NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California

Kings Canyon Scenic Byway

The Two Forks of the Kings River- Kings Canyon National Park

Short but sweet. The Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is Hwy. 180 from the Big Stump entrance station to Kings Canyon National Park until it runs out of real estate at Roads End, a stretch of about 40 miles or so. Along the way it traverses parts of Sequoia National Forest and the park and parallels the Kings River for much of the way. For visitors to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks this is the drive to take, far prettier and more interesting than the General's Highway. It just doesn't have the famous redwoods to gaze at. And the best campgrounds in the park are situated near the end of the road.

Shortly after the start one will pass the Sunset and Azalea campgrounds, a good place to stay if you are visiting the park for the first time and needing to see it all. You can head east on Hwy. 180 but also backtrack onto the General's Highway for the trip south into the area where many of the famous giant sequoia are located, including the General Sherman Tree. If you are camping and staying a few days, our recommendation would be to do the General's Highway first while camped at either of the aforementioned campgrounds and then head off on Hwy. 180 and camp the rest of the time near Cedar Grove.

But we digress. Just down the road from the two campgrounds you will encounter the general Grant Grove and specifically the General Grant Tree. It doesn't quite have the reputation of the General Sherman Tree (the largest tree on earth) but its a nice giant sequoia. But another digression: the General Sherman Tree is the largest in terms of total mass but it's dead at the top and not nearly as tall as other trees you will see. So if you are impressed by width and mass gaze in awe, along with all of the other visitors sharing the path.

Saying goodbye to General Grant you will pass the primitive Princess forest service campground and have the opportunity to divert to Hume Lake (left), a pretty alpine lake with a very popular, reservation-only forest service campground and some commercial ventures at one end. If you need to do a lake feel free to stay. For us it's nothing special. Continuing on one will pass the rustic Kings Canyon Lodge and then the primitive Convict Flat forest service campground, so named because convict labor was used to build the road and this was a staging area for them. Next up is Boyden Cave, a commercial venture offering hourly underground tours into the world much beloved by bats.

Then its on to Grizzly Falls (left), a nice, modest waterfall with easy access for anyone just a few yards from the road. Then comes Cedar Grove, the major staging area for this part of Kings Canyon National Park. Surrounding the visitor center are the Sentinel, Sheep Creek and Moraine campgrounds, similar in many ways except that Sentinel is closest to the visitor center, the campfire programs, the small store and the showers. In our opinion this is a nice place to camp but one issue should be considered. These campgrounds are at about 4,600 feet, 2,000 feet lower than those at Sunset and Azalea. So if the weather is oppressive, and it can be, higher can be better.

But moving east, next up is Knapp's Cabin, a rustic place that will impress you more when you realize that it was never slept in; it was built to store fishing gear used by Mr. Knapp and his friends, who loved to fish and must have had a lot of gear.

Then comes a must-see, Roaring River Falls (left). It won't impress with its height but in the spring there's some real power in evidence as it empties into the Roaring River. The name is apt. It's a short walk to the falls on a paved path so anyone can negotiate it and sit for a minute and be impressed yet again with the power of mother nature.

Last up is Zumwalt Meadow, a pretty and peaceful place to have lunch and contemplate life; there's a nice trail of about 1.5 miles that's flat and fun for everyone-except your dog. She isn't allowed.

The unsung hero of this drive is simply the closeness to the impressive Kings River. Especially in the early summer, when the runoff is underway, this is one impressive (and dangerous) body of water. Later in the year, when normalcy approaches, you can actually fish here; its a wild trout river with a two fish limit as of this writing in 2010.

For the uninitiated, the roads in this park, including this one, don't look long on a map but after awhile you come to realize that it takes forever to get from point A to point B. Allow plenty of time to move around, and don't over commit to an itinerary that involves a lot of driving. This is not a place to plan a day trip.