Highways 180 and 168: Kings Canyon and Sequoia
SEKI (Sequoia and Kings Canyon) is the great destination of the southern Sierra--and while Sequoia has lots to offer, it is also farther from the Bay Area, so we have explored it less. That always gives us something to look forward to next summer!
On the other hand, Kings Canyon is a lot like an older version of Yosemite: the scenery is spectacular, and very bit as grand. But the rock is older, so the granite has fractured and crumbled a bit more. And the drive to the park is a lot longer and more difficult. That means fewer people.
It's also the deepest canyon in the Western Hemisphere--far deeper than the Grand Canyon or the Copper River Canyon. The bottom is around 3000-3500 feet, and some of the ridges above it reach 11,000 feet. The drive into the park makes you feel as if you are entering another world...and you are.
Here's what the sober and scientific Dr. Joseph LeConte, professor of Geology at UC Berkeley, said when he first visited Kings Canyon:
"The trail becomes steeper and rougher, and falls more frequent and more beautiful, and the scenery grander and more impressive, until finally as we approached the summit I could not refrain from screaming with delight."
Gotta love those dry academics, huh? We love Kings Canyon!
Paradise Valley: the most popular backpacking trip in Kings Canyon is the trip up past Mist Falls into Paradise Valley. You can camp there the first night, and then either hike back out or continue on through the Sixty Lakes Basin, one of the great destinations of the High Sierra, and come back out via the Bubbs Creek Trail.
This is great hiking, and there are lots of other side trips that call to you once you look at the map. Fishing here can also be pretty darn good, and that just adds to the overall attraction.
If you are used to Yosemite Valley, Road's End in Kings Canyon will surprise you. It's a quiet little spot with about thirty parking spaces, and it's the main trailhead out of the canyon.
What a peaceful place. Where do you think they came up with that name? 13 miles rt.
Dinkey Lakes: The drive here seems to take forever, as you climb up out of the valley past the cars with boiling radiators. But once you are here, this is a great place to explore--a lot of lakes to see, and short distances to hike. And since the drive is a bit longer than most people like, there aren't as many people as you would expect.
There are at least ten lakes in this area, and you can put together a trip that will take you to as many as you want...with nothing brutal about the hikes in between. Like Jennie Lake, this is an excellent place for a first backpack trip! Sure, some of the lakes are heavily impacted by campsites and fire rings, but all in all, it is everything you could hope for in a trip that doesn’t require long miles on the trail, and still delivers everything you’d want in a backpacking trip. Our trip took us from Courtwright Reservoir up to Cliff Lake, then past Rock Lake and Second Dinkey Lake to Island Lake (with a side trip to Fingerbowl Lake), and then back to Rock Lake (with a side trip to Little Lake) and back to Cliff Lake and Christenson Lake. All that in about 20 miles of hiking. Photo Log
Mono Creek/Laurel Creek/Lake Thomas Edison: This is a great part of the Sierra to explore--but only if you can stand the drive. It's pretty much two hours from the Prather Ranger station to Lake Edison...and the last hour is only about 15 miles. You don't want to do this one over the weekend!
But once here, you have access to some wonderful country--and thanks to that long drive, many of the hikers are PCT/JMT thru-hikers. We hiked up Mono Creek to Laurel Creek, and then up into Laurel Canyon for some of the best views we've seen in quite a while. And while the fish are small, there are plenty of brookies here. The fact that Laurel Creek isn't on the way to anywhere else means you will not see many people here, either. Photo Log
You can also keep going up the canyon to Third Recess, Fourth Recess, and Pioneer Basin--although we hiked into the last two of those from the East side over Mono Pass. That trip is covered in our section on Highway 395.
ere is the blog from our trip: Lake Edison and Mono Creek.
