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Ultimate Sequoia National Park Camping Guide

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A Guide to Hiking and Camping Sequoia National Park

There’s nothing quite like the mountains of California; the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the blue waters of its unpolluted lakes and streams, and of course, the forest. No forest can compare to that of the great Sequoias, the largest trees in the world.

Sequoia National Park is more than just the trees of its namesake though; it’s a varied landscape where all of the best parts of nature can be explored. Along with the adjacent Kings Canyon National Park, they make up the third largest national park in the lower 48 states – only behind Death Valley and Yellowstone. Best of all, whether you live in the Bay Area or the LA metropolis, the park is never very far away.

The enormity of the park does mean that you’ll want to do some research before embarking on your trip. Different regions of the park have varied camping and hiking opportunities to fit the type of experience you want to have. Visiting the right places at the right time of year will also lead to a much more enjoyable trip.

When to Visit

Sequoia National Park is open year-round, and each season has its advantages and disadvantages. The time of year that you choose to visit should be based on the types of activities you want to do and the kind of weather you’re hoping for.

  • Summer (July-mid September) is the most popular time to visit the park, and is also when it’s the most crowded. The weather is fantastic then – even though the temperatures might be high, the giant trees will keep you shaded on all but the most exposed trails. This is also when the most park services are available: lodging, campgrounds, and ranger-led trips.
  • Autumn (mid September-October) is a great choice for travelers who want to see the park without all the crowds. The temperature will be lower, so you can embark on more strenuous hikes without worrying about a heat stroke.
  • Winter (November-mid April) is the longest season and when the park sees the fewest visitors; much of it is closed off, and services are few and far between. However, the Grant Grove has excellent cross-country skiing and hiking trails, and the Pear Lake Winter Hut can be booked for those intrepid adventurers willing to brave the cold getting to it.
  • Spring (mid April-June) is a great time to visit if you want to avoid some of the crowds but don’t enjoy hiking and camping in the cold. Nature is at its most colorful this time of year, as the trees and flowers emerge from their winter hibernation. The major downside to this season is that it’s wet and muddy. This is runoff season and the water levels in the streams is much, so waterfall hikes are extra impressive.

How to Get There

The entrances to Sequoia National Parks are located in California’s Central Valley region at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The roads leading to the park are narrow and mountainous, and can be covered in snow and ice in the winter. If you’re not experienced with mountain driving, it might be better to take the shuttles mentioned below.

From the North

The park is located about four and a half hours from San Francisco. To get there from the Bay Area, take the 580 east towards Modesto. Then go south along highway 99 until you reach Visalia, forty-five miles south of Fresno. From here, take highway 198 to reach the park.

From the South

The park is only three and a half hours from Los Angeles. Start by getting on the 5 going north, and then take the exit for Bakersfield to get on highway 65. About an hour past Bakersfield, take a right onto highway 198 to head towards the park.

Park Shuttle

Summer

If you don’t want to deal with the heavy traffic and dreadful parking that arise during peak season, the park’s shuttle bus is an excellent option. For just $15, you can take it from the town of Visalia or Three Rivers, 45 minutes from the park, to the Giant Trees Museum inside the park. That $15 fee also covers the cost of park admission (so the ride is essentially free, since the price of individual admission is $15). Reservations are required and can be done online, but this is a great way to reduce vehicle emissions and noise pollution in Sequoia National Park.

A free shuttle also operates along four different routes inside the park: Giant Forest, Moro Rock, Lodgepole/Wukasachi, and Wolverton. Buses arrive every fifteen to twenty minutes, but check the park’s website for the specific schedule on the dates you’ll be visiting.

Winter

A free shuttle bus runs on some select dates during the winter, around Thanksgiving and Christmas. It travels between the Wuksachi Lodge and the Giant Forest Museum with stops at General Sherman Tree and the Lodgepole and Wolverton Snowplay areas.

Lodging

Fresno/Visalia

If you’re looking for budget accommodations, it’s best to book in nearby Fresno or Visalia. Freso is an hour from the park’s Ash Mountain entrance, and as a city of half a million people, there are plenty of options ranging from large chains like Motel 6 to budget Airbnbs.

