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Kings Canyon National Park
IUCN Category II (National Park)
KingsCanyonNP.JPG
Location Fresno County & Tulare County, California, USA
Nearest city Fresno
Area 461,901 acres (1,869.25 km2)
Established March 4, 1940
Visitors 607,479 (in 2016)
Governing body National Park Service
Website Official site
General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park
General Grant tree, located in the General Grant Grove of giant sequoias in Kings Canyon National Park

Kings Canyon National Park is a national park in the southern Sierra Nevada, east of Fresno, California. The park was established in 1940 and covers 461,901 acres (721.720 sq mi; 186,925 ha; 1,869.25 km2). It incorporated General Grant National Park, established in 1890 to protect the General Grant Grove of giant sequoias.

The park is north of and contiguous with Sequoia National Park; the two are administered by the National Park Service jointly as the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. They were designated the UNESCO Sequoia-Kings Canyon Biosphere Reserve in 1976.

History

Humans have inhabited the area for thousands of years. The first Native Americans in the area were Paiute peoples, who moved into the region from their ancestral home east of Mono Lake. The Paiute Nation people used deer and other small animals for food, as well as acorns. They created trade routes that extended down the eastern slope of the Sierra into the Owens Valley.

Kings Canyon had been known to white settlers since the mid-19th century, but it was not until John Muir first visited in 1873 that the canyon began receiving attention. Muir was delighted at the canyon's similarity to Yosemite Valley, as it reinforced his theory regarding the origin of both valleys, which, though competing with Josiah Whitney's then-accepted theory that the spectacular mountain valleys were formed by earthquake action, Muir's theory later proved correct: that both valleys were carved by massive glaciers during the last Ice Age.

Then United States Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes fought to create the Kings Canyon National Park. He hired Ansel Adams to photograph and document this among other parks, in great part leading to the passage of the bill in March 1940. The bill combined the General Grant Grove with the backcountry beyond Zumwalt Meadow.

Kings Canyon's future was in doubt for nearly fifty years. Some wanted to build a dam at the western end of the valley, while others wanted to preserve it as a park. The debate was settled in 1965, when the valley, along with Tehipite Valley, was added to the park.

Geography

Kings Canyon National Park consists of two sections. The small, detached General Grant Grove section preserves several groves of giant sequoias, including the General Grant Grove, with the famous General Grant Tree, and the Redwood Mountain Grove, which is the largest remaining natural grove of giant sequoias in the world covering 3,100 acres (1,300 ha) and with 15,800 sequoia trees over 1 foot (30 cm) in diameter at their bases). The park's Giant Sequoia forests are part of 202,430 acres (81,920 ha) of old-growth forests shared by Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. This section of the park is mostly mixed conifer forest, and is readily accessible via paved highways.

The remainder of Kings Canyon National Park, which comprises over 90% of the total area of the park, is located to the east of General Grant Grove and forms the headwaters of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River and the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. Both the South and Middle Forks of the Kings Rivers have extensive glacial canyons. One portion of the South Fork canyon, known as the Kings Canyon, gives the entire park its name. Kings Canyon, with a maximum depth of 8,200 feet (2,500 m), is one of the deepest canyons in the United States. The canyon was carved by glaciers out of granite. The Kings Canyon, and its developed area, Cedar Grove, is the only portion of the main part of the park that is accessible by motor vehicle. Both the Kings Canyon and its Middle Fork twin, Tehipite Valley, are deeply incised, U-shaped glacial gorges with relatively flat floors and towering granite cliffs thousands of feet high. In addition, the canyon has several cave systems, one of which is Boyden Cave, open to the public in adjacent Giant Sequoia National Monument.

To the east of the canyons are the high peaks of the Sierra Crest, which attain an elevation of 14,248 feet (4,343 m)NAVD 88 at the summit of North Palisade, the highest point in the park. This is classic high Sierra country: barren alpine ridges and glacially scoured lake-filled basins. Usually snow free only from late June until late October, the high country is accessible only via foot and horse trails. The Sierran crest forms the eastern boundary of the park, from Mount Goethe in the north, down to Junction Peak, at the boundary with Sequoia National Park. Several passes cross the crest into the park, including Bishop Pass, Taboose Pass, Sawmill Pass, and Kearsarge Pass. All of these passes are above 11,000 feet (3,400 m) elevation.

