The Best Hiking Trails in Kings Canyon National Park
It was Ansel Adams's favorite park for a reason: Catch the best scenery and the best miles on these six trails.
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Most often mentioned in conjunction with its next-door-neighbor Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park has no trouble standing on its own. First protected in part as General Grant National Park in 1890, Kings Canyon became a national park in 1940, and counted photographic luminary Ansel Adams among its early supporters. It is known for its huge sequoia trees, including the gigantic General Grant Tree in Grant Grove.
The park offers a variety of terrain for hikers of all levels. So whether you’re looking for a simple, scenic day hike or a multiple-night trek along a portion of the John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park has you covered.
Grant Tree Trail
The Grant Grove is one of the top draws in Kings Canyon National Park, in large part because it contains the park’s most important sequoia, the General Grant Tree. To view what President Coolidge proclaimed the nation’s Christmas tree in 1926, head out on the short and paved, but beautiful, trail from the General Grant Tree parking area, about 1 mile northwest of the Kings Canyon Visitor Center. At just 1/3-mile, this is an easy hike for the whole family.
Rae Lakes Loop
For a multi-day hike, the Rae Lakes Loop is a winner. One of the most popular hikes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, trail quotas often fill up during the summer, so consider making a reservation for this 41.4 mile loop. You will also need a wilderness permit, which will be issued at the Roads End station, 5.5 miles beyond Cedar Grove.
Throughout the course of the trail, you will climb from 5,035 feet at the trailhead to 11,978 feet at Glen Pass. Creek crossings can pose a problem in the early season of May and June, depending on the snow year, so make sure you’ve brushed up on how to safely cross moving water, and be prepared to turn around if things get too spicy.
Due to this trails popularity, there are limits to how many nights hikers can stay at certain lakes. You’ll also need to store your food in a bear canister.
Park Ridge Trail
Park Ridge Trail is one of the most scenic routes in Kings Canyon, and its easy enough for a casual dayhike. The level path follows a forested ridge, where you can take in great views east and west. The trail ends at a fire lookout that is sometimes staffed by a resident volunteer; when the volunteer is around, hikers are welcome to enter the fire lookout and enjoy a chat. The trail starts at the parking area for Panoramic Point, which is a great overlook on the edge of a cliff just a few miles from Grant Grove Village. Park Ridge Trail and Panoramic Point to Park Ridge Fire Lookout is 4.9 miles out and back.
Big Baldy Ridge
While giant sequoia trees are the main attraction in King Canyon National Park, the granite peaks of this ridge are also show stoppers. The highest point in the park, Big Baldy tops out at 8,209 feet. You can reach the peak via a 4.5 mile, round-trip trail that is easy to follow and not too steep. You’ll gain 60 feet of elevation right near the start and then follow the trail through thick conifer forest up to the summit, with several viewpoints along the way. Take in views of the Sierra Nevada mountains from lowlands to snow-capped peaks.
Those interested in extending their hike can continue on for another half mile to catch a view of Chimney Rock. The trailbegins at the Generals Highway (CA 198).
For a longer dayhike, the 9-mile trail to Mist Falls links woodlands, wildflower-strewn meadows, and views of a surging river, gaining a modest 600 feet along the way, mostly over the last mile to the falls. After making your way through a marshy area, you’ll come upon Bubbs Creek. Stay on the trail for Mist Falls, as another branch of the trail will take you into the Kings Canyon backcountry.
The final portion of the trail to the falls gets steeper and rockier as it hugs the Kings River. (While the pools of water forming between the cascades and rapids in the river may look inviting, fast currents and cold water make swimming hazardous.)
Continue on the trail on a natural granite staircase that eventually leads to the falls. Take in the views from flat, granite boulders along the way and then pop out past the waterfall to Paradise Valley where you can camp and eventually connect with the Pacific Crest Trail if you are so inclined.
John Muir Trail
For those looking to get in a portion of the John Muir Trail, which extends from Mount Whitney to Yosemite National Park, check out the 83.7 miles that go through Kings Canyon National Park. Generally most accessible from July-September, depending on the snow year, this portion of the JMT can be busy, but if planned correctly, it’s a beautiful way to get a taste of the trail. Highlights include high-altitude oasis Big Pete’s Meadow and rocky, 11,760-foot Kearsarge Pass.
The easiest way to connect to this portion of the JMT is from Devils Postpile National Monument, near Mammoth Lakes, CA. A wilderness permit is required for all treks.
All of the above-mentioned trails are best hiked in the spring, summer and fall. Kings Canyon National Park is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which are known for heavy snowfall in the winter, often making trails inaccessible.
There’s an App for That
Looking for an easy, free guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon? The parks’ official app provides site information for nearly 200 locations in the parks and has an “Off the Beaten Path” section with tips and hikes. The app is available for both Android and Apple devices.
Since cell phone service and wi-fi are extremely limited in the parks, hikers are encouraged to download information, including maps, from the app prior to arriving in the park. The downloaded information can then be used offline when you are out on the trail.