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Fit for a King: Spending Time with the Sequoias in Central California’s Kings Canyon National Park

Family Tree Photo

There’s a measure of explanation that most likely needs to happen when you tell people you’re headed off to Kings Canyon National Park. Specifically, you should be prepared to tell people where exactly it is you’re going.

Even though Kings Canyon covers close to 462,000 acres and has been a national park since 1940, it is oftentimes lumped together with the more famous Sequoia National Park. This tends to render it invisible. As such, you’re probably better off telling people that you’re off to the Sequoias, to do Sequoias-related things. They’ll understand and be appropriately excited for/jealous of you.

They’ll have every right to express either emotion. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, as it is officially dubbed by the U.S. National Park Service, is an exceptional spot for outdoor adventure in Central California. This particularly rings true if you have kids in tow. They will not only be captivated, they will take immense delight in watching you try to wrap your brain around the beautiful-to-the-point-of-surreal landscape that surrounds you at every turn.

Kings Canyon Sunrise

Kings Canyon is prime real estate for families into camping. The campground we stay at is clean, close to some cherished examples of natural splendor, and well-equipped to handle critters great and small that may infiltrate the area in search of s’mores (although the neighborhood squirrels make a valiant effort to swipe some of our goodies). There are cabins and a few lodges you can stay at if you don’t want to rough it; however, going this route may cost you the chance to see the forest in all its early morning glory.

Sentinel 1

Sentinel 2

The star attraction in Sequoia country is the trees, and for obvious reasons. The trees here are not just massive; their existence seems impossible even as you stare deep into their vibrantly red, centuries-old bark. Take Sentinel, the tree located right outside the area’s Giant Forest Museum. The fact that the tree utterly dwarves my daughters isn’t exactly surprising. The fact that it is considered to be an average redwood tree may cause a few jaws to drop.

Heather Tree

Rich Tree

The Giant Forest Museum is linked to an easily walkable pathway called The Big Trees Trail. This title is not a study in hyperbole. Not content to let our kids corner the market on the fun of size comparison, my wife and I take turns being rendered to miniature status by tall lumber. Let the record show that I’m about 6’1” and [REDACTED] pounds. I feel no more than a speck standing in its shadow. It’s almost like the trees are a natural dietary supplement.

Kids on the Tree

 

Fallen Monarch

As we make our way through the trail and other parts of the area, we start to notice the trees are just as fascinating when they aren’t upright. My daughters discover they make excellent places for resting during our 1.5 mile trek. We also learn they make great shelter spaces – not to mention really cool backdrops for family photo opportunities.
Eventually, we learn that these mighty hunks of wood have remarkable staying power even in death. The tree I’m standing in, The Fallen Monarch, has been in this position for at least a century. It’s said that the log was actually used as a hotel back in the day. I can only imagine the accommodations would have been slightly more cramped than your average downtown Parisian hotel. But I’m sure that would still be a more attractive option than putting up tents and blowing up air mattresses that may or may not have a slow leak for some.

Big Tree Trail Meadow

Wild Bear Cub

We’re standing and admiring the meadow that the Big Trees Trail encompasses, trying to convince ourselves what we’re looking at is real and not a painted backdrop. A fit old couple hurriedly approaches us. “We just saw bears on the other side of the trail,” the man says, abuzz with excitement. “A mama bear and a baby bear. They’re just walking around. If you hurry, you can see ‘em!”

He barely finishes his sentence and we’re on the move. We round the bend and tuck into a cluster of other folks in the know. “There it is!” our youngest one whisper/squeals. I follow her finger to spot a massive brown bear lumbering about amongst the redwoods, seemingly oblivious to the gawking humans staring a hole in her fur. As soon as she disappears over a log, a baby cub ambles into view, carefully stepping around fallen leaves and small branches en route to joining his mama. It is adorable and very easy to forget that either beast could rip our faces off and nosh on them for brunch.

Sherman Tree - World's Biggest Tree

Grant Tree - World's 2nd Biggest Tree

The trees and their gargantuan mass attempt to mentally prepare us for our encounters with General Sherman and General Grant, the two biggest trees in the world. They fail in their mission in the best way possible. Even though we have spent several hours looking at bright red trees of near cartoonish proportions, seeing both of these enormous plants is like looking at a redwood for the first time. If you have any potential qualms about eventually growing jaded at the surroundings, a trip to either General will squash those reservations right quick.

Crystal Cave 2

Crystal Cave 1

Confession time: The thing the girls and I were most excited about in the months leading up to our Kings Canyon excursion had nothing to do with trees. It didn’t even have anything to do with stuff above ground. We were sold on camping up here the moment we heard about the underground network of caverns known as Crystal Cave. This stunning labyrinth located in Sequoia National Park does not disappoint. Some of the stalactites and stalagmites we see during our 40 minute tour look as if they’ve been around for millennia. Others look like they are melting, radiating with a shiny glean that instantly informs the eye they’re still taking shape.

The final leg of the tour takes place in a completely darkened chamber, with the only light emanating from the tour guide’s flashlight. The guide encourages silence; the audience complies, save for one small boy who splits through the ambient noise of dripping water with a cry of “it’s scaaaaary!” The guide flips a light switch after a few minutes, and formations that were seemingly non-existent boldly reveal themselves. It’s glorious.

Kids Hugging Tree

As we leave Kings Canyon and the windy roads become the straight grid of farmland, I notice a highway sign. “Fresno – 30 miles” it proclaims. We’re all blown away at how close proper civilization is to Kings Canyon’s magnificent, kid-friendly natural playground. It feels immensely further, especially since not a whole lot of people know it exists.

Rich Manning is a freelance writer that has been covering Orange County’s food, wine, and lifestyle scene for ten years. He currently lives in Fountain Valley with his wife, two daughters, and two dogs.
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