Visalia is quite a bit smaller, but is only 45 minutes from the Foothills entrance and still has some options for under $100. In either case, staying in town will be less expensive than the lodging options that are available in the park or along its borders.

Wuksachi Lodge

The quintessential Sequoia National Park lodge, Wuksachi Lodge is a striking hotel of cedar and stone. From the outside, it might appear to be a relic from the park’s early days, but it was actually built in 1999. The lodge has 102 rooms, but it’s best to make reservations far in advance, as it’s quite popular during the summer.

Be aware that Wi-Fi is only available in the central lodge, not in the cabins where guests stay. Take this as an opportunity to have a digital detox and enjoy some screen-free time. If you’re going to be camping in the park as well, this will ease you into being untethered from your devices.

Rooms are $225/night plus taxes.

Silver City Mountain Resort

The Silver City Mountain Resort is a series of cabins that makes up this resort is located in the far south of the park, near the secluded Mineral King campgrounds and an hour and a half from the Ash Mountain entrance. The accommodations range from rustic to luxury, but they all offer one thing – peace and quiet.

The cabins are off the grid: they produce all of their own electricity, and it’s only available for ten hours each day. After 10pm, propane lanterns are the only source of light. The resort has Wi-Fi, but it comes from a satellite, so it’s not particularly fast. It’s a place to unplug and forget all your electronic distractions.

Prices range from $135/night for a Depression-era Forest Service cabin all the way to $410/night for a two-story luxury chalet.

Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp

Reaching the Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp requires an 11.5-mile hike, but it’s the pinnacle of “glamping” in a national park. Six large canvas tents have been erected on platforms and somewhat resemble the mining camps once found in the High Sierras over a hundred years ago.

The camp is open for the summer season (June to September), and each tent can sleep three people – two on twin beds and one on the floor. Bedding is provided for the beds, but the person sleeping on the floor will need to bring a sleeping bed or quilt.

Breakfast and dinner are included, with box lunches available for an additional fee, and vegetarians can be accommodated. The camp also has composting toilets and a shower facility, allowing you to see the wilderness while still feeling civilized.

Cost is $467/night for the tent. You can reserve them online starting in January, and they fill up quickly.

Pear Lake Winter Hut

The Pear Lake Winter Hut is located six miles into the backcountry from the Wolverton Picnic Area, which is about 30 miles southeast of the Ash Mountain park entrance.

As the name suggests, Pear Lake is only open in the winter (December to April) – so it can only be accessed with cross-country skis or snowshoes. The trail to the hut is steep, climbing 2,000 feet over six miles, and should only be attempted by visitors with experience winter hiking or cross-country skiing. You won’t need to carry many backcountry camping supplies, though. The cabin has bunk beds, a wood stove for heat, a propane stove for cooking, and a composting toilet, so you just need to bring food, fuel, and sleeping bags.

The cabin holds ten people but reservations are per person, so if you’re going alone or with a smaller group, you might make some new friends there. Either way, you should make reservations far in advance.

Cost is $40/person/night.

Hazards

Bears

Bears are a common enough sight in Sequoia National Park, but fortunately, attacks are exceedingly rare. Black bears, the only species present in the park, are smaller than their fearsome cousin, the grizzly. That doesn’t mean they pose no threat though; black bears are very curious animals and have been known to injure people as they investigate the smells of the campsite.

It’s very important to secure all your food, trash, and scented toiletries in the bear-proof containers provided at the campsites. If you come across a bear on the trail, start speaking loudly and making noise. Unless there are cubs nearby, black bears will usually avoid encounters with humans.

Mountain Lions

Mountain lions can be hard to spot; they silently stalk their prey until the last moment before they attack. Luckily, mountain lion attacks are uncommon in Sequoia. They might stalk a hiker, but will rarely attack. The people most at risk are solo hikers and children who get ahead of their parents on the trail. If you are under attack, do not run from a mountain lion – stand your ground. This will cause their chase instinct to kick in, and makes it much more likely that you’ll be attacked.

Air Quality

The mountains of California are notorious for their poor air quality during fire season (May – November). The worst months are usually the hottest ones, July and August. Hiking and camping during this time can be bad for your lungs, especially for elderly visitors. Certain sectors of the parks might even be closed for your safety. If your travel plans permit it, visit the park during the cooler months instead.

