Sequoia and Kings Canyon: One park or two?

Obviously, I had heard about Sequoia trees, but I didn’t know much about the National Park that bears their name.  And I certainly didn’t know anything about Kings Canyon and why it was always lumped together with Sequoia National park.  So, is it one park or two?  Of course, I had to look it up, and here’s what I found: 

“Sequoia National Park was established on September 25, 1890, making it our country’s second national park.  Fifty years later, on March 4, 1940, Congress established Kings Canyon National Park, which is adjacent to the north boundary of Sequoia.  Since World War II, these neighboring parks have been administered jointly.”  –Dept. of Interior website

And why is there a National Forest, a National Monument, and a National Park that all bear the name “Sequoia”?  I just became more confused every time I saw a different sign, so of course, I had to look into that also.  The following information is courtesy of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Justice.


National Forests are managed under a “multiple use” concept (a combination of utilization of timber, range, fish and wildlife, recreation, and minerals) that may or may not involve the use of vehicles.

National Monuments can be managed by any of three different agencies (US Forest Service, National Park Service, or Bureau of Land Management) and are created by presidential proclamation to protect specific natural or cultural features.

National Parks are managed by the Department of the Interior, through the National Park Service, and strive to keep landscapes unimpaired for future generations by protecting natural and historic features, while offering light on-the-land recreation.

Each type of place has its own set of rules based on its goals and mission, which makes sense when it comes to camping, vehicles, fishing, fires, cutting wood, pets, etc.  Sometimes, the boundaries can be adjacent to each other, so it’s important to stop-in at the Ranger or check-in station to consult a map and applicable notices.   

Now that we have all that out of the way, let me tell you about my visit to Kings Canyon and Sequoia Forest, Monument, and Park!  I staged out of Fresno, CA for the days I visited.  Yes, it’s a long way away, but I needed access to reliable wifi (which isn’t a guarantee in the smaller towns/hotels closer to National Parks), plus, it allowed me to ride the beautifully twisty, climbing CA-180 route that runs through Sequoia National Forest and Monument multiple times!  In fact, the 50-mile stretch of the road from Dunlap to “the end of the road” past Cedar Grove is known as the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.

After passing through the Kings Canyon National Park entrance station near Big Stump Grove, I stopped by the Visitors Center to take in the video and talk to the Rangers about the ominous clouds off in the distance.  I was advised to catch the movie on the way back and to bee-line it straight out to the bottom of the Canyon before the predicted rain in the afternoon.  That way I could stop at the overlooks on the return ride as the weather permitted and catch the video at the end.  The roads had just been cleared of mudslides from rains a couple of days ago, so I heeded their advice and rolled out.  Kings Canyon National Park is actually split into two sections, separated by Sequoia National Forest, but the scenic byway runs through, and connects, both sections. 

The end of Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is known as “Road’s End” and is where multiple wilderness trails begin and where back-country hikers get their permits for remote camping in the Sierra Nevadas.  You can see from the “You are Here” label on the sign in the pic I took in the parking lot at the permit station that I went as far as I could into Kings Canyon on wheels.
In this pic, taken at Junction View Overlook on my way back towards the park entrance, you can see Kings River running down the canyon, and CA-180, the scenic byway, hugging the mountain on the right side of the photo.  Incredible riding!
The road through Kings Canyon parallels Kings River and climbs from 2000 ft up to 6500 ft, then back down again along its 50-mile length.  Truly fun and scenic riding!
Elderberry were in season and were everywhere while I was there.  According to a roadside placard, Native Americans in the area use elderberry shrubs for food, cultural uses, medicine and in ceremonies.
At 46,608 cubic feet, the General Grant Sequoia is the third-largest tree in the world by volume and resides in the General Grant Grove section of Kings Canyon National Park.  It may be in 3rd place for volume, but its 40 foot diameter at ground level makes it the world’s widest-known sequoia.  In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed this tree to be the Nation’s Christmas tree.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated it as a National Shrine, a living memorial to those who have given their lives for their country, in 1956.

