Between Yosemite and Sequoia National Park, the star attraction here is the Kings Canyon. Famous Sierra Nevada conservationist John Muir once wrote of the Kings Canyon that it was "a rival of the Yosemite." Today, this canyon carved by glaciers and cut by the Kings River can claim to be the deepest in the USA. It reaches a maximum depth of 8200 feet, when measured from Spanish Peak down to the confluence of the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River. That's even deeper than Arizona's Grand Canyon!
So why doesn't the Kings Canyon always seem that deep? At the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River has cut the rocks more steeply, to an average depth of a mile. But here in the Sierra Nevada, the Kings Canyon's walls were flattened and widened by the moving weight of massive glaciers during the planet's last ice age. Today, in many places these walls rise only 4000 feet or less. On average, the Grand Canyon measures a mile (over 5200 feet deep).
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.
In the 20th century, plans to dam the Kings River were proposed, first by logging companies and then by politicians and developers looking for ways to divert more of the Sierra Nevada's precious watershed to coastal urban areas such as around San Francisco and Los Angeles. Unlike what happened at Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley, though, a dam was never built here on the Kings River inside the national park. We think John Muir would have been proud of that.