge) that stop running at 6. There is also parking available at all of the stops, but on this weekend, ALL the parking lots were full by like 8:30 am so that wasn’t a great option. Look into where you plan to park and when you need to catch the shuttle to get back to your car to plan accordingly.
We lucked out because overflow parking was directed to our lodge and it was so insanely crowded, which MEANT they kept the shuttle to our hotel going long after they were supposed to stop. Y’know, to avoid rioting masses. We met folks on the last shuttle to our hotel who waited over an hour to get one of the larger shuttles from the main loop only to wait for the smaller shuttle to the hotel for an hour and a half. For some bizarre reason, they were forced off THREE shuttles at the same stop (we were on the third shuttle that made us get on only to unload, then left us) and kept waiting and waiting for a shuttle to pick them up and then actually take them. When the last shuttle closed its doors and started moving, the crowd inside erupted in applause and cheering.
BOTTOM LINE: Sequoia is incredible. GO. But if you can avoid it, do NOT go on a holiday weekend. If you can’t avoid it, beware the crowds!