Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is one of the most beautiful drives in all of California. Located in Kings Canyon National Park, the drive takes visitors through massive canyons, past raging waterfalls, all while following a beautiful roaring river.
Visiting the sights along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is one of the most best things you can do while visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. However, for most visitors, Kings Canyon is sadly just an afterthought of their trip to Sequoia. I know it was on my first visit. I popped in, saw the General Grant Tree and headed out of the park thinking I’d seen what was to be seen.
For those in the know however Kings Canyon is one of the best places to really experience the tranquility and beauty of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Not just the higher elevation sites seen by most tourists, but the lower elevation canyon all the way to Roads End.
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Where is Kings Canyon?
Kings Canyon National Park is geographically connected to Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest in the Southern Sierra Nevada range, which can be quite confusing for people on their first visit. Kings Canyon National Park is broken into two sections essentially. The upper elevation part of the park is located around Grant Grove Village and sits at around 6000 feet. There are several campgrounds here as well as a few trails to explore.
For those with time however the true gem of the park awaits down into the canyon along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. Only 36 miles from Grant Grove is the Cedar Grove area of the park. While not a lot of miles, the windy road means at least a 45 minute to 1 hour drive one way into the canyon to Roads End.
Details on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
In order to fully experience the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, we recommend starting your adventure early in the morning. You can reach this area of the park either from outside of the park via Fresno or Visalia or from the General’s Highway that connects Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon.
From Fresno or Visalia, you will take Highway 180 up towards Kings Canyon National Park through the Giant Sequoia National Monument. When you make it into the park, there are only two options – one way to Sequoia National Park via the General’s Highway and one going into Kings Canyon toward the Kings Canyon Visitor Center. You will take the Kings Canyon road.
As I mentioned earlier, Kings Canyon National Park comprises of the upper elevation section and the lower deep canyon section. The area in between these two is actually Sequoia National Forest area. For this post, I will include everything on the scenic byway, regardless if it is in Kings Canyon or the national forest. For most visitors there isn’t much difference to the areas, other than who oversees the forest and what the camping regulations are.
Below are some of the stops and hikes you can see as you drive down into the canyon.
10 Things To Do on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
Big Stump Trail
One of my favorite trails in the park and along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is the Big Stump Trail. This trail is not actually listed on the road signs as a hiking trail, rather a picnic area, which is how it tends to stay under the radar a bit more. This trail is almost immediately on the left as you enter the park from the Kings Canyon entrance. Once here, you can venture along this 1.5 mile trail that showcases many stumps from the days when the giant sequoia trees were chopped down for wood. Kids will especially love this area as they can actually climb up several of the stumps to really get a feel for how massive these trees are.
Kings Canyon Visitor Center
The Kings Canyon Visitor Center is the last place to stock up on grocery items, firewood, ice or other necessities before heading down into the canyon. While there are places to grab food at Hume Lake and along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, they are not always open.
This is also the spot to speak with rangers about what hikes you might want to do down into the canyon, pick up your junior ranger book or buy souvenirs. For those of you missing connections to the outside world, there is spotty WiFi here as well, which is your last chance for internet before descending into the canyon. We always make a stop here for the restrooms and snacks just to be safe.
General Grant Tree
The main attraction in this upper section of Kings Canyon National Park is the General Grant Tree. While not as large as the General Sherman in the Giant Forest section of Sequoia National Park, the General Grant tree is the second largest living tree in the world by volume. This short concrete loop provides a great introduction to some of the largest trees in the United States, how they grow and where they grow. While here, do not miss the best part of this stop – a walk through the middle of a fallen giant sequoia! These big trees are sure to impress. Note, this will be your last opportunity to see sequoia groves as you head down into the canyon.
Heading down into the canyon on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway you might notice signs saying that you are no longer in the national park, rather the Sequoia National Forest. This next section of the drive takes visitors through several beautiful areas all part of the forest that are not actually operated by the national park service, which is why there are private businesses and various other campgrounds here.
Hume Lake is a quick 15 minutes’ drive off the scenic byway. You cannot see the lake from the main road, but it is well worth a diversion. This beautiful lake is home to a Christian summer camp, but also has areas that are open to other visitors to explore. There are beautiful beaches to seek out on the side opposite the summer camp. We have heard the burger shack at the camp is fabulous and serves amazing shakes perfect for a hot afternoon.
Vista Point Overlooks
As you pass Hume Lake and head deeper down into the canyon, the tree covered roads will open up showcasing beautiful granite cliffs. This really is a spectacular vista that can’t be missed. You will be amazed at the great spots in front of you. There are numerous turnouts, including Junction View, where you can stop to see the reaching roads far below you, giving you a hint at how far you still have to go! The reason this drive down can take so long is that you will be mesmerized by what lies before you, wanting to stop around every turn! Just go for it.. the views really are spectacular and worth taking in especially if you happen to be there during the late afternoon hours or early morning.
