There’s this saying that Californians often use when boasting about the state’s blessed geography: “we can surf in the morning, and ski in the afternoon.” I’ve said it myself, never mind that I don’t surf, nor ski–the point is I could if I wanted to.
I recently discovered one more beautiful thing to add to our bragging rights: The ability to visit 3 national parks in 3 days!
A few months ago, I read something about the “Majestic Mountain Loop,” a California road trip itinerary that takes you through three national parks in three days–the jointly managed Sequoia & Kings Canyon, plus Yosemite National Park. It seemed like an ambitious itinerary, but I was up for the challenge. I invited my friend Karen to come along for the ride. Being late fall and at high altitude, we worried about running into snowy weather so we opted to take four days for the trek, and rent a 4WD vehicle.
With that one small change of plans, we had a great time exploring this relatively untapped part of Central California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here are some of the highlights, day by day…
Day 1. Arrive in Sequoia National Park…
We left the Bay Area first thing in the morning. It was raining, so though I love California’s agricultural heartland, and always enjoy stopping at roadside stands and quirky stops, we powered through, knowing that winter rain in the Central Valley means snow and ice in the mountains.
As we entered Sequoia National Park and climbed in elevation, the rain was coming down but we got lucky–the only snow remaining at the sides of the roads was melting off.
We did get some impressive views of the misty hills as the rain started to pass.
First stop: Wuksachi Lodge
We headed right to our home for the night, Wuksachi Lodge, in the heart of Sequoia National Park. We grabbed a bite to eat in the lodge restaurant and checked into our room.
The rooms were huge and gorgeous, and my favorite part were the views of the forest through the windows. If you’re taking this trip with your family, a second seating room–with a door that closes, makes Wuksachi an ideal place to stay.
Second stop: The Giant Forest and the General Sherman Tree
We wasted no time in checking out Sequoia National Park’s most treasured site, the General Sherman Tree. General Sherman is the world’s largest tree (by volume) and one of the world’s oldest trees at over 2,300 years old. Standing at the foot of this beautiful giant gave me goosebumps.
Four of the five largest giant sequoia trees in existence are located in the Giant Forest. In the late 19th century, thousands of these massive trees were cut down by loggers when it seemed this resource was endless. What remains of the Giant Forest was saved from logging by the establishment of the National Park in 1890, but was still damaged by tourism development including road construction, cabin infrastructure construction, and visitors trampling their sensitive roots. Today, the area is strictly for day use and the largest trees are fenced off to protect against root damage.
Final stop: Climbing Moro Rock at sunset
We ended the day at Moro Rock to watch the sunset from the highest and most expansive view in the park.
The narrow trail, twists, and turns, with 400 steps going up to the peak where you are rewarded with a 360-degree view of the San Joaquin Valley…
And off toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Such a breathtaking sight!
Day 2. More Sequoia, then Kings Canyon National Park
After breakfast in the lodge, we checked out of our room, enjoying the clear and sunny morning views.
First stop: The Giant Forest Museum
The park’s Giant Forest Museum features exhibits on giant sequoia ecology and the Giant Forest grove’s history. One of the grove’s giants, The Sentinel Tree, stands right out front.
Across the street from the museum, don’t miss another excellent view off toward the San Joaquin Valley. This vista is just a few steps up Beetle Walk Trail.
Second stop: Tunnel Log, Crescent Meadow, Tharp’s Log
There are plenty of old photos going around of cars driving through giant sequoia trees, but there aren’t many standing giant sequoia trees that you can drive through. Hollowing out the trees weakens them and causes life-threatening damage, so it hasn’t been allowed in decades. But in Sequoia NP, you can drive through Tunnel Log, a felled giant sequoia that is a responsible alternative.
At the end of the Morrow Rock Road, there’s a parking lot at Crescent Meadow, one of the largest meadows in the park and the trailhead for a number of high sierra hiking trails.
