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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Enough to make you misty-eyed

Kings Canyon doesn't draw as many visitors as neighboring Yosemite or Sequoia, so there's less jostling for a campsite or a view of that thundering waterfall.

August 01, 2004|Dan Blackburn | Special to The Times

Kings Canyon National Park — Only one paved road delves into the heart of Kings Canyon National Park, and it ends where the Kings River thunders along beneath mile-high, glacier-carved canyon walls. The scene is one of the Sierra's most awesome spectacles.

Most visitors, though, never get this far. They drive California 180 to the park's western border and, after just three miles, stop at Grant Grove, with its visitor center and friendly village of shops and large campgrounds.

Not us. Last month we headed for the national park equivalent of a rollicking roller coaster, cruising past Grant Grove and plummeting down the winding road to the canyon bottom and remote Cedar Grove. Our goal: to experience the raw beauty of Kings Canyon -- the waterfalls, the meadows and the mountains -- without the crowds.

My son, Dylan, 16, and daughter, Courtney, 13, are veteran campers and backpackers. They helped me load the car with enough food and supplies for four days and three nights, plus sleeping bags, a tent, cooking equipment, lanterns, a fishing rod, flashlights, a deck of cards and my son's guitar. We drove north from Los Angeles, up Interstate 5 and California 99 to Fresno, then east on California 180 -- a five-hour journey to Kings Canyon's Big Stump entrance.

The park is relatively young compared with its Sierra neighbors, Yosemite and Sequoia, both established as national parks in 1890. Kings Canyon was created in 1940 and since World War II has been managed jointly with adjacent Sequoia, though both still are considered separate entities.

John Muir called Kings Canyon "a rival to Yosemite," but you wouldn't know it from visitor statistics. Last year Yosemite logged nearly 3.4 million visitors, Sequoia had almost a million, but Kings Canyon had just 556,000. Fewer than a third of those people made it all the way to Cedar Grove.

Journey to the canyon floor

The unpopularity was the draw for us. After paying the park entrance fee, we wound through a part of Sequoia National Forest that lies between the upper and lower sections of Kings Canyon. Here, two forks of the Kings River merge, and the canyon reaches its deepest point. Fortunately, abundant turnouts allowed us to stop and admire the view. Hawks and what looked like a peregrine falcon swooped overhead and dived into the canyon depths.

About halfway down the canyon, a roadside sign said, "Last Chance Gas." Then, as we neared the canyon floor, another sign caught our eyes. It beckoned us to Boyden Cavern, a water-carved cave with stalactites and stalagmites. A 45-minute naturalist-guided tour let us stretch our legs, starting with a steep five-minute walk to the cave entrance.

Inside the temperature hovers around 55. The cavern is about five miles deep, but most of it is blocked off. The tour sticks to a trail, equipped with helpful handrails, that passes mineral deposits and rock formations thousands of years old. One looks like a taco shell. Another resembles a wedding cake. One casts a shadow reminiscent of Jay Leno.

Back in the car, we soon dropped to the same elevation as the river, and its roar echoed off the canyon walls as we made our way to Cedar Grove. The village is usually open April to November, though precise dates depend on the weather. Visitation is so light that even in summer, the park rarely opens all four campgrounds. Two were open during our visit, and neither was full.

We pitched a tent at Sentinel Campground. It has spacious campsites with tables, fire rings and large, bear-proof containers for food and supplies. Bathrooms with running water and flush toilets were nearby. Faucets provided fresh water. As national park campgrounds go, this one bordered on luxury.

Cedar Grove also has a rustic lodge with 21 guest rooms ($105 to $115 a night, plus tax) and a small but good restaurant. We gave a thumbs-up to its Santa Fe chicken burgers and chili burger, a welcome break one day when we tired of camp food.

Not far away we found more facilities: coin-operated showers for those who weren't content with a jump in the river, and the Cedar Grove Pack Station, run by Tim Loverin, a third-generation packer whose grandfather guided John Muir on horseback. (Rides run $30 to $100 a person, depending on the length.)

We marveled at how uncrowded the area was. Two cars at a stop sign constituted a traffic jam. But that's just part of Kings Canyon's appeal. Ranger Bill Tweed, a 26-year veteran of the park, said it contains more true wilderness than almost any other park in the Lower 48. Lakes, waterfalls and more than 20 mountain peaks that stretch higher than 13,000 feet make for "one big, beautiful church of wilderness," he said.

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