Giardia

While the streams in Sequoia National Park might look clean, they almost certainly are not. A number of parasites could be present, but Giardia, almost certainly is. Contracting it will leave you with intestinal issues for a few weeks, which will definitely ruin your visit. If you’re going to be hiking or camping in the backcountry and away from potable water sources, bring some method of water purification: a filter, chlorine tablets, a UV sterilizer, etc.

Fees

Individual/Vehicle Admission

The regular admission fee is $30/vehicle or $15/individual if walking or cycling into the park. A motorcycle pass is also available for $25, and covers up to two riders. The admission fee allows visitors to enter and leave the park anytime for one week.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are administered together, so paying the admission fee needs to one park will also get you into the other.

Annual Pass

If you’re planning to make multiple trips within one year, an annual pass to Sequoia National Park and the adjacent Kings Canyon National Park costs $50 (for one vehicle or four adults).

Alternatively, visitors who anticipate visiting even one or two other national parks throughout the year should purchase the America the Beautiful Pass. It covers admission at all national parks and monuments for one year for only $80. It can have two primary users, and covers admission for everyone in a car with either of those people. Senior citizens can get the pass for just $20 per year, or pick up a lifetime version of the pass for $80.

Fee-Free Days

If you don’t want to pay the entry fee, there are thirteen days each year that admission is free. On ten of those days, all national parks are free:

  • January 16th – MLK Day
  • February 20th – President’s Day
  • April 15 & 16th/April 22nd & 23rd – National Parks Week Weekends
  • August 25th – National Park Service Birthday
  • September 30th – National Public Lands Day
  • November 11th-12th – Veteran’s Day Weekend

*Holiday dates are subject to change each year, so check the Park Service calendar.

Admission for Sequoia National Park is free for an additional three days each year:

  • June 3rd – National Trails Day
  • August 12th – Day Honoring Buffalo Soldiers
  • December 10th – Celebration of General Grant Tree: Nations Christmas Tree

What to Pack

Day Hiking Supplies

  • Small backpack: 15-25 liters
  • Waterproof hiking boots
  • Snacks
  • Insect repellant
  • Sunscreen
  • Water: one liter per hour of hiking
  • Basic First-Aid kit
  • Rain jacket
  • Fire starter: matches or lighter
  • Flashlight or headlamp

Camping and Overnight Backpacking Supplies

  • Large backpack: 35-50 liters
  • Three-season tent
  • Sleeping bag: 15 degree rating for higher elevations
  • Sleeping pad
  • Water purification: water filter: chlorine tablets, or UV pen
  • Cooking supplies: stove, fuel, utensils, plates/bowls, pots and pans
  • Food

Winter Hiking Gear

  • Multiple layers: moisture-wicking base layer, down jacket mid-layer, waterproof and windproof outer layer
  • Traction for boots: crampons or YakTrax, depending on ice levels
  • Snowshoes: if the snow is deeper than a few inches, you’ll need them
  • Plenty of water: just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you don’t need to hydrate

Hiking Trails

General Sherman Tree Trail

General Sherman is probably the most famous tree in the park, and is the largest known tree in the world at 275 feet tall and 37 feet wide at its base. Fortunately, this amazing sight can be seen without much effort; it’s located just half a mile from the General’s Highway.

The trail is paved and only requires of descent of 200 feet to reach the tree. Halfway down the trail is a “footprint” of the General Sherman Tree, which will help you visualize its girth. Once you reach the tree, it’s difficult to take it all in and nearly impossible to fit the whole thing in a photo frame.

Moro Rock Trail

Looking for the best view in the park without hiking too many miles? The Moro Rock Trail is a granite staircase from the General’s Highway to an overlook, and it only gains 300 feet in elevation.

The staircase was cut in the 1930’s as a public works project during the Great Depression, and it now provides some of the most amazing views that the United States has to offer.

Even though the overlook faces Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48, some other impressively tall peaks obscure the view of it. The vistas are still stunning, and the perfect time to visit is at sunset, when a beautiful purple and red glow illuminates the surrounding peaks.

Monarch Lakes

High in the mountains of the Mineral Kings region are some of the most beautiful lakes in the park. But getting there requires a fairly challenging climb.

