If you are planning the ultimate adventure to Yosemite National Park, you really ought to begin your exploration at two additional destinations: Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park.
All three of these amazing national parks are close to each other and deserve a visit. And each offers Instagram worthy photo opportunities.
Getting Started on Your Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks Itinerary
You have options in getting to Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks, whether you are coming from Fresno, Sacramento, San Jose, or San Francisco.
Recently Southwest Airlines announced flights into Fresno from Colorado. Perfect for Chris and I. Check your flights to see what would work best for you.
Forestiere Underground Gardens
If Fresno is your starting point to the national park, don’t leave Fresno too fast. If you have a little extra time, plan to spend an hour or so touring the Forestiere Underground Gardens built by the Sicilian immigrant, Baldassare Forestiere, over 100 years ago.
If you go, the gardens are open for guided tours from May through October. The hottest months in Fresno!
The benefit to the underground adventure is that it is so much cooler than the heat of Fresno—at least 10-20 degrees cooler underground.
When Chris and I toured the gardens, the temperature was pushing 100 degrees. The temperature in the underground gardens was cool and pleasant.
Forestiere had a great vision for his underground home and garden and spent years digging, crafting, and creating.
He started with a few very simple rooms that included a place to sleep, a place to eat, and a few small garden areas.
The Underground Gardens continued to grow in size as Baldassare added an upgraded living area, a chapel area, more gardens, tunnels, and open air vents to allow citrus trees to grow and get water in his courtyards. It was all pretty ingenious.
The tour took about an hour. FYI, you have to have a reservation for the guided tour.
Now you can get on your way to the national parks. Let’s start with Kings Canyon National Park.
KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK
You will find that there are limited lodging options in all three of the national parks. While in Kings Canyon National Park, we stayed at the John Muir Lodge at Grant Grove.
The lodge could do with an upgrade.
The WiFi was pretty much non-existent in the rooms; you will need to relax in the lobby to get even the slowest connection. You definitely have to plan to “unplug” if you visit the area.
If you need a microwave, there is a small one in the lobby as well.
A short distance below the lodge you’ll find rustic cabins in both timber and tent style. Some of the cabins feature a bathroom and others offer a shared central bathhouse.
Grant Grove also features a gift shop, a post office, the market, a visitor center, and a small but busy takeout restaurant. The eat-in portion of the Grant Grove Restaurant was still closed from Covid when we visited in May of 2021.
You can order food from the takeout window and then enjoy the seating on the patio or walk back up to the lodge to eat on picnic tables there. You might HOPE that you can access WiFi outside of the lodge, but you really have to be inside the lobby.
While staying in Kings Canyon National Park, here are a few sites to explore:
General Grant Gove
The General Grant Grove features giant sequoia trees, and specifically the General Grant Tree. It is just a short driving distance from the lodge.
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Panoramic Point was about a ten-minute drive above the lodge. If you can, I would highly recommend visiting at sunset.
The road to access the point is quite narrow; two cars passing makes for a tight squeeze. But the sunset and surrounding views are rewarding.
In fact, if you are searching for the best place to take some instagram-worthy sunset photos, continue past Panoramic Point (going toward the Fire Lookout) until the trees open up and your view becomes stunning and expansive.
You can’t go wrong taking photos with your cell phone or a camera. Check out my links if you are in the market for a camera or accessories. I have My Favorite Travel Things and My Favorite Photography Things to meet all of your travel and photography gadget needs.
Drive Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to the Road’s End Permit Station. It is pretty much a road to nowhere within Kings Canyon National Park that follows a zigzagging road winding 6000 feet in elevation down the mountain side to the valley floor. You will pass a lot of viewpoints; pull over to take in the magnificent vistas.
There were a number of pull-outs for slower cars, and amazingly, the cars in front of us pulled over quite often for the vehicles behind them.
Get an early start for the day especially if you are exploring on a holiday weekend. The traffic down to the valley was minimal; however, there were a lot of cars already in the parking lots making us think that hikers and backpackers got a day’s jump on the weekend traffic.
There are numerous hikes of varying lengths and difficulty leaving from the Road’s End Permit Station.
If you are looking for a relatively easy and short hike from the permit station, meander toward the Zumwalt Meadow. Sadly, the meadow was closed for us but it may open up later in the season.
Need some good hiking boots? I love these Oboz for the support and comfort.
Chris and I decided to walk back along the road and noticed that the traffic volume had picked up greatly. Not sure where all of these cars were going to park since many of the lots were already full.
