Your Ultimate Guide to Visiting Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is one of my favorite national parks in the US. Not only is it the only place in the world to see the giant sequoia trees, which are the widest trees in the world – the oldest one is around 3,200 years old! But in the backcountry, you get to experience some of the most beautiful places in California. From beyond gorgeous alpine lakes, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states (Mt. Whitney – 14,505 feet), meadows, wildlife and so much more.
84% of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are designated wilderness and not accessible by car. This means the best way to explore this park is through hiking and backpacking.
This was also the first national park I visited when I started my hiking journey. I went with a friend in November, and we decided to car camp. I spent all night freaking out that there were bears behind every tree, that at one point I woke up my friend and made up move spots. At 2am we were driving around the Sequoia’s, dogging frogs and mice in the middle of the road, while looking for a place I wasn’t so afraid of. Looking back, now I know how silly that fear was, but this was very early in my hiking journey, and if you are anything like me, then I’m sure you can relate.
Quickly on that note about wildlife, there are bears in the Sequoia National Park, I’ve seen quite a few.
It’s so important to know what to do if you see a bear, and how to protect yourself in case of an attack. Thankfully, in California we only have black bears (yes a brown bear on our flag, but they were all killed off by hunters in the 1920s), so the chances of a black bear attacking are very slim. But you still need to be aware. That’s one of the most important things that hikers and backpackers need to do is educate themselves about safety, especially as it pertains to wildlife. Here is my blog post on bear safety. Also never feed wildlife, including bears. Always store your food in the bear lockers in camp, at the trailhead, or if you’re backpacking in bear canisters. Please don’t feed the small animals either, here’s explaining why.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s dive in and help you plan your trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
What is the Best Time to Visit Sequoia National Park
I have visited the Sequoia National Park in every season and honestly, you can’t go wrong here. But when you plan on visiting is entirely determined by what kind of activities you’d like to do.
Summer is going to be the most popular time to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.It will be busy during the summer months in comparison to the other seasons, but if you’re looking for the most activities available, and good weather, summer is the time to visit.
The weather is overall warm, the nights range from chilly to moderate to even warm sometimes, the entire park is open and so are all of the trails.
If you want to go hiking, swim in lakes, hang out in rivers, fish, camp, roast marshmallows over a campfire, then summer is going to be the time to go.
In the fall months, the weather starts to cool down. The nights will be chiller, so if you’re camping or backpacking, you’re going to want a warmer sleeping bag and make sure your sleeping pad is insulated. The days are still warm and moderate.
The entire park is still open during the fall months, so you can still go hiking and explore. The biggest thing to be mindful of here is especially in the later part of the season, there could be snow storms. Always check the weather before heading out.
Another bonus of visiting in the fall, is if you want to go backpacking, usually right around the first day of fall in September, the park goes from quota permit system to self issues permits. More on backpacking including permits further, but basically quota systems limit how many people can enter the wilderness and self issued means if you want to go backpacking you can go.
In the winter months, Sequoia National Park turns into a winter wonderland. Especially if you visit right after a snow storm.
Just make sure to carry chains with you when visiting from around mid-November through March. And practice putting them on at home because you don’t want to be stuck trying to figure it out on the side of the road in the middle of a storm. Alternatively, you could also have snow tires.
Not everything is open during the winter months. Most of the roads to trailheads, campgrounds, etc. are closed during the winter. Just because the road is closed, doesn’t mean you can’t snowshoe along it to the trailhead like I did to Crescent Meadows.
Also, Generals Highway, which is the road connecting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is closed in the winter, so if you want to visit both parks, you’ll need to leave one and go around to visit the other.
Logistics aside, it’s a beautiful time to see snow among the trees, to go snowshoeing, sledding, and more.
Spring conditions will be very similar to winter. There will still be snow on the ground usually through early June at least. Depending on how much snow the park received during the winter months, the snow could linger all the way through end end of June on some trails that are in the backcountry and lead to higher altitude hikes.
How Much Time to Spend in Sequoia National Park
Now this might not be the answer you’re looking for, but I promise, this answer will help you plan your trip far more effectively and help you create a trip that you’re stoked on.
So the most important questions I have for you are…
How much time can you spend here?
What trails do you want to do?
