Discover California's hidden wonder, Kings Canyon

Kings Canyontravel planner: camping, lodging, hiking, and more

The first things that grab you about Kings Canyon are theextremes: roaring whitewater, the world's most massive trees,hidden caves of solid marble, and ― just outside the park'sboundaries ― one of the deepest canyons in North America.

After these superlatives sink in, the next things you discoverare Kings Canyon's smallest details: a rainbow trout battlingagainst swift runoff, the ruddy bark of an incense cedar, and aninch-high puff of a plant called a pussy paw, which slowly raisesits gray shoots off the ground as the sun warms the canyonfloor.

Five hours north of Los Angeles, five south of San Francisco, anhour east of Fresno, Kings Canyon National Park is California'sgreat secret: uncrowded even on a summer weekend, blessed withdramatically diverse landscapes, and with some of the bestbackcountry hiking anywhere. June here is still very much spring,with snowy white yuccas in bloom, rivers and waterfalls at theirwildest, and dogwoods dotting meadows beneath giant sequoias.

The Sierra's standout drive

The steeply curving 30-mile trip down into the canyon along theKings Canyon Scenic Byway (State 180) is one of the most stunningin all of California. As you begin your descent, you feel as ifyou're dropping off the crest of some Sierra roller coaster. Thenext hour and a half to the end of the road is a trip to remember― vistas stretching 50 miles or more, the junction of twogiant rivers (the South and Middle Forks of the Kings), and, rightnow, the canyon's yuccas.

As California poppies are to the coast in spring, so are yuccasto the scrublands of the southern Sierra in late May and June.Their creamy white towers of blossoms are scattered like beaconsacross the rocky cliffs at around 4,000 feet, visible from ahalf-mile away. The showy flower spikes mark the end of a multiyeargrowth cycle, a last hurrah before the plants shrivel away.Alongside the blooming yuccas, you'll see younger ones readyingtheir flower spikes for next spring, looking like 10-foot-tallstalks of asparagus.

Extremes again: tall yuccas, canyon cliffs, giant sequoias― and, a few miles from the road, Boyden Cavern, where anarrow entrance leads you into a cave carved from solid marble,formed from the massive pressure of tectonic plates on underlyingSierra limestone. Kings Canyon and neighboring Sequoia NationalPark together boast more than 200 caves, but Boyden is one of themost accessible.

On a 45-minute tour, guide John Lysaught leads a group pastmarble formations that resemble striped soda straws and stacks ofpancakes dripping with maple syrup. When he turns out the cave'slights to show off the utter darkness and silence, someonenervously asks how the group would fare in an earthquake. "Oh,you'd be absolutely fine," Lysaught says. "You're encased in themiddle of solid rock. You probably wouldn't even hear it."

Waterfalls and green meadows

Part of the pleasure of visiting Kings Canyon is the chance tosee it with experts. After spending 27 years as a park ranger,naturalist Jim Warner now leads seminars for the Sequoia NaturalHistory Association. "I learned to carry binoculars always," saysWarner on a Saturday afternoon walk through Zumwalt Meadow, a gemof a spot on the valley floor just off the scenic byway. Provinghis point, he raises his binoculars and gestures to a pair ofwhite-throated swifts flying near the top of the 8,717-foot graniteNorth Dome. "Watch, watch," he says excitedly. "They'll go up bythat cliff there and then ― swoop! ― right into thecrack in the rock. That's where they nest."

The South Fork of the Kings River, which gushes whitewateron the drive in, winds more lazily past Zumwalt Meadow, formingswirling turquoise pools framed by bright green meadow grasses andferns. This area is studded with lupines and pussy paws, fairlyflat, and perfect for a leisurely loop hike and a picnic.

Two miles east of the meadow is Roads End, where you can jumpoff onto other trails and revel in the intimacy of the valley flooritself. Ambitious hikers can tackle the Mist Trail, which climbssteeply alongside the Kings River, past waterfalls that thunder soaggressively you can feel the reverberations in your chest.

Hiking the Mist Trail in June is as awesome a Sierra experienceas one can have. Still, the view of the canyon floor at Roads Endis just as powerful. The canyon's glacier-scrubbed granite wallsrise as high as those in Yosemite Valley. But Yosemite Valleystretches a full mile wide; here, Kings Canyon is only a half-mileacross. The granite feels close, as if you're enfolded into thevery Sierra Nevada itself. It's a classic Kings Canyon moment:intimate but grand, with past, present, and future caught insculpted rock and spring sunlight.

Kings Canyon travel planner: camping, lodging, hiking, and more

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