Another spot along the scenic byway that is within the Sequoia National Forest area is Boyden Cavern. This privately owned cave is a great spot to visit if you are up for the challenge! The hike up the steep cliffside is well worth the effort once you get inside.
In pre-pandemic times, tours consisted of 20-30 people, but at the moment, they are slightly reduced offering a nicer feel. Upon your arrival you will get a brief introduction into the caves and their history. You will see stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone formations and so much more. Bring water shoes for the last part of the tour where you can exit out by the river and might find yourself in a bit of water! Note, you need to plan in advance for this tour. You can buy your tickets here.
Not too long after you pass Boyden Cavern, you will come across Grizzly Falls on your left. No, chances are you will not see a bear here and definitely not a grizzly, but it’s still well worth a quick stop or a place to have lunch. Grizzly Falls is an 80 foot waterfall that cascades beautifully over the rock face and down into the creek below. You can almost see it from where you park, so can be a quick in/out stop if you like. There is no hiking involved however there is also not a concrete path in case you have any guests with mobility issues.
Roaring River Falls
As you continue to drive deeper into the canyon, you are now back into the Kings Canyon National Park area. If you want, stop off at the entrance sign for a photo! Next up will be another beautiful waterfall, Roaring River Falls. This waterfall has greater volume of water moving down the rocks, but is not as high as Grizzly Falls mentioned above.
To reach the Roaring River Falls, you will need to walk about .3 of a mile up a concrete path. It is quick and easy. Here you can take photos of the roaring waterfall, have a snack or even extend your hike further to head towards Zumwalt Meadow. The trail parallels the road and is mostly flat and easy, but can get hot during the summer.
Zumwalt Meadow is one of our favorite places to visit on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and within the park itself. This beautiful trail features a suspension bridge over the river, a wooden walkway through a meadow and gorgeous scenery along the way. Here you will often find people splashing around in the water where it is shallow and slow moving just below the bridge area. Note however that this river can be quite dangerous at times and swimming is not advised by park rangers.
Currently the boardwalk is closed due to winter storm damage. When it is open, it connects visitors around the meadow through a shady grove of trees. At the other end of the meadow you can decide to continue walking to Roads End or loop back around to the start of the trail heading back across the suspension bridge. With the boardwalk closed, this trail ends up being around 1.8 miles, which is mostly flat and easy to traverse.
Roads End is exactly what it sounds like – the end of the road. This is the end of the scenic byway and the end of where visitors can drive. From here, many people park to explore the various trails along the Kings River, find spots to splash around in or as a jumping off point for day hiking, backcountry hiking and camping.
From here, our favorite things to do include hiking the Mist Falls Trail (around 9 miles round trip) as well as the Kanawyer Loop Trail (approximately 5 miles round trip). These are great options for people who want to get into the wilderness a bit, but don’t have time to stay overnight in the park or backpack.
Remember parking at any of the areas in Kings Canyon requires that all food be securely stored. If you plan to be away from your car overnight, there is overnight parking as well as bear boxes to store your food.
Where to Stay for Visiting Kings Canyon California
While many people experience the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway as a day trip, we highly recommend you stay inside the park to allow yourself more time to fully visit the stops along the way as well as take in a few hikes once you reach the canyon area.
Below I share a bit of information on where to stay, but our favorite by far is camping in Kings Canyon. It really allows you to fully experience all the park has to offer. Read this post to find out more about camping in Kings Canyon.
Cedar Grove Lodge
Deep into the canyon of Kings Canyon, nestled along the rushing river is Cedar Grove Lodge. Typically open from mid-May to mid-October this lodge serves as a great base for exploring the canyon area of the park or as a start for setting off into the backcountry.
John Muir Lodge
The John Muir Lodge is the only hotel in the upper section of Kings Canyon. The lodge is probably considered a 2 star and is quite basic, but it is convenient to trails and sights in Kings Canyon if you wish to spend more than 1 day here.
Outside the Park
For those who are unable to secure a reservation at either of the lodges located within the park, you do have the option to stay outside of the park. This does however add quite a bit of time to your day as the closest place to stay outside of the park is at least 45 minutes from the Grant Grove area and 1.5 hours from Cedar Grove. There are a variety of cabins in the Squaw Valley area that are the closest options.
Otherwise, for those looking for more options and a variety of budget levels, you can stay in Visalia which is about 2 hours from the bottom of the canyon. Visalia provides a great deal of options for your stay as well as tons of things to do for everyone in the family.
Looking for more suggestions on exploring this area of California?
Consider extending your stay to visit Sequoia National Park
Or add on a visit up the road to Yosemite National Park
Driving through Visalia and want something to do or eat?
What about a West Coast National Road Trip tour?
We also have a ton of suggestions of great California Road Trips worth checking out.
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