Will you be going backpacking?
Your answers to those questions will determine how long to visit. I’ve visited this park for a weekend, for a day, for a week, or even more. It entirely depends on what you want to do and what your goals for this trip are.
You can go on a week long backpacking trip on the High Sierra Trail. Or you can spend 4 to 5 days backpacking trails like Rae Lakes, or go backpacking for a weekend.
You can also spend a day driving through the park and see more off the side of the road things like Hume Lake, do a couple of shorter day hikes and be on your way.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit Sequoia National Park
The entrance fee is $30 per car and it gets you into the park for one week. Or if you’re planning on visiting several times or several national parks in a year, I recommend getting the national parks pass which is $80.
I visit enough parks, including going back to the Sequoia National Park several times a year, that I get the annual pass.
One entrance fee also gets you into Kings Canyon. You often hear Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Yes technically Sequoia and Kings Canyon are different parks, but they’re managed as if they’re one entity, and you can see both and explore both when you visit this park. In the blog post, I will be covering things to do in Kings Canyon as well.
Trails in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Hiking is the best thing you can do in Sequoia National Park and in Kings Canyon National Park. Whether you’re day hiking or backpacking, this is the best way to fully experience the park. If you can go backpacking, I recommend going! Some of the prettiest views in the park and in California are in the backcountry in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.
If you’re planning on just day hiking, here is my full day hiking packing list.
Below are trails that need to be added to your list! Some of these trails are day hikes while others are backpacking trips.
High Sierra Trail
The High Sierra Trail was one of my most memorable hikes. It is 72 miles and runs from Crescent Meadows by Lodgepole inside of Sequoia National Park to the summit of Mt. Whitney, which is the highest point in the US. For more information on this trip, read through this blog post.
Hamilton Lake is on the same High Sierra Trail, but if you don’t have a week for the High Sierra Trail, this is a fantastic trail to do over a long weekend. It’s 32.4 miles with 6,847 feet of elevation gain.
Rae Lakes Loop
Another iconic backpacking trip in Kings Canyon National Park is Rae Lakes Loop. It’s around 42 miles and also takes you through some of the most beautiful lakes in the area. You can access this trail through either Bubbs Creek or Woods Creek at Roads End.
Pear Lake (which is also known as The Lakes Trail) is a 12.8 mile round trip hike with 3,416 feet of elevation gain. This can be done as a one night backpacking trip or a longer day hike. Either way, you’re rewarded with stunning views and gorgeous lakes.
Alta Peak stands at 11,200 feet, and it’s a 14 mile round trip hike with around 3,900 feet of elevation gain. This can also be done as a long day hike or as a backpacking trip. Alta Peak is far from the highest point in the park, but it’s above the treeline and one of two spots that’s above 11,000 feet and accessible from the road in the Giant Forest area. It also offers stunning views of about half of the park and the Great Western Divide, which divides the Kaweah watershed from the Kern watershed.
Jennie Lakes Loop
Jennie Lakes Loop is a 17.5 mile loop hike with around 3,000 feet of elevation gain that passes by Weaver Lake and Jennie Lake. This is also one of the few hikes in the area that allow dogs. This trail can also be done as a backpacking trip or as a day hike, and the nice part about backpacking this trail is that it does not require permits.
If you’re looking for a quick day hike but one that’s also more of a hike, Little Baldy is a must. It’s around 3miles with almost 800 feet of elevation gain, and at the end you’re rewarded with 360 degree views of the high peaks that make up the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Moro Rock is a fantastic place to take photos during sunrise or sunset. And one you don’t need to hike far to get to. Now, it is a bit of an uphill climb, but it’s only half a mile. At the end, you’re also rewarded with stunning views of the Great Western Divide.
The Congress Trail is a 3 mile loop around some of the most famous sequoia trees inside the park. This is a very easy loop, if you’re just looking for something that’s more of a nature walk, and it’s also kid friendly because of the ease.
The General Sherman Tree Trail is a little over a mile long, and it’s also a very easy, relatively flat trail, that’s perfect for more of a nature walk hike and is also a kid friendly trail. It’s also one of the more popular trails inside of the park since it’s easy to get to and easy to hike.
