So you’ve got the car all packed up, you’ve dusted off your sleeping bag and the gas tank is full. Now that spring is here, all your road maps are pointing you north to Yosemite, right? Well, not exactly. If you haven’t experienced the glacial-carved beauty of the Yosemite Valley since you were a kid, it’s quite possible that things have changed — including easily getting a campsite in the summertime. Open sites go on sale months in advance, and the most precious plots of spring and summer real estate are usually snapped up in seconds.
So, short of carrying bear mace for some backwoods Yosemite tent camping, trying your luck at a first-come campsite an hour outside of the valley floor or ponying up the cash for a cabin, what’s an intrepid forester to do? Drive to Kings Canyon National Park instead.
As part of the same Sierra Nevada mountain range that juts and heaves east of Fresno, Kings Canyon National Park is the thin younger sister to all of the bloat that Yosemite spring and summer camping has become. The nearly half-million acre park is still largely unsquelched by the trampling feet of high season tourists. Instead, it’s possible to enjoy the quiet serenity of waterfalls (albeit nothing as impressive as Bridalveil Falls), the calm beauty of ice-chiseled peaks and valleys, and the slow rustle of Ponderosa pines as you hike. Good luck getting that sort of silence in Yosemite Valley.
There are plenty of easy-access options for springtime caravaners within the confines of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Forest, which intertwine through the wilderness south of Yosemite. Hume Lake is a popular Sequoia destination among weekend fishermen and anyone looking for wide swaths of waterfront to dip their toes in. The manmade lake boasts cabins for anyone looking to sleep indoors, and a north shore tent campground that offers nearly 75 individual sites. Because of the easy drive off of State Route 180 and the close proximity to water, these campsites will tend to fill up earlier than the rest of the surrounding forest, so plan accordingly.
If you’re looking for that quiet, serene escape from the city instead, keep driving down State Route 180, all the way to the end. That’s about where you’ll find Cedar Grove, a small collection of RV-accessible and tent campsites, some of which are large enough for groups and families. Three of the four primary sites (Moraine, Sentinel, and Sheep Creek) each hold nearly 100 individual sites, while Canyon View is a less dense 28-site campground. Throughout the late spring and into the summer, the campgrounds open on a rolling availability basis, which means that as the first-come sites fill up, the rangers can open another campground to handle the overflow. If there are so few smoggy RVs and loud campers around that the rangers don’t even bother opening up all of the campsites at once, you know you’ve found a secluded spring destination.
Outside of nature, there’s not a lot to do at the Cedar Grove campsite, and that’s precisely the point. in Kings Canyon National Park, the destination is the event, with plenty of time for campfires, playing cards, and great conversation with friends or family. If you’re looking to get out of the campsite for a few hours, though, the wilderness abounds with possibilities. The popular Roaring River Falls is just off of State Route 180, a five-minute paved walk that opens into a rotunda of cascading water that’s being pushed through a narrow granite chute. Should weather and water pressure permit, a quick swim at the small base of the falls is always a great refresher. For a longer waterfall hike that makes for some well deserved swimming at the end, consider the eight mile trail to Mist Falls. Deep inside the granite valley that hems in the entire Cedar Grove campground, Mist Falls is a wide, yawning waterfall nearly a mile above sea level. With winds rushing through the natural opening in the rock, the resting area near the falls certainly lives up to its misty reputation, but after gaining 600 feet in the final mile of the hike, you’ll welcome the cooling drops.
No trip to the Cedar Grove campground area of Kings Canyon National Park would be complete without a stroll through Zumwalt Meadow, perhaps the most picturesque point in the entire park. Legend has it that Zumwalt’s natural beauty led legendary California outdoorsman John Muir to proclaim Kings Canyon a “rival to Yosemite.” Strong words, sure, until you experience the meadow for yourself. A breezy one-mile track rings the pristine meadow, with stretches that touch the granite face of rising mountainsides, worm along a slow-moving stream, and open up under large sequoia trees. Rest too long at one of the ranger-built observation points along the run and you’ll not only start to forget about all that crowded grandeur up in Yosemite, you may forget that you have a real job back in the big city.
Keep in mind, all of the Kings Canyon campgrounds operate on a first-come basis. And while you likely won’t have any trouble securing a site, the well-paved road and RV access mean that this isn’t quite hidden either. The earlier the better for the prime campsites near the lolling Sheep Creek or nestled under booming conifers, away from the road. It’s also important to note that the Cedar Creek sites open later in the year than their westerly Grant Grove sites, so call ahead to confirm that the sites (and all of State Route 180) are open and receiving visitors. This is still late season snow country, after all.
From Los Angeles, Kings Canyon National Park is less than five hours north, which is well under the six-hour timetable for Yosemite. And while the lack of overall amenities may not suit certain nature lovers, for most folks the camping accommodations are more than adequate. Reservations are not required at any of the sites within the park, which means you’re one weekend and a few good decisions away from just packing up and going. The clear spring air, rushing water, towering granite mountaintops, and alpine feel will be all the signs you need to let you know that you’ll have made the right decision.