You’ll need to take a 4.7-mile hike (9.4 miles round-trip) up a steep trail, gaining 2,000 feet of elevation. The hike starts at the Sawtooth Trailhead and climbs a series of switchbacks throughout the first mile, before coming to a junction and then starting another set of switchbacks.

At this point, the trees become much more sparse and you start to see how the lakes take shape, each of them sitting in small depression cut into the side of the mountain. The waters are crystal clear, as the water in the lakes only travels a couple hundred feet from the mountain summits above. The peaks are solid rock, so there is little sediment to contaminate them.

Panther Creek

Interested in seeing one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the park? Look no further than the Middle Fork Trail, which leads to a point where Panther Creek makes a dramatic one-hundred-foot drop before entering the Kaweah River. The hike is miserably hot during the summer, so stick to the spring and fall.

This out-and-back hike starts near the popular Buckeye Flats Campground, and six miles from the Ash Mountain entrance to the park. The trail meanders along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River for three miles, gaining only a little over 300 feet in elevation. It’s not a particularly difficult hike, and the payoff towards the end is spectacular.

The end of the hike is a point where you can look straight down into the waterfall, but unfortunately, there’s no path leading to a head-on view of the falls.

Other Activities

Snowshoeing/Cross-Country Skiing

Snowshoes and cross-country skis are great ways to see the park during the winter, and you’ll feel like you have the whole place to yourself. A map of the trails is available at the park’s visitor centers, and markers on the trees will guide you from the trailhead. One of the most popular overnight routes is to the Pear Lake Winter Hut mentioned above, where you can sleep in relative comfort. However, there are also a variety of backcountry campsites available to anyone prepared for winter camping.

Ready to explore, but don’t have the equipment? Snowshoes are available for rent for rent from Wuksachi Lodge Alta Ski Shop or the Grant Grove gift shop. If you don’t have experience with skiing or snowshoeing, ranger-guided trips are available when there’s at least eight inches of snow on the ground. The tours cover two miles, and last about two hours; sign up at the Giant Forest Museum.

Rock Climbing

One of the park’s most popular rock climbing routes is Moro Rock, with its thousand-foot face. However, it’s closed from April through August so as to not disturb the Peregrine Falcons that nest there. Angel Wings, on the High Sierra Trail, is another popular climb with over two thousand feet of rock face, and is less crowded than Moro Rock.

Fishing

Anyone over the age of 16 requires a California fishing license, which costs $47 for residents and $126 for non-residents. Licenses can be purchased at sporting goods stores in nearby towns or at the Hume Lake campground inside the park.

Horseback Riding

Guided horseback rides are available from stables in nearby Kings Canyon National Park, near the General Grant Tree and Cedar Grove Village. Rides cost around $40 for one hour and $75 for two hours, but full day trips and overnight pack trips are possible if arranged in advance.

Ranger Programs

Rangers lead a wide variety of educational programs at the park campgrounds including yoga, bear safety, flora and fauna identification, and children’s events. These programs are a great way to learn about the park before setting off on a long hike, and you might make a few outdoors-loving friends there.

Crystal Cave

Need a place to cool off? Crystal Cave is a half-mile loop hike through a marble cave, where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees. If you’re interested in seeing some cool rock formations or just want to beat the heat during the summer, the caves are an excellent place to be.

As it’s an incredibly fragile ecosystem, visitors can only enter the cave on a guided tour. Tickets for the guided hike go quickly, so it’s best to buy them a couple days in advance for weekends and holidays. They are available at the park’s visitor centers.

Camping

Lodgepole and Giant Forest

Both of the campgrounds in this area have flush toilets, and there are a number of amenities around Lodgepole Village; you won’t feel like you’re too deep in the backcountry.