As you start your return back up the winding scenic byway along the mountainside out of Kings Canyon National Park toward Sequoia National Park, keep your eyes open! We spied a momma bear and her two tiny cubs.
The rangers were watching over the bears carefully, and even our slowing down to watch the bears earned a “whoop” from the ranger’s car siren. I would have like to snap a picture or two, but no such luck.
If you happen to need gas while driving along the scenic byway of the national park, the Kings Canyon Lodge RV and Tent Camping site has a gas station with two of America’s oldest double gravity pumps still in good working order.
This station is one of the few gas options along the way. Be prepared to pay at least $5/gallon.
As an added bonus, you can indulge in an ice cream cone while you wait.
Hike to the Fire Lookout from Panoramic Point
I recommend getting an early start if you plan to hike to the Fire Lookout from Panoramic Point. When Chris and I visited Kings Canyon National Park in May of 2021, this part of California was experiencing a heat wave.
Be sure to pack a backpack with plenty of water. Click on the link to discover the 10 Essentials For Your Best Day Hikes?
Chris packs his The NorthFace Recon Backpack with all of our hiking gear.
The hike was beautiful along the ridge line of the mountain. At times you could look down into the north and south valleys simultaneously.
The trees do provide some shade, but you’ll still be in the sun and the day warms up fast. Starting early helps to avoid the intense afternoon heat and wear a hat or visor.
The hike to the Fire Lookout in Kings Canyon National Park is 5.3 miles round trip with just over 1000 feet of elevation gain. A lot of that gain is at the very beginning of the hike as you climb to the Panoramic Point.
As Chris and I reached the Fire Lookout, the volunteer fire spotter invited us to climb the stairs to the viewing platform. As you might imagine, he had a pretty grand view of the surrounding mountains of Kings Canyon National Park.
Chris and I hiked back to the Panoramic Point and down to our car in the parking lot. Already the lot was full and people were creatively parking outside of the designated parking spots. Another good reason to get an early start.
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
The General Sherman Tree in the Giant Forest is the big star of Sequoia National Park.
Again, I would recommend an early start as the traffic was crazy, especially if you are visiting on a holiday weekend.
You can take a shuttle from the Lodgepole Visitor Center, the Giant Forest Museum, or take your chances on driving to the General Sherman Tree Main Trail and Parking lot yourself and see if you can find a parking spot.
You might find that tourists are coming and going pretty constantly, and if you are patient, parking spots become available.
Note that the hike down to the General Sherman Tree follows a paved path with a steep descent. Signs are posted all around warning people of the decline as well as to be prepared for the steep climb on the way back up.
There are plenty of benches and resting spots along the way.
Wear good shoes, not flip flops. I really like my Asics if I am not wearing hiking boots.
This first spot gives an overlook of the General Sherman below.
If the parking lot is busy, then odds are the famous tree will be thronged by people.
I had about three seconds to take this picture before another family jumped in to take pictures with this iconic tree.
The General Sherman is enormous. It is the largest living tree on the earth today and grows bigger by adding bulk to its trunk every year. The tree is dead at the top and no longer grows taller.
One of the distinctive features of the sequoia tree is that the trunk does not taper much at the top.
Unlike the Redwood Forest which is primarily made up of redwood trees, there are many varieties of trees growing in the Sequoia National Forest. The sequoias grow in small groves or single trees here and there.
Still within Sequoia National Park, follow the Congress Trail that is not too far from the General Sherman tree for a hike through the grove where you will see the President’s tree, the Chief Sequoyah tree, the Senate trees, and the House trees.
The hike itself is 2.7 miles round trip on a paved, gently sloping trail.
Such a beautiful forest. You could tell that many of the trees had some type of scarring from burns, perhaps through lightning strikes. The thickness of the bark rarely allows fire to get past the bark making these trees hard to kill.
The tannin in the bark gives the giant tree its reddish color and protects it from insects.
The Congress Trail loops back around to the General Sherman Tree.
Get ready for the climb back up the hill to the parking lot. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a bear!
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
The drive into the valley at Yosemite National Park is simply stunning. The grasses are green, the trees are plentiful, and the river is running strong (it may not be as strong later in the summer).
And then you look ahead and see Yosemite Falls. The valley of this national park is surrounded by sheer rock faces.
Depending on your level of activity, you have options to sit and enjoy the scenery, find a place to play in the water, take easy walks, or add a hike or two to your day.
If you choose to vacation in or around Yosemite National Park, you will have to balance proximity with price as well as the amount of time you will spend driving each day (along with the price of gas).
