Explore America's park logoTowering granite walls, picturesque valleys carved by glaciers, jaw-dropping giant trees, waterfalls. It sounds like Yosemite National Park. Kings Canyon National Park, not too far south from the more famous Yosemite, offers all that with smaller crowds.

 

History:

Kings Canyon National Park was established March 4, 1940, absorbing General Grant National Park, which was established on Oct. 1, 1890. The park is administered jointly with Sequoia National Park to the south.

 

Things to do:

Among the musts when visiting Kings Canyon National Park is a short hike to visit one of the world’s largest living trees. The General Grant Tree Trail is just one-third of a mile, so you’re more likely to strain your neck staring up than pull a hamstring.

 

The Buena Vista Peak Trail, a two-mile roundtrip, pays off with a 360-degree view of Redwood Canyon, Buck Rock Fire Tower and the high Sierra. The hike to Mist Falls and back will take the better part of a day. But the rainbows you’re likely to see in the mist where the south fork of the Kings River drops 100 feet will be worth it.

 

Why you’ll want to come back:

Kings Canyon National Park contains just a fraction of the wonders of the western side of the Sierra Nevada. Abutting Kings Canyon to the south is Sequoia National Park — another 631 square miles of high Sierra splendor. The two parks are, in effect, one huge preserve of more than 1,353 square miles and have been jointly administered since the 1940s.

 

In Sequoia National Park, you can not only hike to mountain peaks, you can also explore under the mountains. Crystal Cave, the park’s only commercialized cave, has been open to visitors since 1941. A daily 45-minute tour leads you through large rooms, past a variety of speleothems (structures formed by the deposition of minerals from water) including rare "shields" and "raft cones." The Wild Cave Tour takes you far off the beaten path, as it were, to an area of the cave system you can only see after crawling on your belly for a bit.

 

Flora and fauna:

Kings Canyon National Park and neighboring Sequoia National Park were established, in large part, to protect giant sequoias, many more than 200 feet tall and older than Christianity. The trees aren't just tall, they’re thick. The General Grant Tree is more than 268 feet high and has a circumference of more than 107 feet.

 

Black bears are frequently — maybe too frequently — spotted in the park. It’s important to properly store food when camping or picnicking. You’re also likely to see yellow-bellied marmots, mule deer, pika and Western gray squirrels. Bighorn sheep, mountain lions and the Pacific fisher also live in the park, but if you see one of those, count yourself lucky.

 

Fact box:

  • Website: Kings Canyon National Park
  • Park size: 461,901 acres or 722 square miles
  • 2011 visitation: 566,810
  • Funky fact: Kings Canyon, with a depth of more than 8,000 feet at one section, is one of the deepest canyons in the United States.
 

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.