Sheer, towering cliffs, giant, soaring trees, in a rich landscape born of immense forces of the earth, are all protected within California’s Kings Canyon National Park. Sitting right next to Sequoia national Park in the southern Sierra Nevada in the eastern side of the state, the 461,901 acres of Kings Canyon are jointly administered with Sequoia by the National Park Service, protecting these wondrous natural monuments for future generations.
The areas of what is now the park have been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years, initially by the Paiute peoples, followed much later by European Americans in the mid-1800s. The area was visited early on by John Muir, naturalist and environmentalist, and the idea of protecting the lands began.
In 1890, much of the land was established as the General Grant National Park, in order to protect the grove of giant sequoia trees. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the areas of the park to include the incredible Kings Canyon, subsuming General National Park inside the new Kings Canyon National Park. These days the park attracts over 600,000 people every year.
One of the park’s claims to fame is the giant natural skyscrapers that grow here. These immense sequoias can live for millennia, and reach heights over 260 feet tall. The star of the park is General Grant, the largest tree in the park, and the second largest tree in the world, standing 267 feet high, and 1,500 years old!
Living up to 3,000 years, the giant sequoias are the world’s largest tree by bulk. While not as tall as their relative the redwood, they are a more massive entity, having larger diameters and more mass than their taller cousins. They are remarkably disease-, fire-, and drought-resistant, and this has to do with the tannins in their bark, allowing their remarkable longevity.
The trees also rely upon the fires that frequent the park. Having such a thick bark, up to 18 inches thick, protects them against the flames and heat of the fire, and if they are damaged, the ability to grow half an inch of new bark each year will quickly heal the scars. The fires are vital to help clear surrounding forest, preparing ground for the sequoia seeds, which wait for fire to be released from their cones.
The ‘mid-sierra’ zone, about 5000-8000 feet above sea level, provides the perfect habitat for the sequoia. The high altitude, summer temperatures, winter snows, and the regenerating fires have allowed these trees to grow to their large sizes within these parks.
When John Muir arrived here in the 1870s, he was sure that he knew how Kings
Canyon had been formed. Others claimed that it was the result of earthquake activity, but he was convinced it was the result of the glacial ice carving its way across the landscape. He was right.
The park sits amongst a part of America’s longest mountain chain, the Sierra Nevada, that was thrust upwards thanks to the forces of tectonics. The Pacific plate was forced beneath the North American plate, driving parts of the North American Plate skywards. The Sierra Nevada range rose around 10 million years ago, and since then has been coated with glaciers repeatedly. The glaciers, formed as years of accumulated snow fall are compacted into ice, are constantly moving under the force of their own weight. As they travel they transform the landscape they touch, as they freeze, melt, and re-freeze, scouring valleys and redepositing what they collect along the way, carving out the canyon.
As the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River meet, beneath the soaring peak of Spanish Peak, 10,051above, the canyon steepens and becomes arguably the deepest canyon in North America for a short distance. The power of the river continues to shape the land, and the mountains still grow, and the snow and ice carve them back down, forever changing this dramatic landscape.