After completing my visit to Kings Canyon, and nearly getting backed into by an inattentive driver in the visitors center parking lot, I retraced my route on CA-180 to Fresno and back over the next couple of days for my visit to Sequoia National Park.  Generals Highway connects Kings Canyon National Park to Sequoia National Park, via Sequoia National Forest and Monument.  This twisty road, that continues through Sequoia National Park, had just been cleared of mudslides a couple of days before I rode it, so I couldn’t really lean into turns since I had to watch out for the remaining debris and work crews.  It was a good thing that my riding was more conservative than usual, because I came around a blind corner to see two cows making their way up the steep embankment on the side of the road.  I was on the lookout for wildlife, but I thought it would be deer or bear I’d see in the roadway, I certainly wasn’t expecting cows!  But I guess that’s what comes with “multiple use” public lands 🙂

I was greeted at the north entrance to Sequoia National Park by reminders of the KNP Complex Fires from September 2021.  Though fires are an essential part of Sequoia forest health, the fires ignited by lightning required a full-spectrum response in order to protect surrounding communities, park resources (including 3000-year old giant Sequoias), historic cabins, and archeological sites.  Read the fascinating account of the response HERE.

Living in North Carolina, and near a military base that has won national awards for its longleaf pine forestry program, I am used to prescribed burns and the importance of fire for the health of some types of forests.  So I was curious to learn more about the effects of increasingly frequent fires on these groves of giants.  According to educational placards throughout the park, Sequoias grow in fire-adapted ecosystems.  Periodic fires reduce fuel buildup, preventing destructive, high-severity blazes.  After over a century of well-intentioned, though ill-informed fire suppression practices, many groves have become choked with dead wood and small trees, shading out young sequoias and creating dangerous fire conditions.  Additionally, rising temperatures and earlier snowmelt lead to longer fire seasons.  Warmer and drier conditions are also linked to higher-severity fire.  Scientists studying these trends have found that climate change is a significant force behind the rise in fire we are seeing today.  They estimate that the 2020-2021 fires alone likely killed 13-19% of the world’s large giant sequoias.  I felt an uneasy sense of gratitude for being able to see these stoic giants now, since the future is promised to no one.

After having seen the third largest tree by volume in Kings Canyon National Park, I thought that seeing THE largest one in the world wouldn’t be much more impressive…but it WAS!  The General Sherman Tree, found in the Giant Forest Grove in Sequoia National Park, is 52,500 cubic feet (almost 6,000 cubic feet more than the General Grant Tree), and is estimated to weigh 1,385 tons and be 2,200 years old!
I’m standing on a life-sized “footprint” of the Sherman Tree’s trunk.  It gives an idea of the tree’s girth- 109 feet around at the ground- and its irregular shape.  The Sherman Tree’s top is dead, so the tree’s trunk no longer gets taller, however, its volume keeps increasing.
A single sequoia cone produces over 200 seeds (they are the size of a single oatmeal).  It’s mind-boggling to think that those little seeds can produce trees that grow to over 300 feet tall and boast the largest volume in the world.
Moro Rock, a large granite dome, stands watch over peaks and wilderness at an elevation of 5,725 feet in Sequoia National Park.  A 350-step stairway takes you to the top for a breathtaking view of the foothills and San Joaquin Valley below. 
The stairway climb to the top of Moro Rock is not for the faint of heart!
View of San Joaquin Valley and Kaweah River from the top of Moro Rock.

As I left Moro Rock, the road on which I traveled, as well as a large part of Generals Highway, was originally forged by COL Charles Young and ninety-six Buffalo Soldiers (all-Black enlisted men of Troops I and M of the 9th Cavalry).  COL Young went from being born into slavery to a West Point graduate (only the third Black man to do so) and serving as a Captain in the all-Black infantry before becoming the military superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks (predecessor of Sequoia and Kings Canyon) in 1903.  He, and the Buffalo Soldiers under his command, were responsible for the prevention of wildlife poaching, illegal logging, and sheep grazing, along with road building and infrastructure improvement.  You can read more about the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers during their time in National Parks from 1866-1951 ranging from the “wild Alaskan wilderness, to the lava-flowing fields of Hawaii, to the giant Sequoias of northern California” HERE.