Jennie Lake, Sequoia/Kings Canyon: the hard part of this hike isn’t the hike, but the drive to the trailhead—we’ve done it in a Volvo 960 wagon, but it’s a lot easier (and slightly more relaxing) in an SUV. And it’s a long drive from the coast, either way. But once you get to the trailhead, this hike is pleasantly graded, and takes you to a lovely lake butting up against a granite peak. It’s five miles of hiking, and if you have time, you can take another day and work your way up to the top of the peak, as well. From the same trailhead, you can also climb Mitchell Peak, which is over 10,000 feet and has absolutely stunning views of the southern Sierra. One of the greatest day hikes in California--maybe the best of all. That's Jennie Lake at right. 12 miles. Photo Log
Jennie Lake and beyond: You can also extend this trip by going up over Silliman Pass and on to Twin Lakes, Ranger Lake, and Seville Lakes--with some of the greatest views in all of the western SIerra. That's SIlliman Peak in the photo at left, from Ranger Lake. This is wonderful country, and once you get to the trailhead, it's all pretty accessible. We met a few day-hikers on this trip, although we had the lakes to ourselves by late afternoon. The total mileage for this loop was only about 20 or so...but what a wonderful hike. By the way, some of the trails in this area are not as marked on the map, so if you decide to go, drop us a note. We'll tell you how to avoid some confusion.
Courtwright Reservoir to Red Mountain Basin: This is a longer hike than most on this site--about thirty five miles. But it takes you through some of the best country in the Sierra, and not many other people. Add some great fishing, and this is one area we'd love to visit again.
It all begins at Courtwright Dam. At over 8000 feet, this is a nice lift to the first day's hike. From there it's an easy 7-8 miles to Post Corral Meadows, where you can find quite a few campsites--and quite a few people. Since those miles were relatively easy, without a lot of up and down, we chose to keep going, and camped about 4 miles further along the trail, near the Kings River. Lovely deep pools.
And from there it is a brutally steep climb up to the Punchbowl, but the rewards are worth it. As M said when she arrived: "Wow, this is the real deal!"
It is. And that steep climb also provides some spectacular meadows--lakes of green grass amid the granite--that make perfect places to stop and catch your breath. er--admire the view.
The Punchbowl is a great camp for further exploration of the dismally named Disappointment and Hell-For-Sure Lakes. The fishing is very good for rainbows and brookies, and the views of the basin continually delighted us. To avoid mosquitoes early in the season, we camped on the ridge west of the lake, and enjoyed the best views to boot!
On the way back, you can cross the basin and head straight down to Post Corral. If you camp there, the next day is an easy hike back out. Around 30 miles. Photo Log
Courtwright Reservoir/Red Mountain Basin to Lower Indian Lake: This is a shorter hike, as it is only about five miles from Post Corral Meadows up to Rae Lake, and by then you are practically at Lower Indian.
The climb here up from Post Corral Meadows to Rae Lake is also steep, but not quite as bad as the climb up to the Punchbowl. And once at Rae Lake, we think it's better to just keep going to Lower Indian--one of the most spectacular lakes in the Sierra, from our point of view. Huge open vistas allow you to see for miles, and the lake opens up to the sky in a way that just makes you want to open your arms and embrace it all. 30 miles rt.
Colby Lake: Years ago, P took this trip with a friend in September. We started out at Road's End in Kings Canyon, and then hiked up the Bubbs Creek trail until we could head south over Avalanche Pass. We'd left the Bay Area at 4 in the morning, so that we would have plenty of time to hike into the Roaring River Valley that day. We didn't make it. We made it half-way up Avalanche Pass, found a campsite near Sphinx Creek, and decided that 6 miles and 5000 feet of elevation gain was enough for one day. The next day we made up over the pass, and camped near the ranger station in Roaring River. Nice fishing there, and we got our breath back. The next day is one of the greatest hikes I've ever done--up the canyon towards Colby Lake. The meadows were stunning, Whaleback is astonishing, and the whole hike just kept getting better. We camped along a creek that had lots of little golden/rainbow hybrid trout, and were delighted. At Colby Lake we camped and caught rainbow/golden trout hybrids that were brilliantly red. In fact, we caught so many that we threw them all back--thinking the other guy was keeping some. It was a frantic 45 minutes of fishing before dark to catch enough for dinner. (In those days, our dinners were Knorr instant sauce mix, trout, and instant rice, all cooked over an open fire!) P did catch a 13 inch golden trout at Colby Lake...and will always remember this trip as a great adventure. On the way out we went first to Roaring River, where it froze at night, and the next day up over Avalanche Pass and back to Road's End. About 35-40 miles, depending on where you stop.
