It’s a quiet time of year to be in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks as they transition from fall to winter. The recent snowfall dropped an inch or so at the main visitors’ areas—Wuksachi and Lodgepole Visitor Center in Sequoia, and Grant Grove Village in Kings Canyon. That’s mostly gone now, but chains will be required until spring (current road conditions here) because roads will be icy and snowy. With mild weather forecast for the next ten days, those hoping to catch the last of the fall color, and perhaps a sighting of a black bear’s final foraging, have a fine opportunity for a getaway.
Although the main road that connects the two parks, Generals Highway, is currently open, when winter really arrives that link will close. However, you have some helpful options for leaving your car behind at, or near, your lodgings and getting around within Sequoia. Within the Wuksachi and Lodgepole Visitor Center area, you can take the “Sequoia Shuttle.” It’s free and shuttles run between the Giant Forest Museum, Sherman Tree parking area along the Generals Highway, Wolverton, and Wuksachi Lodge from November 28 - December 1, 2013 and December 26, 2013 - January 1, 2014. Contact the park for details: 1-559-565-4436 or visit the Plan your visit website.
Also recommended: Sequoia Sightseeing Tour, owned and operated by Paul and Becky Bischoff, website here, or (559) 561-4189, leaves daily from Wuksachi for half-day tours.
Activities: When winter arrives, visitors have plenty of snow activities from which to choose. In Sequoia, you can go on a self-guided cross-country ski trail (ski rentals at Wuksachi) or make your way to the Wolverton area for some snow play. Snowshoe walks are usually offered at Wuksachi Lodge on Saturdays and holidays when conditions permit. The park provides snowshoes free for the two-hour, one-mile walk. Group size is limited, so reserve your place at any visitor center or by calling the Giant Forest Museum at 559-565-4480 for the Wuksachi walk.
In Kings Canyon, cross-country skis may be rented at Grant Grove Village. There are a variety of ranger programs including winter snowshoe walks and Giant Sequoia tree walks and talks at Grant Grove Village during the winter. Most are on weekends or Thursday through Sunday. Winter programs (January through April) generally occur on the weekends and include ranger talks in the John Muir Lodge and snowshoe walks. Call the Kings Canyon Visitor Center at 559-565-4307 for the Grant Grove walk.
*** According to the NPS website, "All snowshoe walks are tentative, and may be cancelled due to insufficient snow or other events. A decision will be made by 9 a.m. each morning if a program will be cancelled. Note: snowshoeing may be strenuous and difficult for small children."
Trek to the Nation's Christmas Tree: Personally, I think it also would be very exciting to coordinate a visit to Sequoia/Kings Canyon with the Trek to the Tree, which this year will be held on Sunday, December 8 at 2:30 PM. “Trek to the Tree” is held every year on the second Sunday of December—the day when visitors trek to see the “Nation’s Christmas Tree,” the General Grant Tree, as the center of holiday festivities. The General Grant Tree was designated the “Nation's Christmas Tree” in 1926 by President Calvin Coolidge. At the time it was thought to be the largest tree in the world, but it was later found that the General Sherman was larger and determined that the Grant was the world’s third largest. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared the tree a National Shrine, “in memory of those who have given their lives in service to their country.” During the “Trek to the Tree” events, the National Park Service lays a wreath in honor of those who died. This year’s, the 88th such event, will also include caroling, and a non-denominational Christmas message.
Options for getting to “Trek to the Tree”
The most reliable way of getting to the event, which is sponsored by the Sanger Chamber of Commerce, is probably to take their chartered bus from the chamber’s office. First come-first served reservations can be made beginning November 1st. Contact them at (559) 875-4575. Fax (559) 875-0745. E-mail: email@example.com. You can drive to the Grant Grove, but you would need to carry chains and probably expect slow going that day.
Driving directions: During the summer months, most travelers from the San Francisco Bay Area will take Hwy 180 East from Fresno on the Kings Canyon Highway and enter Kings Canyon through the Kings Canyon Visitor Center (expect at least 5 hours travel time). Travelers from Los Angeles and other places to the south, generally will take Hwy 99 to Visalia and then take Hwy 198 East to enter at the Foothills Visitor Center of Sequoia. Travel between the two parks is on the winding Generals Highway.
Carry Chains! During the winter, however, you might want to modify your route. If the Generals Highway is closed between the parks, those wanting to reach Kings Canyon should come in to the north (Fresno); those wanting to visit the Sequoia area, should come in at the south (Visalia).
Accommodations in the park:
Wuksachi (Sequoia), John Muir Lodge and Grant Grove Cabins (Kings Canyon) are all operated by the new concessionaire, Delaware North Parks & Resorts. Online reservations starting Nov. 1, 2013 at website or phone (877) 436-9615. To see special packages, click here.
A handful of campgrounds within the parks operate year-round including the Azalea Campground in Kings Canyon, and the Potwisha Campground and South Fork near the Foothills Entrance Station in Sequoia National Park. The Giant Forest / Lodgepole Area (6,500 feet) closes at noon on November 3, 2013.
Hikers: Trail advisories say that most trails within the park are now "under winter conditions." And in the Cedar Grove Area (deep into the Kings Canyon) "all visitor facilities are closed for the season (the lodge, market, visitor center, etc.). Open for day use only through 12 p.m. (noon) on 11/12/13 when Hwy 180 to Cedar Grove closes for the season. Visitors should bring their own water (and food) between 10/26 - 11/12/ 2013. Vault toilet available at Roads End [Kings Canyon Highway]." Grant Grove trails, click here.
- Free entrance to our National Parks for Veterans' Day weekend, Nov. 9-11, 2013
- Park map, click here.
- Be informed of the current road conditions in the parks by calling the 24-hour hotline just prior to a visit at 559-565-3341. For roads outside the park boundaries visit the CalTrans website at www.dot.ca.gov for current road status, or call 800-427-7623.
Having been to all three parks—and knowing that each park is spectacular in its own way, I have to wonder why more people from the San Francisco Bay Area that regularly visit Yosemite have never visited Sequoia & Kings Canyon. While Yosemite generally gets more media attention, and its iconic Half Dome and Yosemite Falls are amazing, Sequoia offers the largest trees on the planet and Kings Canyon offers Grant Grove, the Kings Canyon itself, and Mount Whitney, at 14,495 ft., the highest peak in the lower 48 states.