If you are staying any distance away from the park and choose to sleep in a little, you might wish you had risen a little earlier.
The drawback to sleeping in? You will have to wait at the entrance in a long line of cars. Getting up early is totally worth it when you only have to wait for four or five cars versus an hour’s worth of cars.
Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls
Are you planning to hike the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park? It takes you first to Vernal Fall and then on to Nevada Fall. If yes, you might also find that it is the plan for a lot of other tourists.
Well, at least the hike to Vernal Fall. Join the throng walking toward the base of the trail—many who may have camped overnight in the tent city at Yosemite.
Pace yourself on the Mist Trail. If you plan to see both waterfalls, you are beginning a hike that has an eventual elevation gain of 2000 feet!
The first part of the path is a paved incline with very few flat sections until you near Vernal Fall. It is a moderately difficult climb of 1.5 miles (3 miles round trip) with 1000 feet of elevation gain that will have you stopping regularly to catch your breath and take a drink of water.
One of the must-haves on our family hiking excursions, and even on our vacations, is a Camelbak 3.0 Liter Hydration Pack Reservoir (or bladder) with a high flow, self-sealing, bite valve. That may sound weird and strange, I know.
Chris brings his The NorthFace Recon Backpack; it is perfect for a day trip pack which you can fill with your lunch, snacks, the Camelbak bladder, and extra water bottles.
The laptop section is padded enough to keep the water in the reservoir cool and minimizes leaks to other sections of the backpack.
I will say, you really have to like the people you travel with to use this method. We all drink from the same bite valve!
It is also common for us to bring a couple of cold bottles of water to tuck into the external side pockets of our backpacks. When you are hiking for hours, water is essential.
Along with staying hydrated, you will want to bring snacks or power bars. Our favorite bar right now is the Built Bars. They come in a variety of flavors to satisfy all taste buds. You can even get sample boxes.
I say, try them out and see if you like them.
Need helping planning your own excursions?
The pathway becomes misty with spray from the waterfall as you get close. You will want to watch the people around you and keep your eye on the granite steps as you climb.
After such a climb, the mist feels wonderful. You’ll probably even spot a couple of rainbows.
Note: you may want to cover your camera to protect it from all of the moisture.
Stop for a rest and to take in the view after reaching Vernal Fall. Getting to this first waterfall is quite a feat and many return to the valley floor from here.
After they catch their breath!
The path to Nevada Fall is a loop. Your options are to take stairs up or another path that may be more of a gentle incline. It is still hard. Don’t get me wrong. You’ve still got another 1000 feet of elevation to climb! Getting to Nevada Fall and back again to the valley floor is 5.4 miles.
It is recommended that you take the stairs up instead of down to be kind to your knees.
So, as you continue on, the granite steps continue. And it may feel as though you are on a never ending stair stepper to the next waterfall.
Hallelujah when you finally reach Nevada Fall. What do you know, but we had the best cell service on the top of the mountain! There is also a restroom available.
The nice thing about the second hike is that fewer people opt to hike it and the trail is less busy. Seriously, the first hike was crazy and hard all by itself.
Sit and enjoy the view and pat yourself on the back for such an accomplishment.
Then, cross the bridge and start on your hike back down.
Valley Loop Trail
Much as the name suggests, the Valley Loop Trail winds around the Yosemite Valley floor in a loop. It is an easy walk on a fairly even trail; you may wish to apply a little bug spray and sunscreen before you set out.
This PCA Skin Active Broad Spectrum SPF 45 sunscreen is my favorite for my face.
The sun and heat seem to reflect off the mountains and warm up the valley floor. Be sure to wear a hat or visor and bring plenty of water to drink.
The scenery is beautiful and peaceful as you walk along the Merced river and through meadows with the magnificent mountains and waterfalls as a backdrop. Bring along your camera or phone for some fantastic pictures.
To begin, park in the lot close to the Lower Yosemite Falls in the national park where you can follow the signs for the Valley Loop Trail. Start walking west along the trail, going past the Three Brothers Rock. If you plan to walk the full loop it is 13 miles. The half loop which cuts across at the El Capitan Bridge is 6.5 miles and heads back east to Yosemite Village.
For a change of scenery, you may enjoy driving out of the valley and up the Big Oak Flat Road to Tioga road, Tuolumne (pronounced two-all-o-me) Meadows, and Road 120. Tuolumne Meadows parking area is a great place to stop. It leads to a grove of sequoia trees about a mile from the parking area.
Picnic tables are available.
