Just a half-day’s drive south of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are not to be missed. Even if you’ve already seen the thunderous waterfalls of the Yosemite Valley, the craggy high country around Tuolumne Meadows, and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, these neighboring parks offer still more amazing sights. Wander among the largest living trees on the planet in the Giant Forest, go underground into eerily beautiful limestone and marble caves, hike past wildflower meadows, and splash around meandering rivers and glistening lakes during summer.
Even if you only have a day to spare, these parks are worth the detour, especially because they receive only 10 percent of the annual visitors that Yosemite does. Spending a few days here gives you even more solitude and time to explore the wonders of the southern Sierra Nevada, including North America’s deepest canyon, which conservationist John Muir once declared a “rival of the Yosemite,” and also the historic Mineral King mining camp.
Sequoia National Park
As you might have already guessed from its name, this park is famous most of all for its giant sequoia trees. The granddaddy of them all is the General Sherman Tree, thought to be over 2000 years old and measuring over 275 feet tall and 100 feet around its trunk.
To really get a sense for how enormous these giant trees are, you can take a walk through the Giant Forest after letting your kids discover the hands-on, interactive displays inside the free museum or joining a family-oriented nature activity program over at the Beetle Rock Nature Center across the road.
From the museum, a side road leads out to Crescent Meadow, where you may catch sight of black bears foraging for berries and acorns, and past a drive-through giant sequoia tree on its way out to Moro Rock, where a giant staircase leads to uplifting vistas of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Just north of the Giant Forest, Lodgepole Village has a helpful park visitor center that sells first-come, first-served tickets for guided tours of splendid Crystal Cave. This underground cave is stuffed with stalactites, stalagmites, and other calcite formations, as well as diverse wildlife, with some tiny, mostly invertebrate species found here that exist nowhere else in the world.
South of the Giant Forest, the Generals Highway descends like a roller coaster into the Sierra Nevada foothills area of the park, where you can visit Native American archaeological sites and hike to summertime swimming holes in the Kaweah River basin. Beyond the park’s Foothills Entrance Station, a narrow, rugged 25-mile side road doggedly climbs to the 19th-century mining settlement of Mineral King, with its epic panoramas of Sierra Nevada peaks all around.
Kings Canyon National Park
North of Sequoia National Park, the star attraction here is the Kings Canyon, which in fact is even deeper than the Grand Canyon. Amazingly, you can drive right down to the bottom of the canyon on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, which links the park’s main visitor centers of Grant Grove and Cedar Grove. The byway also passes through the Giant Sequoia National Monument of the Sequoia National Forest, passing Hume Lake and several meditative hiking trails that run deep into the forest to visit giant sequoias like the Boole Tree.
Nearer the park entrance, the Grant Grove area offers a self-guided interpretive trail around its impressive stands of giant sequoia trees. For a sneak peek of the scenery you’ll get while driving down into the canyon, detour out to Panoramic Point. Before arriving in Cedar Grove at the end of the scenic byway, take the kids on a tour of Boyden Cavern, a limestone and marble cave with fascinating natural formations inside.
The byway then cruises east alongside the Kings River, where summer beaches and swimming holes appear, past Cedar Grove village, roadside Roaring Falls, wildflower-strewn Zumwalt Meadow, and towering granite rock formations like North Dome and the Grand Sentinel. Road’s End is the jumping-off point for backcountry trips on foot and horseback high into the Sierra Nevada.