We had just topped out at the 6800-foot elevation and began our long descent into the deepest canyon in North America. We knew our knobby tires would be groaning down some steep stretches of asphalt. Bob wanted to take it slow heading down, so he sat up to get the most wind resistance. Rick, on the other hand, went into a downhill skier’s tuck.
At first, even though it was steep, the road gently curved through rolling hills of shady coniferous forest. Then we hit a ridgeline and dropped to its left side emerging out of the forest and onto open semi-arid terrain. A wall of rock to one side and just the tops of trees and shrubs to the other hinted at the dropoff beyond the road’s shoulder. The road steepened and tightened its curves.
Knobby tires were humming. Grip the brakes hard and lean right. Hope no cars were coming. A quick glance behind. Grip ’em again and lean left. Curve after curve. Our legs weren’t pumping, but our adrenaline sure was.
We began this screamer at the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park. Forty miles of challenging Highway 180 lay ahead of us. We’d pass through Sierra National Forest land, re-entering Kings Canyon National Park at Cedar Grove, and ending at the aptly named Roads End. On kind of a lark, we had backpacked most of this road before. It was during the winter months when the road is closed to traffic due, not to snow, but to rockslides. Rocks crash down on the roadway from the push of freezing water. This time, however, we’d be competing for space with automotive monsters.
After backpacking and cross country skiing for about two decades, we (Robert, a freelance writer/photographer from Sacramento, and Richard, a teacher and writer from Fresno) wanted to branch out in our outdoor adventuring and include bike-packing. It happened that we had just returned to Richard’s abode in Fresno from a failed attempt at cross country skiing the Sierra High Route across Sequoia National Park. We were sore and a little bit blistered, so naturally, for us, the idea of going ahead and biking the deepest canyon in North America popped into our heads. We had wanted to bike Kings Canyon for years for the physical challenge of it, and since Robert was already in Fresno with Rick, we took the hours’ drive to our starting point at Grant Grove.
After telling the rangers that our car would be there overnight, we started from the Grant Grove visitor center. After a steady 300-foot climb, we reached the highest point at Cherry Gap, at 6800′ elevation. Just after starting downhill from Cherry Gap, we saw a very loaded biker heading out. He yelled at us over the noise of oncoming cars, “I made it!”
Most of the journey would be outside the National Park in the Sierra National Forest. The parts of Kings Canyon National Park were put together at different times. The Grant Grove area with its towering Sequoia trees stands out like a sore thumb on the map from the rest of the park. Which makes the ride from the “thumb” to the “body” of the National Park outside the park boundaries.
From Cherry Gap to the South Fork of the Kings River the highway drops a steep 4000 feet with only occasional upslopes to let our brakes cool. Most of the way has little or no shoulder, so we had to be cautious. Our first stop was the Junction Viewpoint, where we peered at the junction of the south fork and middle fork of the Kings River. From the top of Spanish Mountain to the bed of the Kings River, is the greatest vertical relief in the United States-about 8200 feet.
You can also look down on the only available lodging along the route that’s not inside the park, Kings Canyon Lodge. It’s next to Ten Mile Creek on Barton Flat, the only large piece of flat land to be found on this steep stretch.
From the Junction Viewpoint, we rode down more curves including some hairpins before crossing Ten Mile Creek and reaching the Kings Canyon Lodge. We rested briefly before we saddled up again and paralleled the creek for a while. Past the Yucca Point Trailhead, we turned away from the creek and began a stretch with a little more up to it, but still mostly down. Finally, we rounded a broad left curve and entered a narrow, V-shaped gorge carved by the South Fork of the Kings River.
At the lowest point of the road, Highway 180 crosses this river. Our trip came after the 1994-1995 rainy season, the wettest in more than a decade. The Kings River and other streams were churning away with an unusual fury for June. Forecasters were predicting that the peak runoff would actually come later, perhaps in July. This is very unusual for California but made for exciting views of the waterfalls, including waterfalls that probably don’t usually exist this late in a typical summer.