A few years ago he took M on a trip down Sugarloaf Canyon from Marvin Pass, and hiked through the Roaring River to Cloud Canyon again, and it did not disappoint What an amazing area. Photo Log
Mineral King: This is at the far south end of Sequoia, and the road to the trailhead is an adventure it inself. Allow at least an hour, probably 90 minutes, to get from the main highway up to Mineral King. But once you are here, the possibilites are wonderful. We hiked southwest out of Mineral King to Hoockett Meadows, Evelyn Lake, then up to Blossom Lakes, down into the Canyon of the Little Kern, where the trail pretty much disappeared for a few miles, then up to Farewell Gap and back into Mineral King. It was five days, about 35-40 miles, and it was a truly memorable trip. We'd do it again in a heartbeat. Photo Log
DAY HIKES:--Some photo logs below
Mitchell Peak: This is perhaps our all time favorite day hike. Like the hike to Jennie Lake, it starts at a trailhead well off the beaten track, on the way from Grant's Grove to Sequoia, and the rough and tumble dirt road is almost more than you can bear for a passenger car. But once you get out on the trail, this one is just spectacular. It heads up a slope, then across to show views down into a lovely creek. More climbing takes you through a meadow or two (look out for mosquitoes early in the year--they were worse here than anything P has ever seen one July) and then up to a saddle. From the saddle you can go east into the Sugarloaf region, south towards Jennie Lake, or north and climb Mitchell Peak. The climb to the peak is steadily uphill, and you eventually work your way all the way to the northwest side of the mountain before clambering over some granite boulders to the summit.
OK, so that doesn't sound like the perfect hike. That's because we haven't mentioned the view from the top: a 360 degree panorama of stunning mountains, including the Sierra Crest most of the Great Western Divide. You just can't stop looking at it. And NO camera will do it justice. Our daughter did this hike with us one year and then spent a few minutes on top trying to capture it all with a video. That's one of her snapshots above...This hike is on everyone's Top Ten Hikes...unless they haven't done it.
Mono Rock: OK, it's not really much of a hike---more of a side-trip/clamber. But it's loads of fun, and the views from on top can be quite spectacular. This is very short, maybe 1/2 a mile, and a lot of it is along cracks and crannies working your way out to the top of the rock. But don't worry, there are railings all around all the way, so it's safe as safe can be. Of course, we remember when you could get to the top and see the whole San Joaquin Valley from the top. Now, with the air pollution, you're lucky if you can see much at all. But it is still a wonderful rock to climb.
Crescent Meadows and beyond: There are a lot of trails in this area, and we've liked them all. Crescent Meadow, Long Meadow, Bobcat Point, Tharp's Log, and even the first few miles of the High Sierra Trail all make for nice day-hikes. make sure you get out to see the views from either Bobcat Point or the High Sierra Trail...and wander among the giant Sequoias.
Tokopa Falls: This one leaves right from the Lodgepole Campground in Sequoia, and leads up a lovely canyon to a cataract the plunges down the granite slops above. If you're in the campground, you can't pass this up. If you're not staying there, it's still a nice hike, with the Watchtower looming over the south side of the canyon, and the falls pouring down white water. Best in Spring when the water is whitest!
Montecito/Sequoia Big Baldy Ridge: Not far from the road that takes you to Mitchell Peak is the Montecito Sequoia family camp. It's a nice place for people who have kids and want to spend some time in the mountains--while enjoying both the mountains and day care for the kids. And just to the west of the camp is a very nice hike out along a ridge that has wonderful views both east to the Great Western Divide, and west out over the San Joaquin Valley. Not strenuous, and there is no lake at the end---you just hike until you decide you have seen enough, and then you turn around.
Redwood Canyon and Sugarbowl: This is our favorite trail to see giant Sequoias. Yes, there are larger trees (General Grant and Sherman, obviously) but for the sheer joy of wandering among the natural cathedral these trees make, this is the trail we'd choose. You'll need to keep your head on a swivel--as the trees appear and disappear in the forest as you walk. And you don't want to miss any!
The Generals--Sherman and Grant: OK--Yes, you have to do these because they take you to the two largest trees in the world. But for a better experience, try to visit these after hours. The trails are open even after all the campers have gone home. So instead of planning to hike in the middle of the day, go early in the morning (before 8!) or after six in the evening. It's a whole different experience. And you will enjoy it much, much more.
North Grove and Dead Giant Loop: This is a nice pair of trails that get you out into the Sequoias without the crowds. We did it one morning in the middle of the week in June, and saw only one other person on the trail. But we did see lots of stunning trees, as well as a whole forest in bloom.