When this Sequoia fell across the road on December 4, 1937, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worker suggested cutting a tunnel into the 275 foot long, 21 feet base diameter, immovable monstrosity.  The tunnel opening is 8 feet high and 17 feet wide.  

I pulled into the parking lot of Crescent Meadow, just a short ride from Moro Rock, parked the bike, and immediately heeded the multiple bear-warning signs by verifying that there was no food, or food wrappers, anywhere in the trunk or tank bag of my motorcycle.  After reading the sticker on the bear box, I returned to my bike to take out my bug repellent and chapstick!

The parking lots have multiple bear boxes in which to place food, and scented items.  I had seen pictures at other park visitor centers of bears tearing off car doors to get to food inside, but I didn’t realize it was a 24-hour problem (I thought it was just during overnight camping/parking).  The stickers on the bear box gave examples of what smells like food to a bear, and included ice chests, toothpaste, soap, toiletries, trash, recyclables, cans, bottles, infant car/booster seats, lotions, lip balm, repellents, cigarettes, tobacco products, cleaning supplies, and any other scented items.
Crescent Meadow is a montane meadow (wetland between 4000-8000 feet).  The meadow was lush with grasses and ferns and encircled by an easily accessible 1.5 mile walking trail lined with giant Sequoia trees.
In 1861, Hale Tharp built this cabin into a downed, giant Sequoia log.  He lived in what became “Tharp’s Log” in the summers while grazing his cattle in the nearby meadow.

About a mile into the Crescent Meadow hike, I met up with two guys taking a break at Tharp’s Log who had just hiked further up the High Sierra Trail.  They told me about a momma bear and her cub they saw just a short distance from here.  My hip and feet had already decided that this would be my turn-around point anyway, so their info solidified my decision to head back towards the trailhead.  There were hardly any folks on the trail, but I was comforted with the knowledge that they would be just a few minutes behind me and that I had spied a couple on the path just a few minutes ahead of me. 

About 200 yards from the parking lot, I spotted the couple stopped on the trail ahead of me; the woman was taking photos with her phone of something in the bushes in the creek alongside the trail and the guy was motioning for me to be quiet.

“What’s going on?”  I whispered to him.

“There’s a momma bear and her cub right there eating in the bushes!  We’re getting some great pics of them!”

I can see the bushes moving and flashes of brown fur about 4 feet from where I’m standing.  I could literally reach down and touch the bears from the wooden boardwalk on which we are standing.  The half dozen signs in the parking lot advising hikers to never approach a bear, especially if there is a cub nearby, flash through my head.

“Um, this doesn’t seem like a good idea to me…I’m gonna keep going.” I murmur in a hushed tone as I move past them.

I very quickly, yet quietly, creep my way past the moving bushes and brown fur and move with purpose towards the parking lot.  As I’m putting on my jacket and helmet and preparing to depart, the two guys that I had met at Tharp’s Log emerged from the trail and into the parking lot.

“Did you y’all see the bears?” I called out to them.

Their response:  “Yeah, are those people stupid or what?!”

We didn’t hang around to see how the couple’s story ended.  I rolled out of the parking lot and back onto Generals Highway for the twisty, scenic ride down to the park exit.

Generals Highway just kept climbing, descending, twisting, and winding 🙂
The historic south entrance park sign was carved 80 years ago from a slab of sequoia wood.  It was intended to honor Sequoyah, the Cherokee scholar whose invention of an alphabet for his language brought advances in literacy, and for whom many believe the giant trees were named.  Unfortunately, the carver showed little regard for the actual scholar by using the Native American profile on the 1913 “buffalo” nickel as the model for his sign.  The profile is a stereotype of an American Indian from a tribe of the Great Plains and bears no resemblance to Sequoyah or the people of the California tribes who call these lands home and whose ancestors lived on these lands for thousands of years.

It was a fabulous few days in these two National Parks and corresponding forests and monuments. Not only did I stand in awe at the base of giant Sequoias and stunning scenery, I learned so much about forestry techniques and the history associated with the people and geography of this area.

Next up. . . Joshua Tree!

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