If you’re looking for more of a hike, but something that’s easy and even kid friendly, the Tokopah Falls from Tokopah Valley is a great option. It’s 4 miles round trip with around 600 feet of elevation gain. You have beautiful views of the mountains above, meadows, and possibly even some wildlife, and at the end, you’re rewarded with a beautiful waterfall. If you’re visiting in the winter, this is also a great hike you can snowshoe to.
Zumwalk Meadow Loop Trail
The Zumwalk Meadow Loop Trail is around a mile long and inside Kings Canyon National Park. It’s relatively flat, and perfect for all age groups and skill levels. And you’re rewarded with stunning views inside of Kings Canyon.
Roaring River Falls
Roaring River Falls is right off the side of the road in Kings Canyon. It’s a short walk at the end of the road to this stunning waterfall. Plus you might get misted on a hot summer day!
Grizzly Falls is also right off the side of the road in Kings Canyon and is a very short walk to this tall waterfall. Both of these waterfalls are great options for all ages and skill levels.
Twin Lakes Trail
Twin Lakes Trail is perfect for an ambitious day hiker or a beginner backpacker. It’s 13 miles round trip with 3,238 feet of elevation gain. The trailhead is near the Stony Creek Village. You can spend the day swimming in this beautiful Sierran lake, and enjoy a typical and beautiful backcountry day in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Backpacking in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Since most of Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are primarily designated wilderness areas, the best way to experience this park is on foot and in the backcountry. If you’re new to backpacking but want to try it, here is my guide to help you get started and here is my full backpacking packing list.
Backpacking inside the park does require wilderness permits. During the summer months (May through late September), there is a quote system which limits how many people can enter the wilderness on a given day.
You can get them on recreation.gov. Permits normally open up at 7am Pacific Time, 6 months in advance from the day you want to start hiking, and you get permits for the trailhead. If you miss getting them in advance, you can check for any cancellations.
Where to Stay in Sequoia National Park
If you’re heading to the Sequoia’s in the summer or fall months, then the best place to stay is to camp inside of the park. There are 14 campgrounds inside of the park, and you can read more about each one and where it’s located here. To book the campgrounds visit recreation.gov. They do go quickly, so if you’re planning ahead, make sure to grab one ahead of time. Or check for last minute cancellations.
Alternatively, you can stay in a hotel inside the park. Inside the Sequoia National Park, there is the Wuksachi Lodge which is located around the General Sherman Tree. Inside Kings Canyon National Park, you have the John Muir Lodge and Grant Grove Cabins and are within walking distance of the Grant Grove. They’re also right at the top of the Scenic Byway which takes you inside of Kings Canyon. Finally, inside of Kings Canyon, right by Roads End, there is the Cedar Grove Lodge.
If you’re unable to find a hotel or a lodge inside of the park, you also have the option of staying in Three Rivers which is a small town around 1.5 hours outside of Sequoia National Park.
Tips for First Time Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park Visitors
Before heading into the park, fill up on gas. There is a gas station by Hume Lake and one at the Stony Creek Village (when the market is open) in the National Forest section, but that’s it inside the park.
The roads are windy, so make sure you’re comfortable driving them. In the winter, carry chains unless your car has snow tires. Even if you’re driving a 4×4 or AWD, chains are required.
Always follow Leave No Trace Principles when heading into any park. Make sure that you’re packing out all of your trash when you’re hiking, please do not litter anywhere. Make sure you’re storing your food correctly when you’re camping in the bear lockers. Please do not feed wildlife. Don’t create fire rings that aren’t already present, and don’t have campfires when there is a fire ban to prevent unnecessary forest fires. And in general, before going, please take time to read through all 7 of the Leave No Trace Principles so you can do your part to leave these places just as you found them.
Be prepared for limited cell reception inside of the park. Depending on your carrier, you might have reception in some places, like I can usually rely on having it at Stony Creek Village with Verizon, but otherwise expect to not have cell service for the duration of your trip. If you’re staying in a lodge, they have internet access, but some of those don’t have cell reception as well.
If you want to avoid crowds, try planning your trip for the middle of the week, during the fall season when kids go back to school, or be in the park and already hiking at sunrise. Parks usually get crowded around 9am or 10am, so if you can, beat the crowds that way. Plus you get beautiful photos!