Panorama Ridge: This trail starts at the end of a narrow, twisty (but paved!) road that goes up behind the Grant Grove Visitor Center. take the road all the way to the end, and you can hike 1/4 mile to see amazing views. Thus the name. Keep hiking on the trail for over five miles (round trip) for a series of vistas over the Sierra Crest, Monarch Divide, etc. all the way to the fire lookout and back. Y(ou can combine this with the dirt road to the fire lookout to create some kind of loop or figure-8 hike.
Boyden Cave: This is an easy walk that's prefect to take on a hot summer day when you already have a campsite in Cedar Grove. The Canyon at this point is deep and often baking hot, and this trip through the Cave will cool your heels in a wonderful way. Plus, it's worth getting out of the car at this point just to appreciate the scenery at the bottom of this narrow point in the gorge. The photo at right is only one of the many notable sights in the cave.
Mist Falls: If you do just one day hike out of Road's End in Kings Canyon, this should be it. It is certainly the easiest, as it only climbs a few hundred feet along the river up the canyon, while the others take a steeper route straight up the side. And this one takes you to a wonderful waterfall. You might even catch a few fish here. It starts with a mile or two through the valley, on a soft and sandy trail, then eventually turns left and follows the creek up to the falls. The falls are really lovely--that's one of our daughters pretending to be the siren of the falls at left.
Beware of rattlesnakes here--this is one area where we have actually heard/seen them. In fact, P met one on the trail that gave him a real shot of adrenaline--since he didn't see it until he heard it rattling at his feet. And go early in the morning, so that you can leave before the real crowd arrives to eat lunch.
If you really want some fun, keep going up the trail--you can take it all the way to Paradise Valley, which is 6 or 7 miles in, with stunning views of the Sphinx across the canyon. And that makes for a terrific day hike!
Hotel Creek/Lewis Creek Loop: This one leaves right from the stables in Cedar Grove, climbs up over the ridge behind to give you great views of the Monarch Divide, and then takes you back down the Lewis Creek Canyon and along the north river road back to the campground. It's about eight miles in total, and when we did it in 2021 the middle part of the trail desperately needed some tree work done. But it's a good hike.
Bubbs Creek Trail: If you don't mind another out-and-back, hiking up Bubbs Creek for a few miles is a classic Sierra hike. Towering cliffs overhead, a creek crashing and tumbling below, and views up and down the valley through the trees. Do it in the morning so that your climbing in in the shade, otherwise this can be a hot one. We love it.
Copper Creek Trail: Many people will try to talk you out of this one and tell you it climbs relentlessly. It does. But it is a well-graded trail that is only truly exposed for the first two miles (Again, go early!) After that, there is some shade in the forest, and you continue to climb to reach stunning views. And while the first destination, Lower Tent Meadow, isn't a meadow at all, it's a wide spot on the trail with a bear box, a fire ring, and a few logs to sit on, keep going for another 1/2 mile to see views of not only the Sphinx Crest, but also the Silliman Crest to the southwest. Highly recommended for those who know how to take it slow and easy, but never stop climbing.
Roaring River Falls and Zumwalt Meadows: Lots of people do these hikes separately, but it you leave Zumwalt Meadows and head west, you will have the canyon to yourself as you hike through the towering cliffs, and you get to feel a little bit superior to the crowds at Roaring River Falls, knowing that you got there the classy way--not by walking 200 feet from the parking lot. (If you do want another view of Roaring River Falls, don't miss the little trail on the WEST side of the falls, that leads to a lovely overlook. It's only 100 yards or so. Well worth it.
Don Cecil Trail: This one also leaves from the Visitor Center...and goes straight up the southern wall of Kings Canyon. But take your time, stop at the lovely Sheep Creek Cascade about a mile up the trail, and then keep going for at least another mile, where the views open up to Mt. Gardiner and Clarence King to the East, and the Monarch Divide to the north. You can be back in camp well before lunch time, and take the rest of the day off to play in the river. Or keep going for another few miles. You'll pass through a lovely secluded valley with towering pines, firs, and a few sequoias, and then reach a ridge with even more stunning views. And if you go all the way to Lookout Peak, you can scramble to the top for the best views of all.
For photo blogs of some of the hikes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon,. check out these links:
Tokopa Falls, Crescent Meadows, Redwood Canyon and more
For Hotel and Lewis Creeks, Bubbs Creek, Don Cecil, and Roaring River Falls to Zumwalt Meadow, and the North and Dead Giant Loop
Our 2022 hikes to Mist Falls, Copper Creek, Don Cecil Trail, and the Panorama Trail.