on October 11, 2008
In the vast Sierra wilderness, far to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is yet a grander valley of the same kind. It is situated on the south fork of the Kings River, above the most extensive groves and forests of the giant sequoia, and beneath the shadows of the highest mountains in the range, where canyons are the deepest and the snow-laden peaks are crowded most closely together.—John Muir, 1891This is a line of a park, perhaps a Yosemite squeezed into a tighter cross-section and thus without the broad valley floor. Without the crowds, too: it’s not easy to reach, but we were rewarded with spectacular views down the narrow river valley, its sheer granite rock faces rising above the river and the roadbed. Kings Canyon shares its southern boundary with Sequoia NP, and the two are administered as one unit. In fact, you can’t get (by car) to Kings Canyon without driving through part of Sequoia (its little NW corner, containing the General Grant tree and surrounding sequoia grove), and one $20 admission gives you a week’s access to both parks.This place is large, but only one road enters the park, and none cross it. The eastern boundary lies along the ridgeline of the Sierras, dotted with a series of peaks that push into five figures of altitude (including 14,491’ Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US). The backcountry is said to be spectacular, with alpine lakes and magnificent scenery that must indeed be spectacular if it outpaces the small piece that we visited.Highway 180 leaves Grant Grove in this odd little disconnected section of Kings Canyon that began life as General Grant NP. The road is a 35-mile long spur that soon flanks the South Fork of the Kings River, terminating (appropriately enough) at Road’s End. The real journey begins not long after you pass Kings Canyon Lodge, an iconoclastic throwback of a place that maintains its first-generation gas pumps, cheap rooms, and decent ice cream without the need for any web presence at all. We pulled in after lunch, and woke the surly teen that eventually provided us with two overpriced but deeply appreciated cones. You may wish to stop for gas: no fuel is sold in either of these two parks, and it will be a while before you’ll have other options.You’ve climbed some to get this far, and a mile past the lodge, you get your reward: a terrific view down the canyon from Yucca Point, from which the road descends to the valley floor to follow the river. We encountered three German travelers here, providing each other with the obligatory service as each other’s trip photographers. The day was a little hazy, but the view was still worth lingering for.The road was recently repaved, as evidence by new guardrails and nearly spotless pavement. Kings Canyon is even deeper than the Grand Canyon—it’s 8,000 feet below the mountain ridges above—and you do feel as if you’ve entered a deep, long trench. It isn’t a match for Yosemite Valley, which spreads out gloriously for a mile on either side of its river. Here, there are no lush meadows or slowly moving streams. Instead, the Kings rushes down the middle with young, fresh rocks jutting out all over the place, looking impervious to change except for the agent responsible for all this carving running smack through the middle of it.It’s about 15 miles to the park’s boundary, and 20-30 minutes drive from Yucca Point (and 30 miles/1 hour from Grant Grove). This is the center of ‘activity’ in the park, where the modest visitor center is located, along with the park store, some of the campgrounds, and the Cedar Grove Lodge that provides the only hotel accommodations in this section of the park (and only 18 rooms). We pulled in for a stop, chatted with the ranger, worked on a junior ranger badge, and listened to the elderly gentleman who sold us batteries in the camp store. As we suspected, he didn’t get a lot of customers (and would gladly have talked to us longer), but he couldn’t say enough about the park’s beauty, which he explored every chance he got.As we headed back to the car to continue towards Road’s End, we spotted a few deer grazing between the young pine trees between the buildings. Unlike the deer in Yosemite, they weren’t used to having humans around, and we had to move carefully to keep them in sight and get the obligatory pictures. We crossed back over the Kings River, stopping at Canyon View and another viewpoint for pictures and neck-breaking appreciation of the canyon’s depth. The glacial nature of the valley is fully apparent from the nearly perfect U-shaped profile above the river. We made a short hike to Roaring River Falls just to the south of the road, and in an unanticipated surprise, laid down on Muir Rock, a gigantic glacial oddity on the river’s edge. It was here that John Muir spoke often about the beauty of the Sierras, and the worth of preserving this area and the sequoias. It’s amazing to think about Muir and a crowd of people reaching this spot in the first decade of the 20th century: no paved road, no nearby towns, no park infrastructure. It must have taken a major expedition to reach this location with an audience in tow.I lay on my back and looked up at the sky and mountains, then down at the river. The only sounds were the running water and a little bit of wind in the trees. It wasn’t so hard to imagine Muir here, 100 years ago, imploring the beginnings of the Sierra Club to preserve this wilderness, and not sacrifice it to logging, cattle, or sheep. It took a long time to set this area aside. Muir's description of Kings Canyon as ‘a rival to the Yosemite’ wasn’t enough to preserve it. The Canyon survived plans to dam the Kings River and turn the valley into a reservoir, to log the area, and to expand access and build a ski resort. Despite nearly seven decades as a park, it has yet to see a fraction of the development that its other Sierra neighbors have experienced. Ironically, that’s due in large part to the stubbornness of the original concessionaire, who resisted all attempts to force him to build facilities here when he could be improving his holdings at Sequoia’s Giant Forest, which was already drawing crowds. It’s an odd turn on Muir’s belief that such places should be saved from the ravages of commerce: he feared the impulse that led humans to log these forests, and believed that we would "sell the rain clouds and the snow and the rivers to be cut up and carried away, if that were possible." In the end, commerce proved to be his ally. I’m sure he would have approved.
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