High Sierra secret

Discover California's hidden wonder, Kings Canyon
Abigail Peterson

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

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

After these superlatives sink in, the next things you discover are Kings Canyon's smallest details: a rainbow trout battling against swift runoff, the ruddy bark of an incense cedar, and an inch-high puff of a plant called a pussy paw, which slowly raises its gray shoots off the ground as the sun warms the canyon floor.

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

The Sierra's standout drive

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

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

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

On a 45-minute tour, guide John Lysaught leads a group past marble formations that resemble striped soda straws and stacks of pancakes dripping with maple syrup. When he turns out the cave's lights to show off the utter darkness and silence, someone nervously asks how the group would fare in an earthquake. "Oh, you'd be absolutely fine," Lysaught says. "You're encased in the middle 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 to see it with experts. After spending 27 years as a park ranger, naturalist Jim Warner now leads seminars for the Sequoia Natural History Association. "I learned to carry binoculars always," says Warner on a Saturday afternoon walk through Zumwalt Meadow, a gem of a spot on the valley floor just off the scenic byway. Proving his point, he raises his binoculars and gestures to a pair of white-throated swifts flying near the top of the 8,717-foot granite North Dome. "Watch, watch," he says excitedly. "They'll go up by that cliff there and then ― swoop! ― right into the crack in the rock. That's where they nest."

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The South Fork of the Kings River, which gushes whitewater on the drive in, winds more lazily past Zumwalt Meadow, forming swirling turquoise pools framed by bright green meadow grasses and ferns. This area is studded with lupines and pussy paws, fairly flat, and perfect for a leisurely loop hike and a picnic.

Two miles east of the meadow is Roads End, where you can jump off onto other trails and revel in the intimacy of the valley floor itself. Ambitious hikers can tackle the Mist Trail, which climbs steeply alongside the Kings River, past waterfalls that thunder so aggressively you can feel the reverberations in your chest.

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

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