Escape to Kings Canyon, part 2: plunging into the depths

This post is part 2 of a series. Click here to read the first post. To see the gallery, click here.


Over a breakfast of waffles we postponed our first encounter with the General Grant Tree for a few more days. The giant sequoia had lived for 1,650 years; it would probably still be upright at the end of the week. We were restless and ready to move on, craving breathtaking scenery, newly confident in our vehicle after its battery upgrade. Bring on the geological wonders! I thought. Morning sunlight sparkled through the gaps in the trees as we left Grant Grove behind.

Highway 180 is the only paved route into the mostly backcountry eastern section of King’s Canyon National Park, and it’s a dead end. No roads cross all the way over to the other side of the Sierras within the park. We’d eventually need to turn around and retrace our steps to get back home. The highway winds down into the canyon and stops at a place called Road’s End, right next to the Sierra Crest, the ridgeline that separates the western and eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada range.

At first we rode through miles of Sequoia National Forest, trees obscuring any impressive views. We passed the turnoff for Hume Lake, and I sensed that something exciting was about to happen. As we entered the Monarch Wilderness, the road began to twist and turn. The spectacular vistas began to appear, getting more outrageously spectacular as we hugged the granite walls of an enormous canyon.

A lot of people think Junction View is the most spectacular vista of them all. You can see it in the top photo below, looking out over where the Kings River Middle Fork (on the left) and South Fork (on the right) come together to form the main Kings River. A portion of the canyon carved by this river is what’s officially known as Kings Canyon. It was into these depths that the road would eventually take us. The big ridge in the middle is the Monarch Divide, which gives the Monarch Wilderness its name. Most of what you see in the top photo below is part of the Monarch Wilderness, a roadless land of wonders whose most rugged sections don’t even have foot trails. 


Bev steered us down into this incision in the earth, while I sat in the passenger seat with my camera, making a lot of noise about how beautiful everything was and shooting constantly. I was impressed, once again, by her ability to drive calmly and competently without being dizzied by the views. The road was narrow with steep dropoffs so visually compelling it was hard not to stare at them. She smiled at my enthusiasm and I felt the warm glow that comes from being with someone who is pleased by my happiness. “If you want to pull over anywhere, just let me know,” she said.

We saw plenty of places to pull over but only a few were large enough for the RV. We stopped at Junction View and then Yucca Point, where we could look straight down into the Kings River, over a thousand feet below. The river’s roar was quite loud considering how far it lay beneath us. We didn’t have time to take Yucca Point Trail, which goes all the way down into the canyon and backtracks to the point where the two forks of the river join. That point, over 8,000 feet beneath the peak of Spanish Mountain above, is the deepest portion of King’s Canyon. This is significantly deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Still high above the river, we reached Horseshoe Bend, just before Boyden Cavern, and the rocks got really interesting. This section of the road was cut into the side of a large expanse of rock with streaks of other brown, yellow, black, and green running vertically through its light-colored mass, very different from the granite boulders I’d seen so far. We rounded the bend and pulled over at a turnoff where several other vehicles had parked, joining a small group of strangers in looking down a steep cliff into the Kings River. Across the gorge a bright cliff rose straight up from the river and gleamed in the midday sun.


The cliff we stared at was a big swath of hard quartzite, part of the Boyden Cave roof pendant. A roof pendant is rock that is native to an area and has been surrounded and metamorphosed by an intrusion of igneous rock from below. Remember the plutons I mentioned in the previous post, the pockets of igneous rock that rose up underground to form the Sierra Nevada Batholith? When the plutons were still hot magma, they often transformed the rock above them, subjecting sedimentary rock to metamorphic changes, thus making metasedimentary rock.