This trail is the starting point for a short (30 minute) hike out to one of the stranger sights in the park. Tharp’s Log is a felled and hollowed out sequoia log that a cattle farmer, Hale Tharp, lived in each summer from 1861 until the national park was established in 1890. Inside the “log cabin” is a primitive table, bench, bed, and stove.
Third Stop: Drive to Kings Canyon National Park and visit Grant’s Grove
After returning to the Crescent Meadow lot after our hike we began the roughly hour and a half drive to end at Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. Grant Grove is home to the General Grant tree, the SECOND largest giant sequoia tree in the world, behind the General Sherman.
We took a ranger-led tour of the grove where our passionate guide shared the story of Giant Sequoias from seed to massive tree. Because you can’t walk very close to General Grant, the ranger shared a demo with our group to show the tree’s massive circumference.
Final Stop: John Muir Lodge
After the tour, we checked into our home for the second night, John Muir Lodge in Grant Grove Village. This comfortable mountain lodge, named after the 19th century conservationist who led the fight to protect California’s giant sequoia groves, was the perfect place to crash after a long day of hiking and driving. The rooms were furnished with hand-carved wooden furniture, and the lodge common area was a cozy place to spend the night (and enjoy internet access–the signal doesn’t carry into the rooms).
Day 3. From Kings Canyon National Park to Yosemite
First stop. Sunrise over Panoramic Point & Hume Lake
This high altitude lookout is just a ten-minute drive up the road from the John Muir Lodge, so we had no good excuse not to drag ourselves out of bed to catch this sunrise!
While Hume Lake isn’t in Kings Canyon National Park (it’s in the Sequoia National Forest), it’s just about a twenty five minute drive away from John Muir Lodge, so we headed down there right after sunset to check the late morning sun and mist burning off of the lake.
Then we returned to the lodge for breakfast and to check out.
Second, third and fourth stops: The Central Valley, en route to Yosemite
From Grant Grove Village, it’s about a 2 and a half hour drive through the Central Valley to our final stop at our next hotel, just south of Yosemite, but we dragged that out all day with several stops. We checked out Cat Haven, a wild cat sanctuary just outside of Kings Canyon, and stopped for lunch at the School House Tavern, a historic school house turned popular restaurant in the town of Sanger, just east of Fresno.
When passing through the foothill community of Oakhurst (which I’ve written about before), we noted a number of local wineries, so we decided to give one a try. Idle Hour features single vineyard wines from vineyards across Mariposa County. While we enjoyed their red wines (and brought home a few bottles of their 2012 Petit Verdot), the star of the day was the tasting room host’s sweet dog, Ginger, who wouldn’t leave her side.
Final stop: Tenaya Lodge
We ended the day by checking into Tenaya Lodge, a mountain resort just outside of the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park. It was luxurious for a mountain lodge, it included several restaurants, a bar, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, kids club, and much more. These photos don’t do it justice.
The lobby was decorated for the holidays and there were pine garland, poinsettia, and woodsy holiday decor. It was a cozy place to read or catch up on the internet.
After dinner in the bar restaurant, we took an organized night hike through the trails on the property, where our guide shared the ecology of the area in a fun, family-friendly way (she offered up some edible insects she pulled from a log for the adventurous kids in the group). And then it was off to enjoy the indoor pool and the spa’s steam room before an early night to bed.
Day 4: Yosemite National Park
After breakfast at Tenaya Lodge, we checked out for our last day’s drive into Yosemite National Park. It was a clear, sunny day with plenty of fall colors and just enough clouds to make for interesting photos. It was the perfect end to a perfect trip.
(I shared more photos from that final day in the post, Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy in the Fall.)
Thanks to DNC for introducing me to this stunning California road trip itinerary and discounting our stay at the lodges. Thanks also to my friend Karen for helping me wrangle camera gear and letting me choose which podcasts to listen to. All opinions and photos are my own.
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