Geology

Kings Canyon is a wide glacial valley featuring tall cliffs, a meandering river, green vibrant meadows and waterfalls. A few miles outside the park, Kings Canyon deepens and steepens becoming arguably the deepest canyon in North America for a short distance. The confluence of the lies at 2,260 feet (690 m), while towering above the rivers on the north side of the canyon is Spanish Peak, which is 10,051 feet (3,064 m) tall.

Kings Canyon-Kearsage Pinnacles Aah07
Kearsarge Pinnacles, photo by Ansel Adams
Dusy Basin in Kings Canyon1
Dusy Basin in Kings Canyon

Most of the mountains and canyons in the Sierra Nevada are formed in granitic rocks. These rocks, such as granite, diorite and monzonite, formed when molten rock cooled far beneath the surface of the earth. The molten rock was a by-product of a geologic process known as subduction. Powerful forces in the earth forced the landmass under the waters of the Pacific Ocean beneath and below an advancing North American Continent. Super-hot water driven from the subducting ocean floor migrated upward and melted rock as it went. This process took place during the Cretaceous Period, 100 million years ago. Granitic rocks have speckled salt and pepper appearance because they contain various minerals including quartz, feldspars and micas.

River in the King's Canyon National Park
Roaring river in the King's Canyon National Park.

While geologists debate the details, it is clear that the Sierra Nevada is a young mountain range, probably not more than 10 million years old. Incredible forces in the earth, probably associated with the development of the Great Basin, forced the mountains to grow and climb toward the sky. During the 10 million years at least four periods of glacial advance have coated the mountains in a thick mantle of ice. Glaciers form and develop during long periods of cool and wet weather. Glaciers move through the mountains like slow-motion rivers carving deep valleys and craggy peaks. The extensive history of glaciation within the range and the erosion resistant nature of the granitic rocks that make up most of the Sierra Nevada have together created a landscape of hanging valleys, waterfalls, craggy peaks, alpine lakes and glacial canyons.

Wildlife

Badger ODFW
American badger

Year-round and seasonal residential animals of this park include the chickaree, gray squirrel, golden-mantled ground squirrel, mule deer, gray fox, black bear, cougar, and migratory and a variety of resident birds (western tanager, violet-green swallow, white-throated swift, Wilson's warbler, olive-sided flycatcher, hermit thrush, western bluebird, and pileated woodpecker). Mammals are less common here, especially bighorn sheep. Other mammals include the coyote, badger, marmot, pika, marten, red fox, and white-tailed jackrabbit. Birds include the Clark's nutcracker, mountain bluebird, and gray-crowned rosy finch.

Recreation

Grant Grove, the only vehicular entrance to the park, is 60 miles (97 km) east of Fresno via Highway 180. In addition to Highway 180 from the west, Highway 198, the Generals Highway, provides access from Sequoia National Park in the south. The roads converge in Grant Grove Village, from where Highway 180 continues another 35 miles (56 km) northeast to Cedar Grove. There is no vehicular access from Highway 395 on the eastern side of the park. There is currently no public transportation to Kings Canyon National Park; the Big Trees Shuttle, which originally operated between Sequoia National Park and Grant Grove, is no longer in service.

Kings Canyon National Park 03
A forested area of Kings Canyon National Park near Grant Grove, the original park established in 1890.

The National Park Service maintains visitor centers at Grant Grove and Cedar Grove. Grant Grove Village is the most developed part of the park and includes the 36-room John Muir Lodge (the park's largest hotel), visitor cabins, a restaurant and a general store. Cedar Grove also has a small market, but overall the facilities there are much more limited. Barring extreme weather, the Grant Grove section is open year-round; Cedar Grove is closed in winter. Highway 180 is plowed only as far as Princess Meadow, the junction with the Hume Lake Road, which remains open to Hume Lake in winter.

Due to its limited road access, Kings Canyon receives much fewer visitors than its neighboring national parks, Sequoia and Yosemite. The overall decline in national park visitation in the late 1990s hit Kings Canyon considerably harder than the other parks; from 1970 to 1990 it averaged almost a million visitors per year, but in the 21st century, it has averaged just 560,000. In 2016, it saw an increase to 607,479 visitors, which (with the exception of 2009) was the highest count since 1995. Since records began in 1904, an approximate total of 53 million people have visited Kings Canyon.

