Kings Canyon National Park is an alpine wonderland, set amongst the rugged lands of the Sierra Mountains in California, just north of Sequoia National Park and to the southeast of Yosemite National Park.
The park, jointly administered with Sequoia, arguably is one of America’s oldest. While it still protects the ancient sequoia trees of the Grant Grove area that were Kings Canyon’s original focal point, it is rapidly becoming known as one of America’s premier backcountry destinations.
Though Kings Canyon and Sequoia are the national park equivalent of Siamese twins, being joined at the waist, in reality they are incredibly different when it comes to tourism. Sequoia is quickly accessed by vehicle from Three Rivers and Fresno, while the soul of Kings Canyon is reached only after negotiating the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, which runs 28 crooked miles from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove. As a result, any crowds you find at Sequoia can be left behind if you head down to Cedar Grove.
Humans have been living in and around this region of the southern Sierras for thousands of years, and the first Native Americans to live in the area were a part of the Paiute Nation, migrating westward over the mountains to the Mono Lake area. The First Peoples depended mostly on acorns, deer, and other small game for food, and soon developed a trading network that stretched across the mountains and into Owens Valley. A well-worn trail emerged, running east up Bubbs Creek to 11,823-foot-high Kearsarge Pass and dropping sharply into the valley, serving as the trade route between the tribes.
In 1806, the first Europeans entered the area. Spaniard Gabriel Moraga and his expedition discovered a major river on January 6, the day of Epiphany. Because of the significance of this date in Christian theology, they named it El Río de los Santos Reyes - The River of the Holy Kings, later changed to Kings River. (This is why Kings River and Kings Canyon are never spelled with apostrophes.)
Americans started to trickle into the foreboding mountains in the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until the Gold Rush of 1849 that settlers started to come in earnest. These newcomers, searching for gold, began the first comprehensive exploration of the Sierras. Unfortunately, smallpox, measles, and other diseases traveled with them and devastated local Native American hamlets, and the Epidemic of 1862 almost wiped them out entirely.
Today, their few remaining descendants live in the San Joaquin Valley.
The late 19th Century brought the first scientists to the region, and Harvard geology professor Josiah Dwight Whitney became the first director of the California Geological Survey. One of his first actions was to send five men to finally map the Sierra Mountains, and Mt. Whitney in Sequoia is named for his contributions to geography.
In 1873, John Muir, the famous naturalist, visited Kings Canyon, which impressed him with its similarity to the terrain of Yosemite Valley. It was not long, however, before the pristine setting began to change. In the 1870s, ranchers grazed their cattle and sheep - "woolly lawnmowers" - among the Big Trees, and sawmills were built. Timber companies proceeded to chop down and carry away one-third of the primeval sequoias for use as pencils, stakes, and other small items. But thanks to Muir and others, some sequoias still remain.
Local support for a park in the area started with George Stewart, editor of the Visalia Delta. In 1878 he publicly condemned the wholesale cutting of sequoias. In 1881, he was joined by Muir and U.S. Senator John F. Miller of California in an effort to enact a bill to protect the trees. The bill failed however, and Muir turned his attention to protecting Yosemite.
Nevertheless, local residents continued to fight for preservation of the land, and on September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill that established Sequoia National Park. It was America's second national park. A week later, in a matter of legislative confusion, Congress substantially increased the park's size threefold and also created General Grant National Park -- the forerunner of today's Kings Canyon -- to protect Grant Grove.
Over the next thirty years or so, Stephen T. Mather, who later became the first director of the NPS, led further efforts to preserve the magnificent trees. Together with Congressman Frederick Gillett and Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, he added nearly 2,000 acres to General Grant National Park, and Sequoia was expanded in 1926 to include Kern Canyon and Mount Whitney.
Despite these efforts, many sequoias as well as much of the Sierra backcountry were still unprotected. After a long and bitter debate, Congress created Kings Canyon National Park on March 4, 1940, an act that absorbed the tiny General Grant National Park into the new park. The sequoias within the new boundaries were forever protected from logging.
During World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon were administratively merged, to be managed as one park to save the government money. The management policy continues to this day.
For those who make the serpentine drive down the scenic byway from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, a strikingly picturesque valley dominated by the South Fork of the Kings River awaits. From Cedar Grove, a small waystation with a tiny motel and cafe and some campgrounds, the rest of Kings Canyon National Park is open only to those who hoist a pack onto their backs or hire a horse to haul them up into the high country.
That backcountry, along with views that John Muir thought rivaled Yosemite, holds the soul of Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger for Seqoia/Kings Canyon who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1996. Eric Blehm authored a groundbreaking book on the case, and you can read the Traveler’s review of it here.