Photo: Snowy mountains and large lake

This vast California park is filled with high mountains, deep canyons, and world-famous trees. Hikers can take the Kearsarge Pass through Onion Valley to see Kearsarge Lake, seen here, and its peaks.

Photograph by Phil Schermeister

Location: California

Sequoia: Established September 25, 1890

Kings Canyon: Established March 4, 1940

Size: 865,964 acres

Bigness—big trees and big canyons—inspired the separate founding of each of these parks. In 1943 Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks began to be jointly administered. The two contiguous parks are 66 miles long and 36 miles at their widest point.

Nearly 97 percent of these vast parks is wilderness. A backpacker can hike to a spot that is farther from a road than any other place in the lower 48 states. But visitors can easily reach Sequoia's famed attraction, the Giant Forest of sequoias.

Relatively few visitors hike any of the parks' 800 miles of trails. Still, there are enough backpackers to worry officials, who protect the backcountry by regulating their numbers. Mount Whitney, at 14,494 feet the highest peak in the United States south of Alaska, rises at the eastern border. Backpackers coming in from the east can get to Whitney in one or two days. From the park's western trailheads, they reach it by a 70-mile, 8-day trek across the park's snowswept, glacier-dotted heights.

Some visitors are startled to learn that some of the smoke they see rises from "prescribed burning"—controlled fires deliberately set by employees to help the sequoias by removing undergrowth. In the past, when the park fought all fires, brush and deadwood built up. (Seeds cannot germinate in duff so need fires to open groundcover.) The brush fueled fires that imperiled the sequoias—which resist flames at their bases but can die if fire attacks their crowns.

How to Get There

From Visalia (about 35 miles west), take Calif. 198 to Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance. From Fresno, take Calif. 180 to Kings Canyon’s Big Stump Entrance. The road into Kings Canyon NP extends into Grant Cove (year round) and Cedar Grove (summer only). The Sequoia shuttle (877 287 4453; www.sequoiashuttle.com) costs $15 including entrance fee and may be accessed by reservation from Visalia, Exeter, or Three Rims. In addition, free in-park shuttles in the summer provide a relaxing option for visiting the most popular sections of the park. Airport: Fresno.

When to Go

Spring through fall is the best time for sequoia gazing. Generals Highway, which connects the parks, is open year-round except during heavy snows. From December to April, there is cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in sections of the park, including Giant Forest and Grant Grove.

How to Visit

The two immense parks challenge anyone planning a one-day visit. To appreciate the rugged splendor, you must hike a trail. No east-west road crosses either park. But a drive-in visitor, in a day, can see sequoias in Giant Forest, along the Generals Highway, and in Grant Grove. A quiet walk in a grove of sequoias will give you more than a drive to named trees, which are constantly surrounded by shutterbugs.

Stay long enough to explore both vast parks. Drive to Kings Canyon's beautiful valley, Cedar Grove. On another day visit Crystal Cave and climb Moro Rock. Hike in Sequoia's spectacular Mineral King area.

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