Distance: 68 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 7980 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
I’m not a great fan of riding in National Parks. They’re too crowded, they aren’t bike friendly, and they usually have only one or two paved roads, onto which thousands of cars are funneled and forced to fight for room. Our Lassen Volcanic NP ride is an exception, made attractive only because almost no one goes there and you can have the road to yourself. (The Yosemite tour is there because Yosemite is too imposing to ignore.)
Another exception is Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park(s). They’re two parks, but they’re contiguous, so everyone thinks of them as one. You often aren’t sure which of the two you’re in. The riding is excellent and extensive. While Yosemite offers you two roads and Lassen one, KC/S has no less than ten paved roads, and they’re all well worth riding. Not a lot of people seem to know this. In my five days of riding in the two parks, the only person I saw on a bicycle of any sort—road bike, mountain bike, BMX, cruiser—was me.
Of course there is always the traffic problem. I wouldn’t go near any National Park in high season, and even during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) I adhere strictly to the EMOW rule: ride Early Morning, Only on Weekdays. I did my KC/S riding in late September, and my EMOW rides saw a car per mile or less.
The ride outlined here is the best of the ten, by a long shot, one of the best rides I know of anywhere and a hands-down Best of the Best ride. It’s an 8-mile descent into a rock canyon of indescribable grandeur, then an 18-mile meander between towering granite and marble walls and through a beautiful glacial valley along a perfect Sierra stream. If you ride for the Wow Factor, if you love to be awed, this is the ride for you. There may be other rides as pretty or as pleasant, but none more mighty and imposing. Photos can’t do it justice.
It’s a big ride—69 miles, 8000 ft of gain—but later I’ll show you ways to cut it down that maintain the grandeur. There’s even an almost-flat 36-mile version that’s plenty marvelous by itself.
Our route starts in Grant Grove Village, one of the two large communities in KC/S. Ride north on Hwy 180 until it dead-ends at Road’s End 34 miles later, then ride back.
At first the ride does not impress. You do 3 miles of up, then 5 miles of down through plain Sierra forest. The truth is, the forest here is dry, rather bedraggled, and often fire-damaged, compared to KC/S’s other highway to the south, Hwy 198, where the forest is lusher, the road contour is more varied, and you ride by giant sequoias. At Mile 6.7 you pass the turn-off to Hume Lake, and at mile 8 you emerge from the trees and see the canyon you are going to ride into, at which point your heart soars like a hawk (or trembles like a leaf, depending on your nature). Kings Canyon is enormous and mighty—deeper than the Grand Canyon in places—and you’re going to spend the rest of the ride exploring its wonders.
Drop 8 miles and 2400 ft through a Best-of-the-Best descent. You’re passing turn-out after turn-out with incredible views, but they’re easier to take in when you’re climbing out at 7 mph. After you pass the foundations of Kings Canyon Lodge, destroyed in 2015’s devastating Rough Fire, the road takes a right turn and levels out and meanders up and down to Boyden Caverns (closed for years but recently reopened and worth a visit). The few miles from the leveling-out to just past Boyden are the geologically richest and visually most spectacular miles on the ride—linger and take in your surroundings. I know of no riding to match it. Mother Nature has done some of her best rock work here. Soon the road joins up with the Kings River, a boulder-strewn series of cascades and pools, to add to your pleasure.
Just past Boyden the nature of the ride changes. The canyon goes from being water-carved (vertical V-shaped) to glacial (wide, open U-shaped), the river becomes tranquil, and you begin a steady, easy 10-mile climb to Cedar Grove. The elevation profile makes this look harder than it is—you’ll climb about 1500 ft in 11 miles. Halfway to Cedar Grove you pass Grizzly Falls (clearly signed), an unpaved 40-ft walk from the road. Worth seeing.
One mile before Cedar Grove the road crosses the river on a large bridge and a smaller road, Cedar Grove Road (unsigned), takes off to the L (staying on the north side of the river). It’s a back door into Cedar Grove, and if you take it (in either direction) it will save you one small but rather steep hill. My mapping forgot to include it. At Cedar Grove there’s a snack bar (with board games!), water, good bathrooms, lodging, and all the things you expect from a National Park complex. If you’re seriously out of season, check what’s open and what’s shut before you ride, so you don’t get surprised.
