62 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late.
Pennington is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of herself and others. She’s visiting new parks while closely adhering to best safety practices.
After two months of traveling the country with my boyfriend in tow, it was time to get back to my roots. In much the same way that a tired single mom drops her kid off at day care, I left him behind in Los Angeles as I drove away on my own fresh adventure—a weeklong, girls-only road trip with my dear friend Ave.
We caravanned north from the City of Angels in mid-July, with safety and social distancing at the top of our minds. After five hours on dusty freeways and then winding forest roads, we found ourselves transported into a remote granite canyon full of sky-high crumbling rock formations and trees as thick as houses. It was as if Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks had a baby. A wonderful baby named Kings Canyon.
An hour east of Fresno, California, Kings Canyon is mostly designated as a wilderness park, meaning that few roads penetrate its 461,901 acres. Serious visitors must embark on multi-day backpacking trips to enjoy a lot of what it has to offer. With only 48 hours to explore in this vast swath of the Sierra Nevada, Ave and I hatched a plan to day hike as much of the park as we could, as fast as we could.
Our journey began on the nine-mile trek out to Mist Falls, a route paralleling the Kings River through ponderosa pines whose flaky red bark smelled like butterscotch. To my back was an outrageous view of the Sphinx, a massive granite sentinel that towers ominously over the entire valley. Soon we came face to face with a roaring, 100-foot cascade of whitewater pummeling the smooth slabs below, mist ricocheting onto my sweaty mug as a gentle cooldown after the long uphill jaunt. I gritted my teeth as I watched a young couple pose within inches of the torrent and prayed that their Instagram moment wouldn’t sweep them off this earth forever.
Luckily for them (and me), we all hiked down unscathed, and Ave suggested we eat dinner at a scenic picnic area beneath the ragged cliffs. It seemed the fates did not want our day’s adventures to come to an end, because the moment I finished my pasta masterpiece, an unfamiliar white car pulled right up to our table.
A man ran out with some urgency and exclaimed that a large black bear was heading straight toward us. I squinted my eyes, and through a veil of trees, I could just make out a lumbering dark figure approaching. Ave screamed, and we both relayed an armful of food back into my van. I then positioned myself at the wooden picnic table, feigning confidence and ready to hold my ground, because rule number one is that you never let a black bear get your food. This one was not deterred.
In what was essentially a Hail Mary, the kind stranger began furiously honking his car horn. The bear, now less than 100 feet away, glanced over at us and began to saunter left, his cadence nauseatingly cool. He crossed the road and took off in search of an easier meal.
We didn’t sleep well that night. To treat ourselves after the chaotic experience, we settled on an easy morning stroll through Grant Grove, a cluster of old-growth sequoia trees on the western edge of the park. There’s something inherently grounding about spending time in the presence of giants, as though we are hardwired to remember our smallness, a feeling which can diminish our mortal dramas.
This forest reset did wonders for our nerves. Before we knew it, we were laughing and back onto our rigorous hiking schedule. Ladies: 1. Bear: 0.
62 Parks Traveler Kings Canyon Info
Size: 461,901 acres
Location: Central California
Created In: 1890 (General Grant National Park), 1940 (Kings Canyon National Park)
Best For: Backpacking, hiking, car camping, waterfall chasing, forest bathing, stargazing
When to Go: Summer (46 to 89 degrees) is the most popular time to visit, while autumn (31 to 82 degrees) is generally snow-free with milder temperatures. Spring (30 to 72 degrees) brings high water from fresh snowmelt, and in winter (25 to 54 degrees), many parts of the park are inaccessible due to snow.
Where to Stay: The park has well-positioned campgrounds at both Grant Grove and Cedar Grove for car campers. Looking for more creature comforts? The Grant Grove Cabins and Cedar Grove Lodge offer hotel-style lodging amid the old-growth forest.
Mini Adventure: Visit Grant Grove. Dubbed America’s Christmas Tree in 1926, the General Grant tree is the second-largest tree in the world, and no trip to Kings Canyon is complete without a stop here. Follow the 0.3-mile paved trail directly up to the monarch, or wander through the rest of the sequoia grove on the 1.5-mile North Grove Loop.
Mega Adventure: Backpack the 41-mile Rae Lakes Loop. Though I didn’t have time to complete this bucket-list trek this time, it remains a very worthy objective for backpackers looking to experience the high-altitude wilderness of Kings Canyon. Plan ahead—permits go quick!
Lead Photo: Emily Pennington