Chris and I highly recommend the Gypsy Guide app for Yosemite National Park or other national parks you may be visiting this summer. The guides are available for a number of destinations, and provide lots of information, history, significant contributions of different people, and random information.
The view from Olmstead Point.
Continue on to Lembert Dome and the parking area. This 2.8 mile round trip hike only has 850 feet of elevation gain. Only. Be mindful of the heat and wind and just the weather in general. If the wind is crazy or if there are thunderstorms in the area, stay off of the dome.
Wear shoes that have good grip. The granite rock of the dome and specifically the granite rock steps along the path have a tendency to become covered in sand and small pebbles that have some slip to it. Be careful.
My husband wears the Merrell Men’s Moab 2 Hiking Boots. They were comfortable from the moment he started to wear them.
For a change of scenery, veer off onto Road 41 from the Yosemite valley road and drive up above the valley floor of the national park to stunning stops at Valley View and Tunnel View. As the name suggests, you will be up high enough to see the valley below and the mighty mountains and waterfalls of the park.
The parking lot is pretty busy, but people do not stay too long once they have a look and snap a few pictures. Parking spots will open up if you are patient.
If you visit Yosemite National Park during the summer of 2021, you know that Bridal Veil Falls is closed to tourist traffic for construction and updates. Get your first good glimpse of Bridal Veil Falls (on the right side of the photo) from the view spots along Road 41. Half Dome is in the distance (middle of the picture).
After taking your pictures, drive on through the longest highway tunnel in California. It is 0.8 mile long.
If your kids have the tradition of holding their breath through tunnels, they might want to skip this one!
Drive to the Glacier Point exit at Chinquapin and turned left onto Glacier Point Road. The road follows a windy path for 16 miles with moderate speed limits.
Glacier Point offers an outstanding view of Vernal and Nevada Falls. If you hiked to the top of those falls previously, you’ll see the zigzagging path as it winds up the side of the mountain.
Half Dome looms large in front of you.
Currently there are no picnic tables at Glacier Point. As options, find a shady spot and enjoy a picnic spread out on the ground or drive back on the Glacier Point Road to a smaller overlook and find a couple of downed logs to sit on and enjoy your lunch in the shade.
Sentinel Dome and Taft Point Loop
If you use the AllTrails App as my husband, Chris, does to plan your adventures and hikes, you’ll surely find the Sentinel Dome and Taft Point Loop hike that skirts from the parking lot to Sentinel Dome and around the mountainside to reach Taft Point.
If you chose not to hike the full loop, you could hike 2.2 miles round trip to Taft Point in one direction or 2.2 miles round trip to Sentinel Dome in the other direction. The full loop hike is about 5.5 miles in length.
I would say it is a moderate hike.
Sentinel Dome used to be characterized by a Jeffrey Pine that grew at its peak. The pine tree has since fallen; the hike is short and steep once you reach the dome. The tourist traffic wasn’t terribly heavy but constant.
Once leaving the dome, the loop takes you past a huge cell tower. If you have any important phone calls to make, now’s the time. Cell service was so much better out of the Yosemite National Park valley.
Taft Point offers tremendous views much like Glacier Point but without the guard rails. Be careful.
There’s only one small section of guard rail at the highest point.
You’ll know pretty quickly how to answer the question, “Am I afraid of heights or not?” on Taft Point.
If you are brave, you can walk right up to edge of the cliffs and look down into the valley below on El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. If the wind is blowing in the valley it sends the water of the falls off of its normal path.
If you thought at all about doing the Yosemite Falls hike, enlarge the photo below so that you can clearly see the switchbacks that lead to the top of Yosemite Falls. It does not look fun at all.
Taft Point is characterized by large fissures in the rock with tremendous depth.
I chuckled at this description of Taft Point:
“The drop off at Taft Point is steep, and a fall would be not just fatal, but squish-you-like-a-bug fatal. The fall is so far that your friends, waving their teary goodbyes and hoping you didn’t have the only set of car keys, would lose sight of you before you reached the ground. So be careful.”Yosemite Hikes
Are you planning to exit Yosemite National Park going past the Wawona Visitor Center? Before you go, you have another opportunity to visit a grove of sequoia trees at Mariposa Grove.
Final Thoughts on National Park Adventures in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Well, that’s three parks and a bunch of hikes and adventures.
If Yosemite National Park is on your bucket list, this year is a great time to visit. You will be required to have a reservation to enter Yosemite National Park.
If you choose to visit and can add a day or two to explore Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park as well, you will see some amazing scenery. I highly recommend all three parks.