Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are two separate parks managed as one. They sit shoulder to shoulder along the edge of the Sierras. It’s tough to tell where one park ends and the other begins. In fact, it can be a bit confusing, as the first point of entry into Kings Canyon is Grant Grove, a large grove of sequoia trees, and home of the General Grant Tree, “third largest tree in the world.” To an analytical left brainer like myself, I think “Wait, shouldn’t you sequoias be over there in Sequoia National Park? 😉
The Visitors Center, Gift Shop, Snack Stand and Market all reside less than a mile from one of the largest remaining groves of sequoias in the world, so it’s easy to think one has “done” Kings Canyon by visiting this area. But it has little to do with Kings Canyon….
Though much less touristed and even slighted somewhat in the Park’s collateral material, the real heart of the park lies 3,000 ft below, down a sinuous, steep two lane road “not recommended for vehicles over 22 ft.” The roaring beast of the frothy white Kings River plunges 2,000 ft in only a couple of miles. It’s thunderous roar echos between 8,000 ft walls of granite overhead in what is one of the deepest canyons in the US. But the Kings River is not the culprit. Canyons carved by water, I learned, are V-shaped. Kings Canyon is hollowed out in a U-shaped profile, indicative of glacial gouging. This bold and beautiful river just happens to live there, and I want to go see it.
Although the engine in the Little Tracker has not missed a beat since the day brother Don performed a heart transplant with a complete engine replacement back in 2014, it still doesn’t like to climb. For some reason, it has been known to emit smoke after a steep incline, though it does not appear to be radiator-related, nor does it appear to be overheating. I believe the culprit to be an oil leak. But still, I don’t like to over-tax him. But, if I don’t drive down this hellish road, I won’t get to see the namesake for “Kings Canyon.” It will just be another sequoia grove.
I decide I will just take it slow. I’ll get an early start so I can take all day to climb back up if necessary. The volunteer at the Visitors Center tells me there are plenty of turnoffs, and to just take my time! “It’s your park too! Go as slow as you need to!” She also tells me I can return back via Hume Lake, a gravel road not quite as steep as the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
I head down down, down, down the hills, filled with dread knowing I will need to climb back up the way I came. I imagine several “self rescue” scenarios on what I would do should the Tracker fail in an area with no cell signal (SOS compliments of Delorme InReach!) There are several times when I pull out to take some photos and think I will turn around, it’s not worth the worry. But I so want to see that canyon!
Then at one of the turnouts, I see a sign….”The Don and Suzanne Highway.” Rarely does anyone spell “Suzanne” correctly, but to see it on a highway sign along with “Don,” my brother’s name, it just feels eerily spooky. I take it as “a sign” and continue on. How can I possibly go wrong on the “Don and Suzanne Highway?” 😉
I am grateful and relieved to report that the 22 year old Little Tracker was able to make the trip to the bottom of the canyon and back out without a single hiccup, let alone a belch of smoke.
But 97% of this glorious park is designated as “wilderness.” The Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trails run right through the heart of it. As you can see from the photo below, there are only three roads that lead in to the park. I have circled where those roads end.
All that beautiful mountainous territory on the right is inaccessible except by foot, which means we will never experience it fully unless we get out of our cars. The sign at Roads End reads, “Welcome to where roads end and trails begin. Walk a few hours or hike further into a glorious wilderness ruled by elevation and climate.” I can imagine I know exactly how John Muir felt when he said, “The mountains are calling, and I must go…”