Get the most out of your first time visit to Sequoia and Kings Canyon Parks. Although you could easily take a whole week to explore both of these grand national parks, a few days will let you see many of the best-known natural wonders, with time for day hikes, riverside rambles, and scenic drives in the deep forests, canyons, and valleys. The best time to visit both parks is during summer or early fall, when all of the roads are open.
Drive into Kings Canyon National Park, stopping at Big Stump to pay your entrance fee or show your parks pass. Spend the morning around Grant Grove Village, marveling at the General Grant Tree and browsing the nature exhibits inside the Kings Canyon Visitor Center. Stock up on snacks and drinks at the store before heading down the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Highway 180), a 30-mile roller coaster ride down to the canyon bottom at the rushing Kings River. Keep driving past Cedar Grove Village to Roaring River Falls and lush Zumwalt Meadow, a perfect spot for wildlife watching. At Road’s End, turn around and return to the village, which has a simple lodge, store, grill, and campgrounds.
Have breakfast at the lodge or your campsite before heading back to Road’s End, where trailheads lead into the wilderness. It’s a doable half-day hike to Mist Falls, at its best in late spring or early summer when melting snow crashes over the granite rocks. After you return to the trailhead, start driving up and out of the canyon on the scenic byway. This time, take a detour to Hume Lake, a recreational camp where you can picnic, swim, and have a picnic lunch. In the afternoon, drive the Generals Highway through the Sequoia National Forest and into Sequoia National Park. Step inside the kid-friendly Giant Forest Museum, then take a short hike around Round Meadow on the gentle Big Trees Trail or hop on a shuttle bus to the trailhead to the General Sherman Tree, the biggest tree by volume in the world. Spend the night in Lodgepole Village, which has a busy campground, store, and deli.
In the morning, stop into the Lodgepole Visitor Center. Drive back to the Giant Forest Museum and leave your car in the parking lot. Catch the free shuttle bus along Crescent Meadow Road, stopping to climb the stairs to the top of Moro Rock for panoramic views. After your afternoon tour of Crystal Cave, take a head-spinning drive down the Generals Highway to the Foothills area of Sequoia National Park, where river swimming is popular later in summer. Eat a hearty dinner and stay at a motel or camp in the town of Three Rivers, just outside the park.
With another day to spend, take the hair-raising mountain road with nearly 700 hairpin turns from Three Rivers up to the remote Mineral King Valley. If you decided to camp in this high-elevation valley the night before, then you already have a head start on acclimatizing for a day hike out of the valley to one of several gorgeous alpine lakes. After your hike, stop at Silver City Mountain Resort for homemade pie and coffee before making the drive back to Three Rivers at the end of this memorable trip.