In the case of this particular section of roof pendant, magma surged up underneath a thick bed of quartz sandstone. The contact of the hot magma with the sandstone metamorphosed it into quartzite. As we traveled further down into Kings Canyon along the Kings River, we were traveling through more of the Boyden Cave roof pendant, which also has sections of slate, schist and marble. I would’ve loved to linger and photograph this section of road in more detail, maybe chip a bit off and look at it under a microscope. The rocks were lovely shades of cream and yellow and white. The way they were jointed and sheeted made them look like they might come flying apart at any moment.

I felt we were moving through these transitional zones too quickly to grasp what I was seeing. We were in a hurry to get down to Cedar Grove early enough to snag a campsite. The goal is to arrive at the exact moment when campers from the night before are most likely to be leaving, and Bev is an expert at that game. I wondered now where our campground would be. The bottom of the valley was narrow with steeply rising sides. Looking down at the chute of rushing water, I didn’t see much room for parking an RV.


The road descended quickly after Horseshoe Bend, and soon we’d reached the bottom of the canyon. Now the walls rose above us. A sign on the side of the road beckoned us to Grizzly Falls. We were in a rush to stake our claim for the night, but we couldn’t resist a waterfall. This one was a very short walk from the parking lot, maybe a minute at the most, but completely hidden from the road by trees. Water plunged 75 feet over protruding boulders, spraying my camera with mist. Sundari changed into her swimsuit with practiced briskness and walked without fear of cold into the stream below the cascade.

Grizzly Falls is the dramatic outpouring of Grizzly Creek into the Kings River. The waterfall drops out of a hanging valley, a geological feature you might remember from this post about Zion. At Zion, hanging valleys were caused by the steep angle of the main river eroding the main valley faster than the tributary valleys were being eroded by their smaller creeks and streams. Here at Kings Canyon, this hanging valley was caused by glaciers. The main valley of Kings Canyon was carved by a much larger glacier than the smaller valley of Grizzly Creek; the Kings River valley became enormously steep, and the little Grizzly Creek valley ended up stranded high above the Kings River.

Glaciation’s evidence showed up in other ways, too. The terrain had changed drastically on our ride down into the canyon’s mysterious heart. Our route up to this point had taken us through a V-shaped valley where erosion was mostly caused by the roaring Kings River. As we drove on from Grizzly Falls, the main valley became wider and flatter at the bottom. We were in a U-shaped valley now, characteristic of a glacier-carved canyon. Like the valley floor at Yosemite National Park, this one was spacious and flat, with room next to the river for campgrounds and trails. But unlike Yosemite, which receives 3 million more visitors each year than Kings Canyon, there was hardly anybody else around, even on a gorgeous day in May.


We’d traveled through a portal into a different, isolated world. It was easy to find a campsite at Cedar Grove. More than one, in fact – we had the luxury of giving up one site for another we liked better. The summer season hadn’t started yet and the Visitor Center wouldn’t be open until next week. After lunch we walked by the river, feeling the remoteness and wildness of this valley. Just outside the campground, all was quiet except for the sound of the river, the wind in the trees, and more of the kind of exquisite birdsong I’d been hearing in the mornings.

Soon Bev left us for the comfort of afternoon novel-reading. Sundari and I spent a couple of hours exploring the wide valley floor beside the river. We sat on wide river rocks and dipped our feet into the icy water. We walked together, then separated, each to her own venue of choice. Sundari stayed near the water’s edge. The day had grown hot, and the sound of dry needles crunching underfoot made me thirsty.

Looking at the Kings River flowing near me while recalling the sight and sound of the same torrent a thousand feet below at Yucca Point brought on a slight sensation of vertigo. I wandered off on a side trail to think about everything I’d seen that day: a forest that opened up to reveal mountains, a road carved into a canyon wall, a blinding expanse of hard rock that somehow wasn’t what I’d expected to find. Hours after our drive I was still feeling dazzled by the brightness of the quartzite and limestone. It appeared in front of me again, now overlaid with a lattice of green branches, whenever I closed my eyes. 

« Escape to Kings Canyon, part 3: glaciers were here | Main | Escape to Kings Canyon, part 1: fault creep, batholith, sequoia, sarcodes »

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