Thinking of hitting up a US National Park for a brief visit? There are 58 to choose from, including 9 in California alone. Of those California National Parks, one of the most popular is undoubtedly Sequoia, along with it’s neighboring park Kings Canyon. Here’s some suggestion for what you can do on a brief visit to this amazing park!
If you are flying in and making Sequoia your first stop, then Fresno is the closest airport at 2 hours. San Francisco is about 4.5 hours away while LAX is around 5 hours away.
If you are piggy-backing your brief visit to Sequoia onto another brief visit, which is what we did after spending 3-days in Yosemite, you can drive between the two spots. The drive from Yosemite to Sequoia takes about 2.5 hours.
Day 1 - Grant’s Grove at Kings Canyon National Park
While they are actually 2 separate parks, Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park are largely managed as one unit and it is very easy to travel between the two of them. While our hotel for this leg of the trip was in Sequoia, our first stop for this brief visit was the visitor center at Grant’s Grove in Kings Canyon.
The visitor center at Grant’s Grove is a great place to stop. Besides the trails (which we will explore shortly), you can also pick up supplies in the market they have on-site, grab lunch at either their table service restaurant or at the quick-service window, shop for souvenirs, and use the restrooms. There is ample parking at this location, so even during the busiest times of the year, you should be able to find space to stop and enjoy this area.
This short hike of approximately 2.5 miles is an easy walk along a well-marked trail. Along the way you will see:
- The General Grant tree – this is the second largest living organism in the world by volume. Many online resources list it as the third largest, but a park ranger we met on the trail informed us that this was incorrect after the previous second largest tree sustained fire damage, reducing its overall size and allowing the General Grant to rise in the rankings
- The Fallen Monarch - we saw another tree with this same name in Mariposa Grove, but this particular fallen tree was much more impressive. You can actually walk inside this tree, which was previously used as a shelter for Native Americans, and later as a hotel, a saloon, and a stable for 32 horses from the US Calvary in 1876.
- Gamlin Cabin – a small cabin that has served a number of purposes since it was built in 1872 In addition to these notable sights, you will also be amongst hundreds of giant sequoia trees as you make your way out and back on this short hike.
Leaving Grant’s Grove, you have a number of options. You can head East and explore the larger part of Kings Canyon National Park, including the canyon that gives the park its name, or you can travel the 30 minutes to get to the heart of Sequoia National Park. If you do head to Sequoia, make your way to Lodgepole.
This is one of the main stops in the park and it is a great spot to use as a base of operations. You can park your car here and take the free shuttle to the other attractions found throughout Sequoia. Lodgepole also has a grill if you want to grab something hot to eat, and a market if you need to stock up on supplies or want to do some souvenir shopping.
BONUS – Stargazing in Sequoia National Park
While not officially listed as a “dark park”, Sequoia has very little light pollution. This makes it an ideal place to view the stars, and since Wuksachi Lodge, which is where we were staying, sits at an elevation of approximately 7200 ft., it is one of the best places in the area for this activity(Note - more on this lodge in the “Where to Stay section at the end of this brief).
On select nights, a local naturalist visits Wuksachi to lead nighttime star gazing excursions for guests at the lodge. If you are patient and you have the right equipment (and know how to use your camera for nighttime photography), you can get some wonderful shots of the Milky Way. Here is one that Sarah snapped on our first night at Wuksachi Lodge.
Day 2 – Crystal Caves and Giant Sequoias
Located about 45 minutes south of Wuksachi Lodge, Crystal Cave is a marble cavern that offers guided walk-through tours, allowing you to see examples of how water has shaped the cave and the formations that are left.
You can book your timed tickets in advance online and pick them up at a little booth at the cave’s parking lot. This is what we did, and I highly recommend doing so since it will allow you to select the time that works best for you. If you do not pre-book tickets, you are at the mercy of what is left for availability that day since they only allow a select number of people into the cave at any given time. Crystal Cave is popular, especially during peak season, so if you do not have a pre-booked ticket, be aware of the fact that you could arrive at the attraction only to discover that they are sold out for the day.
To get from the parking lot of Crystal Cave to the cave entrance itself requires a half-mile hike. While the route is downhill on your way to the cave, you have to trek back uphill after your visit, so give yourself some extra time and be aware of the effort needed here. For us, this hike was fine, but we did see some people struggling a bit, especially on the way back up the trail.
The cave itself is incredible. Our guide took us from one section to another, pointing out specific formations and how they were created. Our favorites were the formations our guide referred to as “Jabba the Hutt” and the “dragon” (looking at our pictures, you should easily be able to see which of these formations these names refer to).
The total time you should give yourself for Crystal Cave is about 2 to 2.5 hours. This includes the 15 minutes before your scheduled time for instructions, the walk down to the cave, the 45-minute cave tour, and the hike back up to the parking area.
If you book one of the early slots for Crystal Cave (which is what we did), you will still have plenty of time in the day to hit some of the park’s other attractions, including the area’s most popular sight - the General Sherman Tree.
The largest living organism by volume in the world, the General Sherman tree is an absolutely massive sequoia. Weighing over 4 million pounds, this tree is so large that there is a branch that has fallen off the tree and is now lying to its side that is larger than any tree in the US to the East of the Mississippi! This is just a fallen limb, never mind the massive tree itself!
