You enter Kings Canyon National Park via California Highway 180. Just inside the park, you can either take the General’s Highway (198) south to go through Sequoia National Park or continue on 180 all the way to the bottom of Kings Canyon and the end of the road. That is what we decided to do…explore Kings Canyon down to the end of the road…after all it was only twenty-six miles one way. What the heck, we could do that in a couple hours and be back up to the visitor center in time for a late lunch. Easy-peasy.
What I didn’t realize or just didn’t stop to think about was that, if you’re going into a canyon, you’re gonna be going downhill…and later have to come back uphill. I suppose I was thinking that we were just going to go out about twenty-six miles and stand at the top at a marvelous scenic overlook and gaze down into Kings Canyon at all the beautiful trees and rocks and then slide into the car for a leisurely drive back. We were not actually going to drive down into the canyon, right? After all, the line on the map looked rather flat and went straight across the page. I just didn’t register that all those little squiggles might mean going downhill.
And, duh, I didn’t consider that we’d been driving on nothing but mountain roads – up and down – looking over one precipice after another since we started this adventure in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Yep, these mountains ain’t the Smokies that we know and love back east. In the Smokies you get lots of driving time on the ridge of the mountain where the road is relatively flat with lots of Christmas tree farms. In the Smokies, stopping at a scenic overlook doesn’t mean you’re on a tiny gravel pull-out trying not to look over the edge of infinity as you lean out of the car. I really think the powers that be in California should look into getting more guardrails for those overlooks.
Now, let me back up just a bit. We had started our exploration of Kings Canyon with a visit to Grant’s Grove to see the Sequoia Trees (see my last blog here) but opted to drive down to Three Rivers to our hotel via Sequoia National Park on Tuesday and then come back and finish exploring Kings Canyon on Wednesday and then re-visit Sequoia National Park on the following days with each day ending at our hotel in Three Rivers. But Three Rivers is at the bottom of the mountains so coming back involves driving north maybe fifty miles up through the mountains to get back to the park entrance each morning and then back down through Sequoia National Park each evening. So every day it was a big loop for about an hour’s drive with a good bit of time on dicey mountain roads.
To make matters worse, the Generals Highway through Sequoia was under construction…during its busiest tourist season…..because summer is the only time to make repairs to the road because the area is snowed in much of the other three seasons. So, the narrow two lane road was partially blocked in some places as the construction crews worked on building retaining walls and making roadway repairs. Timing was everything and delays were inevitable.
Now, I have a question. Why does it seem that all the stops for construction delays are in spots where there is absolutely nothing to look at – no view at all? Here in a park with magnificent views around every curve but every time we ended up stopped for construction work, we were between two trees and three large boulders (at least) we couldn’t see around. We couldn’t see anything but the cars in front of us and the ones behind us. Do you suppose they planned that just for my benefit?
Oh well, back to Kings Canyon which I’ve decided is a cross between Sequoia with its giant trees and Yosemite with all the rocks and waterfalls. I got it into my head that Kings Canyon was a relatively new national park because I’d never really heard of it before and because they had several newly built concessions near the entrance including a lovely new restaurant, a packer’s supply & grocery store, and (of course) a brand spanking new souvenir shop. Now, I thought the souvenir shop inside of the official visitor center across the street had better stuff than the new place but both shops had plenty of the usual t-shirts, hats, walking sticks, and tchotchkes so that no tourist would ever have to leave the park empty-handed. Me – I’m into t-shirts and refrigerator magnets.
But Kings Canyon is not a new park at all. It was established in 1940 and includes 461,901 acres or about 722 square miles. That’s a big bigger than the acreage you could see driving on the 26 mile paved road. So, the part of the park we saw was very tiny compared to the rest of it. To fully appreciate the park, you’d have to get out of the car and do some serious hiking. It might take a while and you might not make it back in time for lunch but the trails are there if you want to see it all and you can get a trail map right there in the visitor center with the souvenir shop next door.
The park is comprised of two sections – the first we had already visited which included Grant’s Grove of giant Sequoia Trees. The second part is everything else. The Canyon is about 8200 feet deep (so now I find this out!) and one of the deepest in the United States. Only about 10% is accessible by car along Highway 180. The park includes the headwaters of the Kings River and the San Joaquin River along with the very accessible Grizzly Falls. And that sounded good to me – something that was accessible without me having to hike long distances at high altitudes.
So we grabbed a sandwich and munchies at the aforementioned camp store and headed out for that 26 mile journey down into Kings Canyon. The road was relatively flat at first but it wasn’t long until we were heading downhill. The driving was dicey but the views were magnificent.
We did note large sections of trees that had been devastated by disease, drought, and those dastardly Pine Bark Beetles. By the time the rangers notice that a tree is infested with the Beetles, it is too late to save it. It becomes very clear how wildfires can spread over thousands of acres in a short amount of time in hot dry weather. (Speaking of wildfires, we managed to stay south of the big fires this summer that were reported just north and west of Yosemite. We had passed through the area with the fires just a few days before they started.)
As noted, the views on the road down into the canyon were spectacular. But the highlight for me was the opportunity to see the continent’s geologic transition zone showing the seam where two continental plates had collided.
I just never imagined you could see the two sides of the plates so clearly. And I also thought all that was further down south near San Andreas Fault…never occurred to me that the junction between the plates could be in the mountains too…even though that is what made the mountains in the first place. On the eastern side, magma had pushed up later cooling to form granite, basalt, quartz diorite, and granodiorite. (Yes, I looked that part up.) The western plate being comprised of softer sandstone was pushed under the opposing eastern plate. It was remarkable to see the higher gray-blue granite towering over the reddish-gold sandstone and to try to wrap your head around the action that was still taking place here in these mountains….slowly and surely year after year one tectonic plate pushing up and the other folding under.
Along the way, there were lots of beautiful wildflowers growing along cold rapidly flowing rivers. And there were waterfalls like Grizzly Falls to explore.
The 26 miles went by very quickly – it only took us three hours to get down to the bottom of the canyon and the end of the road.
Let’s see 26 miles in 3 hours puts us at a breath-taking speed of just about 11.5 miles per hour…..lots of curves and lots of scenic overlooks before we got to the end of that road. We had our lunch sitting on a rock by the south fork of Kings River…lunch with a view indeed.
And then it was time to head back up the mountain. We made much better speed going back up….but not much. I drove while my sweet husband napped. After a good long snooze, he woke up and realized we were creeping along (did I mention lots of curves and almost non-existent shoulders on the road?). He took back over and we were at the top of the mountain in no time. Then we breezed down the King’s Highway through Sequoia notwithstanding a few construction delays and got back to Three Rivers just about supper-time. Easy-peasy….well, mostly.
Sources for Factual Information:
- Wikipedia Kings Canyon – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kings_Canyon_National_Park
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon NP – https://www.nps.gov/seki/index.htm
- Cairn – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
- Inuksuk – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inuksuk