Our National Parks: Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

Ash Mountain, Three Rivers, CA 93271
Established 1890
864,383 Acres

The Big Picture: Upward mobility defines these twin parks at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada. Groves of giant sequoias towering above 200 feet are--no secret here--the centerpiece; rangers estimate that 161,017 of the trees grow in the two parks. Precipitous peaks, culminating in the 14,494-foot summit of Mount Whitney, highest point in the Lower 48, dominate their interior. Even the shape of these parks is tall: Together they stretch 65 miles from north to south but are barely 35 miles across at their widest point.

Both Sequoia and Kings Canyon share the Sierra Nevada's other signature characteristics--mountain lions, black bears, and golden trout that taste like salmon; marble caves and mile-deep canyons where undammed rivers (rare in California) course; arid lowlands where it never snows and peaks where the snow never melts--and since 1943 they've shared one superintendent. But Sequoia, home to the Giant Forest and Mount Whitney, gets the brunt of the day visitors. Kings Canyon, whose creation was largely fought for by hikers who passed through this wilderness on the 220-mile John Muir Trail from Sequoia to Yosemite, is a backpacker's park.

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 2,155,300 total visitors, 36,000 backcountry visitors

Wherever the sequoias are--mostly the parks' western reaches. In Sequoia that's the Giant Forest and 274.9-foot-tall, 36.5-foot-wide General Sherman tree, which was the largest known living organism in the world until last spring, when a 30-acre mushroom in Michigan one-upped it. Despite the emphasis on backpacking in Kings Canyon, thousands do little more than visit the General Grant Tree (bumped to fourth on the Big Living Organism list) and hike the short trails that fan out from Cedar Grove.

Where You Should Go: Anywhere in northern Kings Canyon promises uncrowded, extremely rugged travel; the hitch is that access is almost as difficult as the hiking. North of Cedar Grove, not one road leads into the park. So from Bishop, where you can obtain permits and maps at the ranger station (permits are limited; call 619-873-2500), take California 168 to South Lake Road and the Bishop trailhead in Inyo National Forest. From there, it's a brutal eight-mile, 3,000-vertical-foot climb up to the 11,972-foot Bishop Pass, the park boundary, followed by an easier, 1.5-mile hike down to Dusy Lakes Basin, where you can camp. Make day hikes out to Rainbow and Barrett Lakes, catch some golden trout, look for wolverines, and swat mosquitoes, which in June and July are quite plentiful. The John Muir Trail passes just a few miles south of here, and any stretch of it will feel like the definitive high-altitude hike in the park, ranging from 7,500 to 13,000 feet with few level stretches in between. If you want something easier, try southern Sequoia at Mineral King, where there are respectable, uncrowded backcountry trails but also the amenities of Cold Springs Campground and Mineral King Pack Station (about $50 a day; 209-565-3341).

Don't Forget: Chains for your car. At the higher elevations it can snow at any time.

Where to Bunk: Silver City Resort, 11 housekeeping cabins (woodburning stoves, no electricity) located at 7,000 feet near the terminus of Mineral Point Road in Sequoia.

Food Is: Finest when panhandled. "The best meal in the parks can be had by wandering into a backcountry trail crew's camp a few days after resupply," says a park employee who wishes to remain anonymous. Park Lore: Lightning strikes in the vicinity of Mount Whitney almost every summer afternoon, so one of Sequoia's enduring mysteries is why the Smithsonian Institution built the Whitney shelter with metal roof, door, and window frames. It has been hit at least 12 documented times, and probably many more. (In the mideighties a hiker huddling there during a storm was struck and killed.)

Your Park Service at Work: Not surprisingly, the most controversial issues concern the parks' sentimental favorites, the sequoia forests. From 1891 to 1967 managers suppressed all fires, but for the last 25 years they have been gradually burning the understory around the trees to remove debris that could fuel an uncontrolled wildfire. The problem, say the Save the Redwoods League and other critics, is that the "natural" way in which park officials set fire to ground debris could very well cause uncontrolled wildfires. The parks have agreed to reduce the scale of burning in public areas, ostensibly for better control, though it certainly won't hurt relations if the public doesn't have to look at scarred trees.

On the weirder side, the park has installed outdoor photo displays at several scenic points, depicting what vistas used to look like on clear-air days (ozone levels in the park are among the country's highest, courtesy of Los Angeles).

Where the money goes:
Budget: $8,036,700
Science: 1.4%
Visitor services: 27.5%
Maintenance: 46.0%
Other: 25.1%

Flashlight Reading: My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir (University of Wisconsin Press, $12.95); A Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide to the Sierra Nevada, by Stephen Whitney (Sierra Club Books, $14.95); and Sequoia-Kings Canyon: The Story Behind the Scenery, by Bill Tweed (KC Publications, $5.95).

Fun Index: Imagine the scene 200 miles north in Yosemite Valley and add a bonus point. 4

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