After reluctantly leaving Sequoia (chronicled in a separate journal) at noon on our second full day of travel, we headed north to Kings Canyon. We explored both sections of this park, the southern one containing Grant Grove and a next-door neighbor to Sequoia; the second and by far the larger section containing some of the nation's most spectacular backcountry.
Later that night, we finished a twilight drive from Fresno to Yosemite, for a night at Yosemite’s Wawona Hotel. A welcome change in price and atmosphere from Sequoia's Wuksachi Lodge, this was our favorite accomodation of the trip. An even longer drive the next night brought us to Panamint Springs Resort on the edge of Death Valley. It’s hardly a resort, but it was a welcome sight at the end of a long, long day.
This is hardly a recommended way to see the Sierras. We covered over 1,000 miles and had a great time in our little red rented Dodge Caliber, with four full days of beautiful places, and three nights of driving and talking. We easily could have spent the whole time in any one of the places we visited, but seeing them back to back (to back to back) was a neat experience.
If you’re heading this way: be sure to leave plenty of time for driving mountain roads. There’s a reason that only one highway crosses these mountains. You can make good time in the valleys, through Barstow and Bakersfield and Visalia, but moving around the parks themselves is (thankfully) slow.
Kings Canyon is empty, isolated, and beautiful. You have to make a long one way drive to get here, and not many people do. We arrived in mid-afternoon on the 2nd Saturday in June, under perfect clear blue skies. Hardly anyone was here, either on the road, at Boyden Cavern, at the campsite and ranger station, or at Muir Rock in the middle of the Kings River.
Yosemite is soooo beautiful, and soooo crowded. I’d love to come back, and figure out a way to enjoy this spectacular place with a little more solitude. As usual, I think that would mean spending several days here, hitting the popular sights (Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Bridalveil Falls) first thing in the morning, and then heading off to hike. It reminded me a lot of Yellowstone: tremendous crowds that you can avoid with a little effort. For example, we arrived in the Valley at the classic Tunnel View, and after standing with the throngs and waiting a turn at the edge of viewing area, crossed the road and hiked a short distance up the hillside towards Inspiration Point. Suddenly we were alone. Another highlight was wading and swimming in the Tulare River, enjoying the cool water and the blue sky and gazing up at Half Dome and the rest of the amazing surroundings.
You want empty? Death Valley in June is empty. We drove through on a Monday morning, hitting the highlights of this austere but beautiful place. Badwater, at 284 feet below sea level, sits at the bottom of this dry, hot basin, bordered on either side by mountains. June isn’t prime time for a visit, but we escaped the noonday heat and had just a taste of what this gigantic park has to offer.
In the end, it was a sampler for a huge swath of country that you could spend years exploring. Mountains, desert, valleys, rivers, waterfalls—we’re both aching to come back with the rest of the family.