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Kings’ Treasures

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

“You don’t even need to duck!” my wife exclaims as we step inside Fallen Monarch, a
125-foot-long hollowed redwood tree that was more than 2,000 years old when it died and is
now lying on the ground. The tree’s interior is more than 6 feet tall, 20 feet wide and 100
feet long. At one time or another it has been used as a hotel, a saloon and even as a horse
stable for the U.S. Cavalry. Exiting the tree, we continue along a forest path among
cinnamon-colored giant sequoia trees. Wandering the trails at Grant Grove, we gaze upon the
Gamlin Pioneer Cabin built in 1872, Vermont Log, Kentucky Tree and many more spectacular
sequoias nestled between dogwoods and azaleas. Just a few feet away is the General Grant,
third largest sequoia in the world and considered our nation’s Christmas tree. This
2,000-year-old treasure also welcomes us to our destination: magnificent Kings Canyon
National Park in California. After following the easy-to-walk self-guided General Grant
Tree Trail, we picnic at a table near the base of some very impressive redwoods. A park
ranger greets us with, “Great day to take the Sequoia Lake Overlook Trail; lots of
wildflowers carpeting the meadows.” Taking his advice, we begin the two-mile hike through
mixed conifers and sequoias. Along the way we are treated to a deer sighting. Pausing at an
outcropping, we sit and admire the view of distant Sequoia Lake before returning to our
motorhome. Sequoia National Park was established in 1890. It was California’s first
national park and America’s second oldest (following Yellowstone). Kings Canyon National
Park was created in 1940. The two parks share a common east-west boundary and together
cover nearly 900,000 acres. Although Grant Grove is part of Kings Canyon National Park, it
is located midpoint between Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon itself.
Grant Grove Village is open year-round. The park visitor center, located in the village, is
filled with displays focused on the geographic and cultural history of Grant Grove and
Kings Canyon. Dining is available at Grant Grove. A gift shop and market also are located
in the village. Adjacent to the village are Azalea, Sunset and Crystal Springs campgrounds.
All accommodate motorhomes, but none offer hookups. Sandwiched between Sequoia and Yosemite
national parks, Kings Canyon offers not only giant sequoias, but also the rushing South
Fork Kings River that gives this magnificent canyon its name. At one point, Kings Canyon is
deeper than the Grand Canyon. Its steep walls host myriad waterfalls with picturesque
names; most are within easy hiking distance. It’s only an hour’s drive on the 31-mile road
to the canyon floor from Grant Grove, but we have two stops along the way. Appearing first
as a slight blue ribbon, twisting and turning its way through the deep gorge, Kings River
beckons us to come closer. As the highway begins its descent into the canyon, we are
afforded several spectacular vistas of mountain peaks, steep walls and the river, appearing
larger with every turn. Just where Kings Canyon Highway (State Highway 180) crosses Kings
River, about 10 miles from our final destination, we stop at river’s edge to watch a
flyfisherman standing midstream, casting his line repeatedly. Suddenly it becomes taut.
Following a short tug-of-war, he reels in that night’s dinner. After walking across a river
bridge, we hike for five minutes up a pathway on the far side of the canyon. A butterfly
joyously visits many of the vivid trailside wildflowers. We follow it for a spell. And then
we arrive at Boyden Cavern. Located in Sequoia National Forest, just outside Cedar Grove,
Boyden Cavern lies beneath massive 2,000-foot-high marble walls, called Kings Gates. Inside
the cave, it is noticeably cooler, but pleasant. Our guide leads us along the well-lighted
walkway. At times the path takes us along a subterranean stream. “Over there is a flowstone
formation called Mother Nature’s Wedding Cake,” the guide tells our group. A few steps down
the path, she points out the incredible stalactite group called the Upside-Down City. “Over
here are mineral deposits that, over thousands of years, have developed to resemble a taco
shell, a baby elephant and its mom, and a Christmas tree,” she relates, splaying her
flashlight beam from formation to formation. From the cavern to the campgrounds in Cedar
Grove, State Highway 180 follows Kings River. In a matter of minutes, we reach our second
stopping point, Grizzly Falls. We can hear the roar of the falls as we exit our motorhome.
A short walk takes us to this breathtaking 100-foot-high waterfall. Framed by pine trees, a
crystal-clear blue sky and plenty of rocks to sit on, this setting is idyllic for taking a
break. Soon, nature’s symphony – the sounds of wind through the pines, water cascading over
rock and birds singing sweet melodies – erases everyday stresses. Finally, it is time to
move on, and we complete the last three-mile leg of the trip to the canyon area of Kings
Canyon National Park, Cedar Grove. We soon arrive at Sentinel Campground. A mixture of
tents, travel trailers and motorhomes dots the area. We are greeted by two Douglas