Lodgepole Campground

  • oLocated a few miles from Giant Forest, next to Lodgepole Village
  • o214 individual campsites
  • oRVs and trailers allowed, but has no water or electrical hookups
  • oHas flush toilets
  • oRanger programs offered during the summer
  • oOpen from early-May to late-November
  • oReservation period from late-May to late-September
  • oLimited number of campsites outside the reservation period
  • oSequoia Shuttle stop at the campsite
  • o$22/night

Dorst Creek Campground

  • oLocated between Giant Grove and Giant Forest
  • o218 individual campsites, and 4 large group (15-30 people) campsites
  • oRVs and trailers allowed, but has no water or electrical hookups
  • oHas flush toilets
  • oRanger programs offered during the summer
  • oReservation period from late-June to early September
  • oSequoia Shuttle stop at the campsite
  • o$22/night for individual campsites; $40-$60/night for group sites

Foothills Area

This is probably one of the easiest regions of the park to access, located just fifteen minutes from the Ash Mountain entrance. It’s also one of the most colorful in the spring and fall, when wildflowers are sprouting or the leaves are changing to a golden yellow. You’ll also find fewer campers here compared to Lodgepole, with far fewer campsites and many of them restricted to tent-only camping.

The Foothills area sits at one of the lowest elevations in the park, which makes it a great place to camp in the shoulder season. It can get pretty hot during the summer months though, and campfires are frequently restricted.

Potwisha Campground

  • o42 individual campsites
  • oRVs and trailers allowed, but has no water or electrical hookups
  • oHas flush toilets
  • oRanger programs offered from July to early-September
  • oOpen year-round
  • oReservation period from early-May to late-September
  • o$22/night

Buckeye Flat Campground

  • o28 individual campsites
  • oRVs and trailers not allowed (tent camping only)
  • oHas flush toilets
  • oOpen from early-April to late-September
  • oReservations always available
  • o$22/night

South Fork Campground

  • o10 individual campsites
  • oRVs and trailers not allowed (tent camping only)
  • oNo drinking water or toilets available
  • oOpen year-round
  • oNo reservations available – first come, first served
  • o$12/night from late-May to early-October, free at all other times

Mineral King Area

The Mineral King area sits in the far south of the park, away from many of the more popular areas. While a stay here keeps you farther from these sights, it comes with the benefit of seclusion. The campsites are calmer, without any RVs, trailers, generators, or even flush toilets to speak of. It’s a place to go when you just want to revel in the quiet beauty of nature.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do though; easy day hikes are nearby and include Monarch and Crystals Lake along with the Timber Gap Trail, which follows an old mining route up into the mountains.

Atwell Mill Campground

  • o21 individual campsites
  • oRVs and trailers not allowed (tent camping only)
  • oHas vault toilets
  • oDrinking water available until mid-October
  • oOpen from end of May to end of October
  • oNo reservations available – first come, first served
  • o$12/night

Cold Springs Campground

  • o40 individual campsites; 31 car sites; 9 hike-in sites
  • oRVs and trailers not allowed (tent camping only)
  • oHas vault toilets
  • oDrinking water available until early-October
  • oNo reservations available – first come, first served
  • o$12/night

Backcountry Camping

Getting into the backcountry will save you money, plus you’ll avoid the crowds of the campgrounds and see a side of nature that’s only accessible to those willing to work for it. It can be an incredible experience for people with the proper knowledge and camping equipment to spend the night deep in the forest.

Permits

You need to properly prepare for the backcountry, and the first step is getting a permit. Wilderness permits are required for all overnight camping in the backcountry of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.

Permits are required year-round, but a quota system is only in place from the Friday before Memorial Day until the end of September. This system is important for limiting the number of hikers on the trail.

Three quarters of the wilderness camping permits are available for advance online reservation, and must be purchased at least two weeks before your trip. Permits are issued per group, and cost $10 per application plus $5 for each person in your party.

The remaining quarter of permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of the intended hike. They’re issued at the park’s ranger stations, where a ranger can help you plan your plan your trip.

Conclusion

Before visiting the park, take some time to consider the type of adventure that you want to have – will it be all-day treks to the park’s highest peaks, or a few lazy hours fishing in a stream? Either way, planning is key to having a good time. Talk to your fellow campers during this process too; you might have to make a few compromises to accommodate everyone’s preferences.

Sequoia National Park encompasses some of the most beautiful forests in the state of California, and perhaps the entire United States. It’s a place where an outdoor lover can get lost amongst the massive trees, just breathing in the fresh air and the woodsy scent, but it’s also not short on the amenities desired by families and luxury campers. It’s an ideal vacation spot.