Just before the bridge over the Kings River is a parking area for a privately operated attraction, Boyden Cavern. Boyden is one of the bigger caves in California. Visitors have to hike up a steep, switchbacky path to reach the mouth of the cavern.
From this point to Kings Canyon, we climbed steadily uphill for six miles alongside the Kings River. Several turnouts along the river were worth stopping for, especially the Grizzly Creek Falls picnic area. The falls were so swollen this year that we could feel the mist as soon as we left the parking area. We would’ve been thoroughly mist-drenched if we had lingered very long.
Once we passed the Kings Canyon National Park boundary sign, the road leveled off a bit and straightened out. Once we crossed the South Fork Kings River again, we could start thinking about where to camp. The first of the Cedar Grove area’s campground, Sheep Creek, is just beyond the crossing. We were pretty taxed after all that uphill, so we were hoping to find a site right away. Unfortunately, the first couple of campgrounds were full, so we ended up at the Moraine Campground for the night.
The Cedar Grove area has many incense cedars (hence its name), pines, firs, and manzanita bushes, but the giant Sequoia is absent. The Grant Grove area where our trip started is the only place within Kings Canyon National Park that has nature’s most extravagantly sized tree.
After a night tucked among Cedar Grove’s conifers, we woke up ready to see the sights of the Kings Canyon. The trees in Kings Canyon grow thick along the Kings River, so we often had trouble seeing the water. Fortunately, the road rises high enough along the south side that we can get an overall view of the canyon. Seeing the sights that the canyon has to offer always involved getting right on top of them before we could see them.
Our first stop of the morning was the Roaring River Falls, which we couldn’t see from the road at all. We walked our bikes along a paved path out to see the falls. Because of the high water this year, the falls soaked anybody who came near. Roaring River Falls is surrounded by rock walls which amplify the sound of its thundering waters. Plus, the stream slices its way through a small granitic gorge and plunges in one stocky, powerful pour into a smoothly rounded granite bowl.
The other main feature within the canyon is Zumwalt Meadow, which we could see from the road. From the parking area, a nature trail crosses a suspension bridge over the Kings River and completely encircles the meadow. Flowers fill the meadow early in the season and deer often wander across it. Zumwalt is the biggest meadow in the canyon, a fact which is noteworthy mainly because the canyon has few meadows due to its narrowness.
A little farther along the road is literally the end of the road at Road’s End. The ranger station here is the take-off point for the vast backcountry that makes up most of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. On a prior visit, Bob had hiked the short distance from the parking area out to Muir Rock. This granite boulder around which the Kings River meanders is said to be where John Muir himself spoke. He told early Sierra Club members about these mountains that he loved so much.
Like the highway’s number, we did a 180 and headed back out. On the way, we took the motor nature trail for three miles along the north side of the Kings River. This trail is actually a rough dirt road that makes for a mountain biker’s only chance to play in the dirt. All the other trails in the park are closed to bikers. Back on pavement, we stayed on the north side of the canyon heading back out to Grant Grove.
We stopped again at Grizzly Creek Falls, then coasted along what had been our long uphill grind the day before and stopped at Boyden Cavern. While we were sitting at a picnic table having a snack, we watched visitors assemble for their tours. We found out that temperatures in the cave hover around 49°F. year-round.
We began what a cave tour guide had informed us was a nearly 4000-foot grind climbing higher above the Kings River gorge to reach Cherry Gap. We ended our trip grinding away at the mountain one pedal at a time in first gear. In the warm air, we could smell our sweat and the smoking brakes of passing cars.
The Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks website is at: http://www.nps.gov/seki. Contact information is: Mailing Address:47050 Generals Highway, Three Rivers, CA 93271 Phone: (559) 565-3341
The Sequoia National Forest surrounds most of the route between Grant Grove and Cedar Grove. Their website is: https://www.fs.usda.gov/sequoia/