squirrels, chattering in a nearby tree. Jeffrey pine and incense cedar mix their scents
with smoke from campfires. Before long, we are contributing to the aroma with our barbecue.
The blue-gray mantle of dusk gives way to indigo. It is time to enjoy the ranger-led
campfire program. Group songs are followed by a slide show about the John Muir Trail.
Originating at Mount Whitney, this trail joins the Pacific Crest Trail near Crabtree and
traverses northward through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks just west of the
eastern peaks. Many other trails, ranging from easy to moderately strenuous and lasting
from one to eight hours, originate in the Cedar Grove valley floor. Copper Creek, Don Cecil
and Paradise Valley trails lead up the canyon walls and join a matrix of High Sierra
backcountry trails. In the 1800s, John Muir declared Kings Canyon “a rival to the
Yosemite.” The canyon is nearly a mile deep and 10 miles long. At one point outside the
park, the canyon reaches a depth of more than 8,000 feet. Several waterfalls plunge down
both the north and south walls. Carved first by glacier, the canyon continues to be
sculpted by the South Fork Kings River. “The fishing’s wonderful here. Plenty of rainbow,
eastern brook and golden trout are caught every year in the South Fork Kings River at Cedar
Grove,” declares park ranger Becky Satnat. Mule deer, black bear, coyotes, gray fox,
raccoons, bighorn sheep and great horned owls make their homes in the eco-regions ranging
from the valley meadows to the alpine peaks beyond. In fact, more than 345 species of
animals live in the park. Many visitors enjoy exploring parts of the valley floor on
horseback. Cedar Grove Pack Station offers hourly, half-day and day rides as well as guided
overnight trips into the backcountry. Between marshmallows around the campfire and the next
morning’s breakfast, we are blanketed by a black sky so filled with bright stars, it gives
Las Vegas competition. There is something special about crisp mountain air combined with
the golden hues of early morning light. We are enjoying such a morn as we begin our easy
hike to Sheep Creek Cascade. Meandering through a forest of ponderosa pine, incense cedar
and black oak, the trail to Sheep Creek Cascade is nicely shaded. A mile up the trail is a
bridge across the creek with the cascades close-by. As with many trails in Cedar Grove, the
trail changes names and continues up the jagged rocky cliffs. From the cascades,
adventurous hikers may continue to Lookout Peak, adjacent to Summit Meadow. Another
waterfall, also within an easy ¼-mile walk from the valley floor trail head, is Roaring
River Falls, an impressive lower third of which is visible at trail’s end. Aptly named, it
is continuously active, even during dry years. One of the more popular trails in Kings
Canyon leads to yet another waterfall and beyond. Allow three to four hours for the
eight-mile roundtrip hike to Mist Falls. This is a beautiful hike and the falls are
wonderful. The trail changes names at Mist Falls and becomes Paradise Valley, another
three-mile trek. The solitude and scenery are worth the time and effort. The River Trail is
idyllic for relaxing strolls along the South Fork Kings River. Cottonwood, alder and pine
provide shade. Roaring River Falls is near one end of the trail and the opposite end,
slightly more than a mile away, connects with Zumwalt Meadow Trail. “Over there!” point two
hikers. Looking in that direction, we see a mother black bear with her cub near one of the
river bridges at Zumwalt Meadow. They seem to be enjoying the meadow as much as we are. We
stand transfixed as they nibble berries growing alongside the river. The trail inclines
about 50 feet onto a talus slope above the meadow, Zumwalt Meadow Trail is a loop through
open forest and alongside the meadow. Two amazing granite peaks guard the meadow:
8,504-foot-high Grand Sentinel to the south and 8,717-foot North Dome across the valley.
Off to the east is 11,165-foot Glacier Monument. The trail is perfect for pictures and
picnics. It leads through a forest of sugar pine and incense cedar until it wanders among
cattails and creek dogwood at meadow’s edge. Kings Canyon National Park protects an immense
and magnificent area filled with several deep glaciated canyons, lakes and meadows, caves
and waterfalls. More than 20 peaks exceed 13,000 feet. Several groves of giant sequoia
trees are scattered near the southern boundary. Cedar Grove Village, in the heart of the
valley, offers light meals and snacks at Cedar Grove Café, in rustic Cedar Grove Lodge.
Also housed in the lodge are a gift shop and a market. Pay showers and a self-serve laundry
are close-by. Cedar Grove ranger station provides current information, such as trail
conditions, ranger-led hikes, evening campfire programs, animal sightings, etc. Sheep
Creek, Moraine and Sentinel campgrounds accept motorhomes with a 30-foot length limit. In
Kings Canyon National Park, horseback riding, hiking and fishing are at a calm pace.
Visited by fewer vacationers than neighboring Yosemite and Sequoia annually receive, Kings
Canyon features astounding natural beauty and serenity.

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