Believe it or not, Yosemite doesn't have a monopoly on unique granite rock formations and high-elevation mountain peaks. The ongoing uplift of the Sierra Nevada range and its continual erosion by the natural forces of wind and water have crafted more natural wonders. Take time to explore the granite domes and craggy peaks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the eastern Sierra Nevada, where spiring Mount Whitney towers above everything else.
Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park is just a half-day's drive south of Yosemite. To really appreciate the canyon itself, drive along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, which is usually open from mid-April through mid-October, all the way to the bottom of the Kings River.
Twisting for 35 miles between the park's main hubs of Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, this byway abruptly comes to a stop at Road's End. There the Grand Sentinel (elevation 8,150 feet) stretches up toward heaven, while nearby North Dome (elevation 8,717 feet) calls out to adventurous rock climbers. A great vantage point to see both of these granite formations is from the gentle 1.5-mile nature loop trail through stream-fed Zumwalt Meadow nearby.
Sequoia National Park
For a rewarding short hike, tackle the 0.25-mile granite staircase cut into Moro Rock, from where you can see the Great Western Divide of the Sierra Nevada spread out before you -- as long as it's a clear day, that is. You'll find the trailhead near Crescent Meadow in the Giant Forest area of the park.
Most of this park's impressive mountain peaks are hidden in the backcountry. But if you have time for a detour, take the 25-mile narrow road up from the Sierra Nevada foothills area into the Mineral King Valley, remarkable for being surrounded by craggy mountain summits.
The views are dominated by Sawtooth Peak (elevation 12,343 feet). Like Yosemite's Tioga Road, the drive to Mineral King grants some of the most awesome views of the Sierra Nevada mountains that you can get without hiking or backpacking overnight into the wilderness.
Mount Whitney and the Eastern Sierra Nevada
On the eastern side of Sequoia National Park, Mount Whitney (elevation 14,505 feet) is the tallest peak in North America outside of Alaska. Closed off and snowed in during winter, the 13-mile-long Whitney Portal Road branches west off of U.S. Hwy. 395, just outside the town of Lone Pine. This epic scenic drive switchbacks up through the foothills to the trailhead for ascending Mount Whitney, and your heart will be in your throat while driving the final few miles.
Closer to Yosemite National Park, Devils Postpile National Monument (elevation 7,560 feet) is a rare rock formation of columnar basalt that rises over 60 feet high. Formed by erupting volcanoes and later carved by ancient glaciers, these columns display remarkable symmetry.
To see even more natural wonders, hike to nearby Minaret Falls (a 3-mile round trip) or Rainbow Falls (5-mile round trip). The national monument is typically open from early June through late October, weather permitting.
The entrance is just outside Mammoth Mountain resort, where most visitors must park and take a mandatory shuttle into the national monument. For updated road conditions and current closure information, call (760) 924-5500.