Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: Ancient Giants, Raw Beauty
by Ashley Lyn Olson
Cautiously taking her time, Ashley Lyn Olson was able to scale the flat rock at the top of Beetle Rock Trail in Sequoia National Park, California.
As you enter Sequoia National Park on U.S. Highway 198, you are greeted by four giant sequoia redwoods, the “Four Guardsmen.” The ancient trees are usually the first stop for visitors, but I cruise right by, knowing this is only the beginning, and there is so much to see. Together, the two neighboring parks cover almost 1,400 acres in California, with some of the world’s oldest, biggest and most beautiful trees — not to mention lush fields, deep caves and unparalleled scenery.
The Tunnel Rock historical marker lets me know I have officially arrived. When the park was established in 1890, a section of this road was blocked by an enormous rock, so it was chiseled out to allow people to pass. The road has been diverted around the historic rock, but visitors are welcome to get out of their vehicles for a closer look.
Ashley Lyn Olson and Steven Sanchez
Continuing the scenic drive brings me to the Giant Forest, home to the famous General Sherman Tree, the largest in the world at 275 feet tall. From the accessible parking space and shuttle stop, the paved trail to the base of the tree is less than 0.2 miles with very little grade change. A side trail goes up to a viewing platform and ends at stairs which lead to the general parking lot.
Another trail that goes off from the General Sherman Tree is the Congress Trail, one of my favorites. It is fully paved but with a number of inclines, so wheelchairs with power assistance do better. The time is worth it as the trail loops around dozens of Giant Sequoias, including the Lincoln Tree, Washington Tree, General Lee Tree, and clusters of trees known as the Senate and the House; of course the President Tree is also nearby.
Across from the Giant Forest Museum and Sentinel Tree, many wheelchair-using visitors will enjoy hiking the Big Trees Trail around Round Meadow. This trail was modified to be level and firm, and during the spring and early fall, the foliage is particularly scenic. The Beetle Rock Trail, just south of the museum, leads out to a huge, mostly flat rock that resembles a beetle’s back. I found I was able to climb this rock to some degree, with caution, in both a manual and power wheelchair. The thrill of the climb was exhilarating enough, and the epic view at sunset made it all that more worth it. The trail itself is a paved half-circle with a couple of inclines.
King’s Canyon plummets 8,200 feet, so sitting that close to the edge is brave.
Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road splits off just behind Giant Museum. You enter into a waterfall of ferns, as if the Giant Sequoias were not breathtaking enough, and drive alongside Moro Rock by the Roosevelt Tree. Keep driving right through a tree at Tunnel Log on the way to Crescent Meadow and Tharp’s Log Cabin, but be mindful of other vehicles.
As you continue northward on Highway 198 into Kings Canyon National Park, it becomes apparent why the famous road is known as Generals Highway. About an hour north of General Sherman Tree, you can’t miss Grant Grove, home to the 268-foot tall General Grant Tree, the second largest in the world behind the General Sherman. This giant tree was also named after a famed Civil War general, Ulysses S. Grant, who went on to be the 18th president of the United States. Grant Grove is also home to Panoramic Point, a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the Sierras at the end of a short path. Two additional overlooks lie just a few miles from the Kings Canyon Visitor Center and Grant Grove Village.
Beyond Grant Grove, the forest begins to diminish in the High Sierras due to natural elements and the aftermath of recent wildfires. Despite the scorched earth, the land remains fertile and alive with life. Streams run down the rocks, at times merging into falls, circulating rich minerals into the Kings River. Tree saplings spring out of rock cracks pried open by ancient roots.
Only a couple of designated overlooks exist along Kings Canyon, though there are a number of places to pull over. One section overlooks the deepest canyon in all of North America (8,200 feet deep). I had to pull over several times to get close to the edge to take pictures. The raw beauty was astounding. As the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway makes its way to the valley’s belly, layers of the crumbling rock are replaced by a lush landscape, and the Kings River becomes more vivid than ever. Cedar Grove Visitor Center and Village are near the road’s end.
Grizzly Bear Falls, a short trail, and Roaring River Falls Trail, a little longer, both lead to falling water. At autumn’s end, it was surprising to see the falls fully raging. My favorite trail in Cedar Valley is where the Zumwalt Trail and the River Trail connect. Zumwalt Trail links to the short Muir Rock Trail, or a more direct trailhead for Muir Rock is an option with adjacent parking. The River Trail is barrier-free and wide, but many underlying rocks and roots create bumps. The rushing river will make you stop in awe of its majesty and the mighty power of water.
If you don’t mind a little driving, there are a number of hotels and motels with varying levels of accessible options within 30 miles of the parks. Or, if you want to sleep under the giant trees, you can reserve one of the park’s many accessible camping spots or book an accessible room at one of two lodges in the parks.
Wuksachi Lodge, located in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park, is the only option with roll-in showers. The Lodge has two suites with roll-ins and five or six rooms with the same. Rates range from about $185 to $350 per night, depending on the season. If you can make do with a transfer bench, John Muir Lodge, located in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon, has three accessible rooms with transfer benches and is more affordable — $115 to $155. There are also cabins in the park, but none are fully accessible.
For least expensive rates, go after Labor Day and before Memorial Day. A ranger recommended coming between January and early March, but said to reserve early regardless, as accessible rooms do go quickly.
Rolling by on Congress Trail, past the President Tree.