‘The mountains are calling and I must go.’ – John Muir
California State Route 180 is one of the great road drives in the state. You need a car in good working condition for this drive, particularly in July and August when it can reach 110 degrees in the foothills approaching the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks from the Central Valley cities of Fresno or Visalia. The temperature was in the upper 70s in early May on the day I made the drive.
Starting from the 300 feet elevation of Fresno suburban sprawl in the flatland of the massive California Central Valley the drive is about 75 to 90 minutes to reach 6,588 feet at the Kings Canyon National Park western entrance.
“I can’t help feeling I’m just a day away
From where I want to be” – Jackson Browne ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’
Fresno, California is city sprawl of nearly 500,000 people. The local newspaper mentioned something about Fresno having a reputation as one of the drunkest populations in the United States. Turns out Men’s Health published a 2010 survey listing Fresno as the drunkest city in the U.S.
I really had noticed some bad driving on the freeways while in the city.
Highway 180 heading east out of Fresno passes through several eco-climates. The formerly naturally irrigated valley floor has been transformed into the industrially irrigated Central Valley growing fruit for global consumption.
Highway 180 passes through the foothill grasslands foraged by grazing cattle.
About 40 miles of SR180 road across the valley from Fresno into the foothills is basically straight and undulating in the smaller hills.
The road rises more than 6,000 feet in 20 miles of cliffhanging winding road over terrific vistas across the hills to the south and west.
Kings Canyon National Park entrance is at the top of the climb at 6,588 feet in elevation where the ranger station and visitor center, campgrounds and lodging, restaurant, and gift shop are located. This is basically the western ridgetop of the Sierra range where scattered ancient Giant Sequoia stands remain today. Some 2,000 to 3,000 year old giants are the largest volume trees on earth.
Many of the Giant Sequoia trees were cut down in the 1880s prior to the establishment of the Sequoia National Park in 1890 as the nation’s second National Park after Yellowstone (1872). General Grant National Park was created a week later to protect more Giant Sequoia groves and is now the part of Kings Canyon National Park at the Highway 180 entrance where Grant’s Grove is located. There are about 75 Giant Sequoia groves remaining today along a 200-mile stretch of western Sierra mountains between 5,000 and 7,000 feet elevation.
Apparently the wood is not even that good and was used for common items like pencils and fruit orchard stakes.
“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” – John Muir
State Route 180 continues another 37 miles east into Sequoia National Forest and the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
SR180 drops from Grants Grove on the ridge-top entrance to the National Park nearly 4,000 feet into Kings Canyon and the descent is an exhilarating or challenging 40 minute to one hour plus drive depending on your attitude and driving conditions. I would not want to drive this road in bad weather. Few shoulders and thousand foot cliff drops are features over two-thirds of the 37 miles.
The road is closed six months a year and just reopened the beginning of May, two weeks before this drive.
Kings River and several other rivers from the high alpine Sierra used to flow into Tulare Lake in the Central Valley, west of present-day Visalia and made it the largest lake in California and the entire western U.S. for millennia until the late 19th century.
An entire California ecosystem and major hub of wildlife and migratory birds of the Pacific Coast was restructured by industry and is unrecognizeable today as a lakebed.
Tulare Lake was drained over a century ago for flood control and agricultural economics and now looks like this.
Highway 180 runs adjacent to the south fork of the Kings River along the valley floor. The road follows the river for several miles along the canyon valley.
Huge granite rocks and rockslide remnants are visible all around along the valley floor.
Some areas of the Kings Canyon are narrow with towering granite mountainsides surrounding the road rising thousands of feet above you.
Roads End is the eastern terminus of California State Route 180 and the launching pad for wilderness hikes deep into the valleys and alpine high country of the Sierra.
The weather changed from the uppers 70s during the hour long drive down into Kings River valley as clouds developed rapidly and the sky darkened. I made it out of Kings Canyon before the storm hit.
The gathering rain clouds kept me from venturing south into Sequoia National Park this trip. Up to ridgetop and down the mountainsides back to Fresno.
Home again in Monterey the weekend rain has come and is rather heavy here on the coast. The forecast is snow in the mountains. May is a gorgeous time to visit the Sierra mountain range of California as the roads clear of snow, water runoff and waterfalls are peak flow, and the temperature and tourists are still low. Just keep your eye on the weather forecast.
Lodging in Kings Canyon National Park
There are three areas in the National Park with lodge and cabin rooms. Here is a good page with different lodging options and photos http://www.sequoia-kingscanyon.com/lodging.html.
Grant Grove Village is the main center of Kings Canyon National Park at the Highway 180 entrance.
John Muir Lodge at Grant Grove Village has 36 rooms in the forest one mile from the General Grant sequoia tree, the nation’s official Christmas tree. These rooms have private bathroom, phone and internet, coffee maker and daily maid service. Open year round.
John Muir Lodge
May 2011 room rates (tax not included) :
- 2 Queen = $172 + tax.
- 1 King = $186
Grant Grove Cabins These are rustic cabins originally built in 1920s and some come with private bath and some with shared bathhouse. Cabins offer daily maid service, some cabins have electricity, propane heater and cook stove.
- Bath Cabin – 2 Doubles = $129
- Bath Cabin – 1 Queen, Hide-a-bed = $140
- Camp Cabins – 2 Doubles = $77
- Camp Cabins – 3 Doubles = $91
- Rustic Cabin – 2 Doubles and 3 Doubles = $87
- Tent Cabins – 2 Doubles (No Electricity) = $62
- Tent Cabins Rustic – 2 Doubles = $77
Cedar Grove Village Lodge (open May to October). This is down in Kings Canyon beside the Kings River South Fork 35 miles from the Grant Grove Village. Rooms have private bathroom, two queen beds, carpeting, air conditioning, phone, daily maid service. Three patio rooms by the river have one queen bed, outdoor patio and kitchenette. There is a market, restaurant and gift shop at the Cedar Grove Lodge.
- 1 Queen Kitchenette + Patio = $135
- 2 Queen beds = $119
Stony Creek Village, open May to October is located halfway between Grant Tree and General Sherman Tree in the Sequoia National Monument on Generals Highway (Highway 198 to Visalia). This location in Sequoia National Forest is enroute to Sequoia National Park. The village has a restaurant, market, laundry, gift shop an gas station. Rooms are carpeted and sleep 2 to 6 persons. Satellite TV, phone, daily maid service, private bathroom and continental breakfast.
Kings Canyon Lodge is a private property with 11 on-site cabins and the only service location with rooms and food located about midway between Kings Canyon National Park Grant Grove Village and Cedar Grove Village. Contact hotel for room rates. The website states Creek Cabin with kitchen, living room, large bathroom, two bedrooms and 4 beds for up to 8 persons is available for about $200 per night.
Related Loyalty Traveler posts:
Yosemite lodging south entrance Highway 41 from Fresno – photos and hotel lodging options between Fresno and Yosemite Valley (5-16-2011)
Yosemite Valley – photos of Yosemite waterfalls May 2011 and hotel/cabin tent lodging options in Yosemite Valley (5-17-11).