Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon: They're spectacular, majestic, awesome. The trouble is, everyone knows this. Consequently, the crowds can be daunting for those who wish to experience the wilderness with a modicum of peace and solitude.
The solution? Kings Canyon National Park, just inside Sequoia and south of Yosemite a couple of hours by car. Kings Canyon is every bit as full of wonders as the Big Three of the National Park Service, but without the crowds. Because of deep snowfall, the park is closed in winter. But patience is rewarded. In late spring, after the gates have opened, the spectacle of roaring water cascading off the winter snowmelt is breathtaking.
The canyon is surrounded by towering granite peaks with names like North Dome, Buck Peak, Avalanche Peak, and The Sphinx. All reach elevations between 8,000 and 10,000 feet and surround the canyon through which the south fork of Kings River gushes west into California's Central Valley.
And there's a bonus. You can drive through Sequoia National Park to get there. If you're trying to save time, enter Sequoia at the north entrance, and stop at Grants Grove for half an hour. Then drive the 45 minutes to Kings Canyon.
Visitors with more time can enter or leave through the south entrance at Three Rivers, stopping to see ponderosa pines, giant sequoias, and the General Sherman tree, said to be the largest tree (by volume) in the world. A favorite and relatively easy day hike follows the Kings River for about 4.5 miles to the aptly named Mist Falls. Many hikers like to cool off in the fine spray before heading back down the trail. For those less inclined to work for their falls, Roaring Falls and Grizzly Falls are less than 100 yards off the highway.
Day hikers are likely to see mule deer and black bears. We were fortunate enough to observe a sow and her cubs raiding a bees' nest for honey - from a safe distance of at least 75 yards. There also are foxes, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, and rattlesnakes.
Kings Canyon was a favorite of naturalist John Muir, often called "The Father of Our National Parks." Muir helped inspire Teddy Roosevelt, when he visited Yosemite with Muir in 1903, to establish conservation programs, including the extension of Yosemite National Park.