Western Grandeur Without The Crowds
Sheer cliffs gouged by ancient glaciers loom high and tight overhead. Conifers carpet the U-shaped hollow below. The rumbling echo of the frothing Kings River fills the canyon.
Kings Canyon, high in the Sierra Nevada, is one of the least-known national parks. Wedged between two of the nation’s oldest and most popular parks, Yosemite to the north and Sequoia to the south, Kings Canyon is the shadow High Sierra, a realm of splendor lost in the glow of its celebrity neighbors.
Some 20,000 visitors jam Yosemite’s main campground, Yosemite Valley, on a summer day, while at Kings Canyon, opened in 1940, fewer than 1,000 visit Cedar Grove, its premier valley campground. Landing a reservation at a Yosemite campground is an endurance test, but you can show up at Kings Canyon on a Friday and still snag a plum site for the weekend under 100-foot ponderosa pines on the banks of one of the last wild rivers in the region.
The park’s low profile isn’t for lack of attractions. Kings Canyon is home to some of the highest Sierras, some of the nation’s deepest gorges and, tucked away down a dirt road on a slope looming with primeval colossi, the obscure Redwood Canyon, the largest grove of giant sequoias in the world. Not to mention the one Kings Canyon site that is well known, Grant Grove, the stand of colossal sequoia that contains the General Grant Tree, over 260 feet tall and at least 1,500 years old.
Kings Canyon has managed to avoid the limelight and mobs, thanks to geography, a dead-end road and an insistent effort to preserve its unspoiled atmosphere. Highway 180, a twisting route over the Kings River gorge, is the only way in and out of Cedar Grove. Though the campground has a small store and an 18-room lodge, there are no gas stations or cellphone service.
The glaciers that scooped the park’s immense canyons dug a path to the rugged and secluded valleys of the high country. The Monache Indians, or Western Mono, operated semipermanent camps in the valley for centuries, living off acorns, roots, deer and trout until the Gold Rush forced them out. John Muir trekked into Cedar Grove in 1873, finding more ammunition for his then controversial belief that glaciation was the hand behind the plunging slopes, and quickly had a case of déjà vu. “In the vast Sierra wilderness to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the same kind,” he wrote in 1891. “It sits on the South Fork of the Kings River ... beneath the highest mountains of the range.”
Two monoliths that caught Muir’s eye, North Dome and Grand Sentinel, flank Zumwalt Meadow, a magnet for families, anglers and oglers of mountain vistas a few miles from Cedar Grove. The south fork of the Kings River, after hurtling down from the high slopes, eases into a mellow meander around an emerald meadow framed by ponderosa pine and cliffs.
Zumwalt Meadow’s lush fields beckon all to a playground where no one cuts the grass. The distractions of adulthood quickly give way to more important things — spotting trout and picking flecks of fool’s gold from the freezing river. There’s enough bribe material — swimming, boulders to climb, rocks to skip across pools — to make the 1.5-mile loop popular.
A short trail connects Zumwalt Meadow to another popular attraction, Roaring River Falls — actually a series of falls, tiered up a steep slope, with all but the lowest one out of view from the pool below. The lower 40-foot fall explodes into the pool with a deafening crash. If you climb up to a couple of the higher ones, you find a hidden realm of bowl-shaped grottoes and private swimming holes.
Another, more difficult trek from Cedar Grove, the Paradise Valley trail, is the portal for day hikers on their way to Mist Falls and backpackers en route to the John Muir Trail, Rae Lakes and various more remote areas. It can be a tough route — seven miles and 2,000 feet up, then seven miles back.
Though the Paradise Valley trail in its upper reaches can test stamina, its payoffs are immense. The entire route is lined with vertiginous cliffs, diverse vegetation and the fast-flowing river. The trail’s lower, shaded parts resemble botanical gardens from some lost epoch. Fern forests and bamboo-like horsetail line the footpath under giant ponderosas and firs.
Four and a half miles up the trail, Mist Falls descends in glorious boil. Spray from the 50-foot-tall cascade can drench viewers even 100 yards away. Big falls kick up clouds of negative ions in the wet air, an element some researchers say can enhance positive mood.
It’s a throat- and thigh-burning climb, a rise of 1,600 feet in two horizontal miles, over broken granite. The shade vanishes and water bottles are drained. Finally the trail levels, and the Kings River transforms from torrent to pond. The lush carpet of a fern forest marks the entry to a grove of massive pines, many growing since the time of da Vinci. This is Paradise Valley. With soaring cliffs on either side, the cathedral of giant trees and the crystalline stretch of river where laid-back trout don’t even scoot when they see you, the scene is made even more stunning by what it’s missing: people.
IF YOU GO
Tucked deep into the Sierras, Kings Canyon National Park takes a little effort to get to, but the payoff is worth it. The park is 245 miles from Los Angeles, a five-hour drive, and four hours from San Francisco. The quickest route is via a flight to Fresno, which is just over an hour from the park.
Within two miles of the park entrance (admission $20), you’ll see the giant sequoias at Grant Grove, the John Muir Lodge ($167 a night; 866-522-6966), a restaurant and the newly opened Kings Canyon National Park Visitor Center (559-565-4307), which offers a multimedia history of the park. There are three campgrounds nearby, all available on a first-come, first-served basis, no reservations needed. The Web address for the park is www.nps.gov/seki/index.htm.
Cedar Grove (visitor center, 559-565-3793) is a half-hour drive from Grant Grove, high above the Kings River gorge on Highway 180. Four campgrounds are there as well as Cedar Grove Lodge ($119 to $135).