Campgrounds and hiking

In Grant Grove, the three major campgrounds are Azalea, Crystal Springs and Sunset, with 319 sites in total. With the exception of Sunset, they operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Cedar Grove has 314 sites in the Sentinel, Sheep Creek and Moraine Campgrounds, which are also first-come, first-served; sites at the Canyon View group camp must be reserved. During high demand periods, additional campsites may be placed on a reservation system. All campgrounds have flush toilets and showers, although water use may be restricted depending on the season.

Kings Canyon National Park 01
Roaring River Falls, 40 feet (12 m) high, is easily accessed via a short hike in Cedar Grove.

There are a number of day hikes in the parts of Kings Canyon National Park accessible by road. In the Grant Grove area a one-mile (1.6 km) trail leads to the General Grant Tree, and several longer trails reach nearby points of interest such as Redwood Mountain, the largest sequoia grove. In Cedar Grove, easy hikes include the boardwalk path through Zumwalt Meadow – providing broad views of Kings Canyon – and the short walk to Roaring River Falls; there are also many longer day hikes such as an 8-mile (13 km) round trip to Mist Falls, and the 13-mile (21 km) round trip climb to Lookout Peak above Kings Canyon.

A number of historical sites in the park are easily accessible via short walks, including Gamlin Cabin, built circa 1872 by the Gamlin brothers who had a timber claim at Grant Grove before it became a national park. it is believed to be the first permanent structure built in the park area. Knapp Cabin, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the oldest surviving structure in Cedar Grove, dating back to 1925. Another point of interest is the extensive Boyden Cavern system whose entrance is located just outside the park's western boundary, in the Monarch Wilderness. As of 2016, the cave was closed due to damage from the Rough Fire.

Backcountry travel

Since most of Kings Canyon is wilderness and roads extend only a small distance into the park, backpacking (and less commonly, horsepacking) are the only way to see the majority of the park. Unlike day hikers, overnight backpackers must obtain a wilderness permit from a ranger station or visitor center. During the peak tourist season (typically between May and September), a quota applies for wilderness permits, of which 75 percent are set aside for prior reservations, with the remainder for walk-ins. Outside the quota period permits are still required, although the limit no longer applies. Although backpackers account for a relatively small percentage of the total visitors, some of the backcountry trails are still quite heavily used. Due to the popularity of some backcountry camps, stays can be limited to one or two nights. During the summer, the Park Service staffs backcountry ranger stations at McClure Meadow, Le Conte Meadow, Rae Lakes, Charlotte Lake and Roaring River.

Rae Lakes Creek (6064580766)
Rae Lakes (Middle Rae Lake shown) is one of several backpacking destinations in the park.

Road's End at Cedar Grove is a major jumping-off point for trips into the backcountry. The Rae Lakes Loop, 41.4 miles (66.6 km), is one of the most popular backpacking trips and passes through the deep canyons of Paradise Valley, the high Woods Creek suspension bridge and exposed alpine country before reaching Rae Lakes, a chain of glacial tarns set below 13,000-foot (4,000 m) peaks. Rae Lakes Loop hikers also climb over Glen Pass reaching a peak elevation of just under 12,000 feet. From the top of the pass, hikers can see views of Rae Lakes and the surrounding basin. The combined Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail forms the backbone of the trail system, winding about 77 miles (124 km) from Piute Canyon at the park's northern tip to Forester Pass, 13,153 ft (4,009 m), in the south. Many hikes in Kings Canyon, including Rae Lakes, include parts of the PCT/JMT. There are also trailheads at Grant Grove which lead to more moderate hikes in the lower western Sierra Nevada, many in the Jennie Lakes Wilderness (just outside the national park).

Many parts of the park, such as the Middle Fork of the Kings River, are more difficult to access, requiring multi-day hikes over difficult terrain. Simpson Meadow on the Middle Fork is a 23-mile (37 km), one-way hike from Cedar Grove, with well over 12,000 feet (3,700 m) of elevation change. Other trailheads outside the park provide access to some of its more isolated locations, such as Tehipite Valley, a 14-mile (23 km) one-way hike from the Wishon Dam trailhead in the Sierra National Forest. The 3,000-foot (910 m) exposed and unmaintained descent into the valley is "notorious" as one of the park's most difficult hikes. Several trails also access the park from the Owens Valley to the east; all surmount passes more than 11,000 feet (3,400 m) high. The closest and most heavily used eastern approach is via Onion Valley Road, which terminates about a mile (1.6 km) east of the park boundary in the Inyo National Forest. The Kearsarge Pass Trail begins at Onion Valley Campground and links to the PCT/JMT via the eponymous pass.

