May 22, 2023
Hiking in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
The view when standing at the summit of Alta's Peak.
By Kim Merryman
Spring’s gradual arrival here on California’s central coast has me reminiscing about and looking forward to summer trips and hiking in the mountains. I love going inland in the summer for long summit hikes and campfires under the stars, and summer will be here in a few short months. There’s still plenty of wintry weather in most of California’s national parks, but planning summer trips is getting me through the gloomier spring days.
One of my favorite summer activities is taking an Escape campervan and going hiking in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. These parks lie adjacent to each other; they’re so close they even share their website and they contain some of the largest trees in the world. Due to higher elevations, they’re often covered in snow through winter and much of spring, but in mid-summer, trails dry up for some of the prettiest and challenging hikes of a lifetime.
A trip to these parks is best planned early—you might need to put in some training for certain hikes, campground reservations fill, some hiking permits (read: Mt. Whitney) require planning in the spring. So book your Escape campervan from either the San Francisco rental site or LA rental site, and start dreaming about summer summits.
Kings Canyon National Park also has great places to swim.
Hiking the Mt. Whitney Summit
At 14,494 feet, Mt. Whitney’s summit is the highest point in the lower 48 states and lies on the edge of Kings Canyon National Park and Inyo National Forest. It’s a very long hike to the summit and back—22 miles for the most accessible trail. To attempt it, you should be in excellent physical shape, have at least a few days adjusting to altitude under your belt, and have experience with hiking in high altitudes. It can be a dangerous hike, so read up on what you’ll need and how to plan and train for it. Many REI stores in California offer 1.5-hour free clinics about preparing for hiking in Mt. Whitney. If you want to do the hike in one day, you can get a little sleep in your campervan at the Whitney Portal campground, but you’ll have to start hiking in the wee hours of the morning to complete the hike before afternoon thunderstorms appear above the tree line.
You must acquire a permit through a lottery to hike Mount Whitney. The permit lottery is open until March 15, so if you plan to do it, enter soon!
The views of the trail line above Alta's Peak are breathtaking.
Don’t forget about hiking Alta’s Peak
Maybe you don’t win the Whitney permit lottery. Or maybe you don’t need to be able to tell your Instagram followers that you hiked the highest peak in the lower 48. Maybe you just want a (more) beautiful hike away from crowds and a good workout. If so, Alta Peak is your jam. The hike is about 15 miles round trip, and the summit is over 11,000 feet. You’ll still need to be prepared for the altitude and be in good shape, but it’s a shorter trail than hiking in Mt. Whitney’s, and more doable in a single day, which comes with all the pride, endorphins, and views of a big summit. Plus, you don’t need a permit to hike in Alta Peak. Camp in one of Sequoia National Park’s campgrounds (we chose Dorst Creek campground), and drive to the trailhead in Wolverton parking lot in the morning to start this varied and gorgeous hike.
The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park.
Tips for hiking in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in the summer
Hiking over 10,000 feet is not to be taken lightly. Here are some tips if you plan to attempt hiking in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.
Train. Your high-altitude hike this summer will be so much more fun if your muscles have spent some time on hills. This spring, walk or run up hills around the neighborhood or find hiking nearby on the weekends.
If you live at lower altitudes, you may need a few days to adjust to higher altitudes before hiking a big summit. Try camping in and around the parks at moderate altitudes and see some other sites (like the giant sequoias) and lower elevation hikes for a couple of days first.
Beware of altitude sickness. Symptoms include headache and nausea. If you feel altitude sickness coming on, it’s best to get back to a lower altitude.
Bring more water than you think you’ll need and drink frequently to mitigate altitude symptoms.
Eat a carb-heavy breakfast; pack lunch and plenty of snacks.
Dress in layers. Temperatures and sun exposure change, sometimes drastically, throughout a high-altitude hike. A rain jacket is highly recommended.
Don’t forget to pack sunscreen to apply often, sunglasses, a headlamp, a basic first-aid kit, and extra clothing layers.
Make sure your boots or shoes are broken-in, supportive, and have good tread. I like to wear trail running shoes for long hikes.
Hike early. Rainstorms form quickly at high altitudes, often in the afternoon. Lightning above treeline is extremely dangerous. A good plan is to try to summit before or around noon so you’re back below treeline before storms come. This might mean hiking with your headlamp before sunrise for certain hikes.