As you can imagine, an attraction like this draws a crowd, so be prepared to wait in line if you want a picture in front of the “General Sherman Tree”sign. Or, if you are like us and don’t want to wait, you can snap some shots from another angle since the trail allows you to walk 365 degrees around the tree.
As you leave the General Sherman, you can head back to the parking lot and the shuttle, or you can begin a hike through the Giant Forest. At the suggestion of a park ranger, we planned to hike the 3.5 miles on the Congress and Alta trails, heading from the General Sherman tree to the Giant Forest Museum. While most visitors use the shuttle service to go between these two attractions, we wanted to get away from the crowds like we did in Mariposa Grove. This hike was hands down the best decision we made on our entire trip.
There is a reason why this area is known as the “Giant Forest”. With around 8000 giant sequoias in this area, you literally see one after another after another on this hike, and because there are so few people on the trail, you can easily take as many pictures as you want and marvel at these wonders of nature without having to battle the crowds.
The Congress Trail and the Alta Trail are both easy hikes along a very simple-to-follow route. We spent a few hours on this hike, mainly because we kept stopping to take photos and enjoy the wonders around us. If you are visiting this area, I strongly suggest you give this trail a shot and take your time enjoying some of the best sights that this national park has to offer.
Day 3 – Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow
Our final day in Sequoia began with a shuttle ride to the popular Moro Rock. A large granite dome that has a 350-step stairway cut into it, this trek gives you one of the best views of Sequoia National Park. The climb itself, which is only about a quarter of a mile, is fairly easy if you are in halfway decent shape. There are sections of the steps that are very narrow, however, so expect to wait as you let others pass by you going the opposite way, or because you get stuck behind someone who may hiking at a slower pace then you are going.
The 360-degree view from the top of Moro Rock is indeed wonderful and this hike is well worth the time.
To get from Moro Rock to Crescent Meadow, which is the other popular attraction in this area of the park, you can take the free shuttle or you can hike along the Sugar Pine Trail for an easy 1.4 mile trek. We suggest taking the scenic route.
Crescent Meadow features a number of trails that you can explore, and It’s pretty easy to come up with a distance that works. This is another trail area that is very easy to do. In fact, much of the trail is paved, making this a good hiking/walking spot for pretty much anyone. We elected to hike most of the Crescent Meadow Loop trail, adding another 2.5 miles onto our total distance covered for this day. One of the main sights you will see along this route is Tharp’s Log.
A rustic home made from a hollowed-out sequoia tree, Tharp’s Log was actually the home of a man named Hale Tharp back in the late 1800s. This structure still stands today, and you can see a table, shelf, and bed platform that still exist in this curious abode.
VISIT TIP: The roadway that leads to both Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow is closed to normal traffic on weekends and during holiday weeks. The only access to these areas is via the park shuttle, and the shuttles that go to these attractions leave from The Giant Forest Museum. Depending on where you park your car, you will need to make your way to the Museum first and then get another shuttle from there. For planning purposes, for instance if you have a dinner reservation back at your hotel, realize that the trip from Crescent Meadow back to Lodgepole (which is where we suggest you park for the day) can take quite some time. It took us nearly an hour to get back to our car after ending our hike in Crescent Meadow, so plan accordingly if you are visiting this area and have restrictions on your time.
Where to Stay
Located right in the midst of Sequoia National Park’s main attractions, Wuksachi Lodge was the option that came up #1 in every single search I did for “where to stay in Sequoia National Park?” This is, at least in part, because there are not that many options for lodging in Sequoia. There are a few campgrounds in the area, including one at Lodgepole, but in terms of hotels or lodges, Wuksachi is really the main game in town. Two other options for hotel-style lodging are Stony Creek Lodge and Montecito Hotel, but both of these locations are a fair bit further away from the main sections of Sequoia.
At first, Wuksachi may seem pretty bare bones when it comes to amenities. Besides a restaurant on-site, there is nothing else in the way of “extras” at this resort – no pool, or gym, or game room, etc. Most of the rooms don’t even have air-conditioners. Don’t let this lack of extras dissuade you from staying here – Wuksachi is really where you want to be in Sequoia! The lack of extra amenities is really not a big issue since the main reason to visit Wuksachi is for the National Park itself, and what this resort lacks in extras it makes up for in proximity to the action! The resort is just 2 miles from Lodgepole, which is the first stop on the Sequoia shuttle service that drops off at all the major attractions throughout the park. This means that you can have your car parked at Lodgepole and be on your way to an exciting day in the park within minutes of leaving your room.
One amenity that Wuksachi does have is that aforementioned on-site restaurant. If you look up reviews of this restaurant, which is named The Peaks, you will find lots of very positive comments. These reviews are absolutely correct, and we enjoyed a number of excellent meals at The Peaks. One thing to keep in mind about eating here, however, is that they require reservations for dinner, and the available slots fill up fast. If you are staying at Wuksachi and plan to eat dinner at The Peaks (which you will since there is really no other options in the area except for the grill at Lodgepole), be sure to book your reservations early, otherwise you will find only very early or very late slots available.
Back to Back Briefs!
We piggy-backed this brief visit with another we did as Yosemite National Park, which is just 2.5 hours away. If you are looking to see a few parks during your time in California, this combination of Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon is ideal. Each of them can be enjoyed as an individual brief visit or as a series of visits strung together over the course of a week or so.