You could turn around at Cedar Grove, of course, but the 6 miles of road remaining offer three rewards. 1. Roaring River Falls, a .2-mile paved walk from the road, is an exquisite little falls into an emerald pool—don’t miss it. 2. Zumwalt Meadow is a classic Sierra meadow with an educational hike around its perimeter. This takes walking shoes, since you can’t see the meadow from the road or from the parking lot. 3. The last 3 or so miles of the road enter a glacial canyon with towering rock walls surrounding you (very reminiscent of Yosemite and El Capitan). The tallest of them, to the south of you, is Grand Sentinel.
The ride back to Boyden Caverns is effortless. Not so the rest of the ride. You’re going to climb 3600 ft in 13 miles. None of it is really steep, and the vast bulk of it is 4-6%, but that’s still a lot. Mind your water. There is no water source after Cedar Grove, so if you aren’t going to wear a hydration pack you might think about dropping some water midway on your original descent. Be sure to stop at every turn-out, wide spot in the road, and overlook to take in the vistas.
Cutting the Ride Down and Redesigning the Route: If you want to ride less than all of this (and I do), there are ways. First, I cut the first 8 miles. It isn’t rewarding riding and it adds 1000 ft of climbing. I drive to where I can see the canyon and start there. Second, if you aren’t up for a big climb, drive to where the road levels out (past Kings Canyon Lodge) and ride to Road’s End and back—36 gorgeous miles that includes the best of the canyon’s geology. Total elevation gain 3000 ft. If you want dead easy, drive to the Convict Flat Overlook, drive the obvious descent that follows, park when it ends, and ride to Road’s End. That will save you 500 ft.
If you want to ride it all but like to get the climbing out of the way first (and again I’m with you), drive to Convict Flat Overlook, park, ride BACK UP the hill to the forest line, turn around and descend to your car, then continue on to Road’s End and turn around.
Adding Miles: Surely you’re done for the day after this ride, but there are lovely rides all around you for other days. My favorite is Big Meadows Road, 11 miles of pavement before it turns to dirt, with one nice descent and one nice climb, an almost deserted dead-end road used only by hunters and horse packers. Also very nice is Hume Lake Road/Ten-Mile Road, 14 miles of not-too-steep, more domesticated back road that passes a very pretty lake with an interesting history (it used to be a logging mill pond). It’s also the only ride in the parks you can do as a loop. The ride to Panoramic Point is a brisk, sometimes quite steep 2 miles that’s a wonderful little luge run (and the panorama at Panoramic Point is marvelous—expect a short paved hike doable in bike shoes or bare feet). All the other roads—Mineral King, Crystal Cave, Crescent Meadow, Buckeye Flat, Little Boulder Grove—have their appeal and will reward if you can catch them at a low-traffic time. Just remember than the highways of KC/S are on a spine, so roads that leave them tend to go down, usually precipitously—then they come back up.
Hwy 198, the major artery southward through Sequoia NP, is a mixed bag. It’s all very pretty—the best woods in the parks—but it has no shoulder and obviously can be busy. From the intersection with 180 to Big Meadows Road it’s pleasantly up and down, nice if you can catch it early before the cars are out. From Big Meadows to Giant Forest the road is more extremely up and down, but still quite rideable. At Giant Forest the road begins a wonderful 23-mile descent to Three Rivers. It’s a long climb back, but if you can arrange a shuttle or hitchhike it’s dreamy. In the Giant Forest area you do get to ride right by some splendid Giant Sequoias.
The name of the park and the canyon is Kings Canyon, not King’s Canyon. It’s a translation of Canon de los Reyes, “Canyon of the Magi.”
Most of the riding I’ve discussed isn’t actually in the National Parks. The borders of KC/S are odd, so many of the rides are on roads in the surrounding Giant Sequoia National Monument or Sequoia National Forest. Only the first 2 and last 7 miles of the Kings Canyon ride is in Kings Canyon National Park—in fact, none of Kings Canyon (the canyon itself) was in the park until recently, when the park was expanded to include the last 7 miles of Hwy 180.