Just a half day's drive south of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are rewarding destinations for hikers of all ages and abilities. Here you can walk in wonder among giant sequoia trees, traipse along nature paths beside rushing rivers and around meadows alive with bird song, and ascend to alpine lakes and celebrated viewpoints of skyscraping Sierra Nevada peaks. The Generals Highway that connects the parks offers trails with more solitude, including into the Jennie Lakes Wilderness and up granite domes and mountain summits.
Here are just a few of our favorite day hikes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Park visitor centers stock interpretive trail brochures, seasonal park newspapers, and other helpful hand-outs for hikers. Also ask about current schedules of ranger-guided walks, which are given year-round (yes, even on snowshoes!). For in-depth hiking guides, check out Mike White's Sequoia National Park: A Complete Hiker's Guide and Kings Canyon National Park: A Complete Hiker's Guide; each book includes a handy pull-out topographic park map.
Sequoia National Park
In the park's Giant Forest, don't miss a visit to the world's largest tree. Starting off Wolverton Road, a gentle 1-mile trail leads down and back to the famous General Sherman Tree, while the 2-mile Congress Trail loops further into the towering forest. Starting outside the Giant Forest Museum, young kids can learn all about giant sequoia ecology on the paved 2/3-mile Big Trees Trail loop. Then drive through the Tunnel Log and stop to climb the 0.25-mile granite stairway up Moro Rock for panoramic mountain views. Nearby Crescent Meadow has peaceful rambles and the High Sierra Trail, which heads out to soaring Eagle View (1.5 miles round trip) and beyond.
Heading south via the Generals Highway, the park's Foothills area offers riverside rambles that visit swimming holes and small waterfalls. Farther south, a narrow, twisting 25-mile side road (usually open from May to October only) leads to the Mineral King Valley (elevation 7500 feet). There more challenging day hikes steeply climb from the valley's floor to alpine lakes, including Monarch Lakes (8.5 miles round-trip) and Eagle Lake (6.8 miles round-trip). The White Chief Trail (6 miles round-trip) visits a historic miner's cabin. For families, the easy 2-mile Cold Springs Nature Trail follows alongside the Kaweah River and also visits a historic mining settlement.
Kings Canyon National Park
Start in Grant Grove, home of the park's most famous giant sequoia tree. The General Grant Tree, the USA's only living National Shrine, is reached via an easy 1/3-mile paved trail. The trail passes the Fallen Monarch, a toppled-over giant sequoia tree hollowed out by fire that once served as a U.S. cavalry horse stable, as well as a hotel and a saloon (yup, it's really that big!). To leave the crowds behind, try Grant Grove's quieter 1.5-mile North Grove Loop or detour south along the Generals Highway and descend into Redwood Canyon, home to the world's largest grove of giant sequoia trees, networked by hiking trails.
Heading down the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Hwy. 180), turn off for Converse Basin, where a meadow lies scattered with the stumps of giant sequoias that were logged in the 19th century. Then take the buggy 2-mile round-trip hike deeper into the forest to visit the old-growth Boole Tree. Farther down Hwy. 180, Hume Lake is a popular recreational spot, especially in summer, with a 2.5-mile recreation path.
Between April and October, you can drive the rest of the scenic byway all the way down into the canyon to Cedar Grove. Amble alongside the Kings River and find summertime swimming holes, or take an easy 1.5-mile stroll over the bridge and the boardwalk around Zumwalt Meadow, which offers superb wildlife watching. From Road's End, it's almost an 8-mile round trip to beautiful Mist Falls, beyond which you can continue another 2.5 miles each way to Paradise Valley. For more solitude, the steep 5-mile round-trip climb to Cedar Grove Overlook is breathtaking. For even more impressive scenery and rare bird-watching opportunities, you can tackle the entire 8-mile Hotel Creek-Lewis Creek Loop, best hiked in the cool of the morning.