Monday, June 01, 2015

National Parks Adventure: Day 1 - King's Canyon and John Muir Lodge

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to spend some time in three U.S. national parks that I had never gotten the opportunity to visit before. Those parks includes the spectacular Kings Canyon and Sequoia, as well as the incomparable Yosemite. Along the way, I was also lucky enough to stay the chance to stay in three fantastic lodges as well, each with its own unique character, design, and amenities. The experience was a fantastic one, and a good reminder of the beauty of domestic travel in America's national parks. With that in mind, I thought I'd share some of that experience with you in a series of blog posts about the trip.

Day 1 of my national park adventure began far from wilds of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I had spend the Memorial Day Weekend with friends and family along California's Pacific coast in the sleepy little town of Carmel. The beautiful setting found there was perfect for relaxing along the beach, but after a few days I was eager to set off inland to explore my first national park destination – Kings Canyon.

I mention this because the journey actually started at sea level along the Pacific Ocean, but by the afternoon we had already climbed up above 7000 feet (2133 meters), which is a significant altitude gain in a fairly short time period. The mountain vistas that we saw along the way were beautiful, but we also found are breath was being taken away by the thinner air that our bodies hadn't had the chance to get accustomed to yet either. It was a minor inconvenience that would pass within a day or two, but it was noticeable upon arrival.

I have to admit that before visiting Kings Canyon, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I already knew that Sequoia would give me an opportunity to walk amongst the largest trees on the planet, and that Yosemite is one of the most beautiful destinations found anywhere, but King's Canyon was relatively unknown to me. It turns out, it is a strikingly beautiful place that may have been the surprise destination of the entire trip. The park is lined with thickly wooded forests, an amazing array of wildlife, and sweeping landscapes that threaten to take your breath away around every corner. In fact, our drive through the park took much longer than expected thanks in part to frequent stops to take photos at scenic overlooks along the route.

Highlights of the park include a visit to Grant Grove, where a massive sequoia named after U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant can be found. The tree stands an amazing 270 feet (82.5 meters) in height, and has a circumference of 107 feet (32.8 meters) around. Those are impressive numbers indeed, but they still don't make it the largest tree in the park. That distinction lies elsewhere as you'll discover in another post.

It is the dramatic canyon from which the park draws its name that is the real draw to visitors of course. The famous naturalist John Muir once said that Kings Canyon even rivals Yosemite in terms of beauty, and when you are visiting the place it is difficult to argue with that sentiment. The towering rock faces, deep valleys, and lush forests give the park an identity that is all its own, and the fact that it has far fewer visitors than Yosemite means that it is easier to find solitude and silence there as well. Kings Canyon may lack the glitz and glamour that make Yosemite so famous, but in many ways it is a better destination for adventurous travelers looking to get away from the crowds.

At the end of the day we retired to the wonderfully rustic John Muir Lodge for the evening. The log-structure remains open year round, and features 36 rooms for visitors to the park. Those rooms are spacious and comfortable, and a perfect place to rest after a long day of hiking and sightseeing in Kings Canyon. A large, shared common space offers a few nice amenities as well, including a roaring fireplace, large comfortable places to sit and read, as well as free Wi-Fi access to keep in touch with friends and family back home.

The lodge is also surrounded by a number of other options for accommodations as well, including some wonderful little cabins for those who prefer a bit more solitude and silence, and don't mind roughing it some. There are also a series of tented cabins as well if you're just looking for  place to sleep at the end of the day, and don't care about anything other than a comfortable bed. Communal showers and bathrooms are provided of course, and a nearby market and restaurant are handy for when you need to resupply too.

John Muir Lodge is also situated at the bottom of a road that leads up to Panoramic Point. It is a short 2.4 mile drive, or a brisk walk to the top, but the view provided of the park's backcountry is well worth the trip. It is a sprawling landscape that will give you a sense at just how vast and remote Kings Canyon actually is.

I spent a single night at the lodge and found it to be a very peaceful place to end the day. Despite the fact that the main building was completely sold out, and a number of the cabins and tents were occupied as well, it remained very quiet and comfortable the entire time. There were clearly a few early-season hitches to be worked out in the kitchen of the nearby restaurant, but I suspect those will be ironed out shortly.

One of the best aspects of the John Muir Lodge is that it is located right in the heart of the park itself. This provides a great sense of a connection with nature the entire time you are there, as the tall trees of the forest completely surround the area, and the Grant Grove is a short distance away too. We also managed to spot numerous deer and other woodland creatures on our way up to Panoramic Point, which was also an indication that we were ensconced by a sweeping wilderness as well.

After spending part of a day, and an evening, at the lodge and in Kings Canyon National Park, we would set out the next day for Sequoia and all of the wonders that it had to offer. Even though it was only a short drive between the two parks, we weren't entirely ready to move on just yet. Sequoia would charm us with its own attractions of course, but of the three parks I visited on this trip, the one that I would most like to return to explore further is Kings Canyon. It is an unforgettable place to the say least.

But the adventure connoted onward, and there was still much to be seen. I'll post more about the next stage of the trip tomorrow.

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