During the spring and early summer, river crossings can be hazardous; in response the Park Service has installed bridges along some of the major trails. By late August or September of most years, rivers will have dropped to relatively safe levels. The high country is typically snow free between May and November, although in particularly wet years, large areas of snow may persist into July. In winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are common activities. The Park Service provides ranger-led snowshoe walks and maintains some groomed trails in the Grant Grove area. Longer trips into the backcountry are also possible, although due to the rough terrain, typically deep snows and lack of ranger patrols during the winter, this is recommended only for skilled winter travelers. As with backpacking, wilderness permits are required for any overnight trips in winter.

Climbing and canyoneering

The book of the national parks (1920) (14742630316)
Tehipite Dome, in the Kings Canyon backcountry, has various climbing routes ranging from grade II–VI.

The large, exposed granite cliffs and domes in Kings Canyon provide opportunities for rock climbing. However, many such features require long or circuitous hikes to reach their bases, which deters many climbers. These include The Obelisk, overlooking Kings Canyon at the park's western boundary, multipitch climbs at Charlito Dome and Charlotte Dome well up the Bubbs Creek Trail, and Tehipite Dome, which requires a nearly 30-mile (48 km) roundtrip hike just to access. Many of the park's prominent peaks also require technical climbing – including North Palisade, the highest point in the park, and some of its neighbors along the Sierra crest. In The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, Trails (2009) North Palisade is described as "the classic peak of the High Sierra ... It is striking from a distance and has routes that will challenge climbers of all abilities and preferences."

Canyoneering, bouldering, bushwhacking and rappelling are often necessary to explore parts of the backcountry without developed trails. A notably challenging route is down Enchanted Gorge in the Middle Fork backcountry, where Disappearing Creek vanishes under huge talus piles only to re-emerge several miles downstream, hence the name. Nearby Goddard Canyon is an easier – albeit still rugged – route, and is known for its scenic meadows and many waterfalls. The Gorge of Despair above Tehipite Valley is known for its combination of cliffs, waterfalls and deep pools, whose 3,000-foot (910 m) descent requires rappelling gear and wetsuits to achieve. Because of the park's size, lack of cell reception and limited personnel for search and rescue operations, only experienced cross-country travelers should attempt to hike off trail.

Water sports

In Cedar Grove, about 10 miles (16 km) of the South Fork are considered good waters for fly fishing. Although the river was once stocked with trout, the Park Service has not stocked the river since the 1970s, in favor of letting the fishery return to natural conditions. While rainbow, brown, and brook trout are found in various stretches of the river, only rainbows are native to the Sierra Nevada, the others having been planted by sportsmen in the early 20th century. The river is generally low and warm enough for wading by early autumn. In order to preserve the natural fishery, only catch and release is allowed for rainbows. A California state fishing license is required for visitors 16 years or older. The rainbow trout in the Kings river are small, usually no more than 8 to 9 inches (20 to 23 cm).

Zumwalt Meadow Morning
This section of the South Fork in Cedar Grove is closed to boating; however, swimming and fishing are permitted.

In order to protect riparian habitat, the gently flowing South Fork is closed to boating in Cedar Grove between Bubbs Creek and the western boundary of the park. However, swimming is allowed in certain sections of the river, with Muir Rock and the Red Bridge being popular swimming holes. Although there are many alpine lakes in the park at high elevations, most are impractical to access for boating or swimming. Nearby Hume Lake, formed by a historic mill-pond dam, is located in the Sequoia National Forest between the two sections of the park and is used for boating, swimming and fishing.

Most of the park's other rivers are extremely steep and fast-flowing, and are suitable only for advanced kayaking. The Kings River above Pine Flat Reservoir is a commercial whitewater run with its put-in near the western boundary of the park, but most of the run itself is on national forest. Most rivers in the park itself are inaccessible by road. The Middle Fork is one of the most difficult-to-access whitewater runs in the entire state, since boats and equipment must be carried through miles of backcountry to reach it. Canoe Kayak magazine describes the Middle Fork run, which passes through some of the most isolated parts of the Sierra, as "the very definition of epic with paddlers traveling around the world just to make a once-in-a-lifetime descent". Kayakers take about five days to descend the Class V Middle Fork from its 12,000-foot (3,700 m) headwaters to 900 feet (270 m) at Pine Flat Reservoir.

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