Visiting National Parks in the Off-Season: Pros and Cons (Sequoia & Kings Canyon)
With a whole year of travel, you might think our time is extremely flexible. But it’s really not.
We originally set our route with weather and coming home (for weddings and Christmas) primarily in mind. Although we were able to visit most parks during an ideal timeframe, we had to stretch the term ideal for a couple. Sequoia and Kings Canyon, adjoining parks in the Sierra Nevadas, in interior California, were among the couple.
Completing our mission in under one year means only one summer. And there are a lot of mountainous parks, you guys. Like, the rest of them on our trip. So we had to just hope for the best when it came to weather and access of these parks.
So far, so good. We visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon in mid-March, and even though their peak season is summer, we were still able to experience much of what summer visitors get to see. Snow got in the way, sure, but we were able to manage. When we began our research and planning (only a week or so prior to visiting) we realized this was one of the first parks we would truly visit during its clear off season.
We wanted to chat a bit more about this topic. It’s not a new discussion amongst the #ParkNut community (our predecessors and mentors Don & Shelly chat about it often) but it’s always worth talking about, because park travelers typically want two things: a sense of solitude, and unlimited access.
And, as you might have guessed, these collide in the off-season.
Off-Season National Park Visiting:
- Fewer crowds
- More solitude / slow-down time
- Unique seasonal aspects (fall colors, wildflowers)
- Switching up activities
The most important and most evident benefit of visiting a national park during its off season is the lack of crowds. Especially in popular parks such as Sequoia (third park established, back in 1890), the drop in visitation is significant. Most people visit during the summer when favorable weather and scheduling aligns, and campgrounds, parking lots, and the largest
tree photo op in the world are all packed with tourists. When we visited in mid-March, there were still many visitors around popular points of interest (like the General Sherman tree, Grant Tree, and Moro Rock) but we found several empty trails (Marble Falls, Trail of Sequoias, Big Stump) and overlooks that gave us plenty of serenity when we wanted it.
The feeling of solitude in any national park is a big priority for us. And I don’t think that uncommon — many people want the feeling of fully immersing themselves in the quiet peace of nature. In both Sequoia and Kings Canyon, we were able to easily find these quiet moments. For example, the popular quarter-mile stairway ascent to the top of Moro Rock is pretty crowded. But on the other end of the parking lot, there’s a .1-mile climb to an overlook called Hanging Rock. Here, you can not only get a killer picture of the Moro Rock you’re about to climb, but you can also sit and breathe in the mountain air. Alone. The limited activities that are accessible in the winter also forced us to slow down, which is a good reminder to us of what’s important.
While you enjoy the relative emptiness of a national park in its off-season, be sure to note the differences in its features: snow-covered sequoias, the colorful wildflower-dotted hillsides, brisk upper-elevation temperatures. Different seasons bring very unique features into the parks. This can be true in every park and in every season. Fall in Acadia provided an array of the brightest colors I’d ever seen (video). Winter in Virgin Islands is supposedly rainier (and thus less crowded) but we experienced amazing weather (video). Spring in Death Valley, well, #superbloom (see our tips). Visiting a park in a season other than summer (peak for most parks, with the exception of a few) can have incredible upsides.
All that being said, (you knew where this was going), there is a reason why parks have a peak season in the first place. There are often downsides to visiting a park outside of its busy time.
- Limited access
- Fewer amenities / conveniences
The biggest bummer (and the number one reason we’re already planning a return trip) about visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks during late winter was the limited access to many great spots throughout each park. Most of the side roads in Sequoia are closed until May, and the road that actually enters the canyon of Kings Canyon is closed due to dangerous rock falls caused by the freezing/thawing period. Many trails are snow covered. Only three campgrounds (of fourteen) throughout both parks are open. The entire Mineral King area (which was top on our list) is blocked off as well. We capitalized on what we could reach, of course, but there’s just a lot more to be seen.
Weather can be a hindrance as well. We were lucky with 55-75 degree temps throughout the different elevations in the parks for our first two days, but on day three, it snowed. Being tent campers, this isn’t exactly ideal. Thankfully, weather wasn’t a deterrence save for the need to bundle up at night a bit more. If anything, our pleasant temperatures were more favorable than summer ones.
Also, you know we’re huge on fancy amenities. Just kidding! But for most visitors (including us even sometimes), there is a need for a happy median between total wilderness and total city. That’s where gateway communities, and in-park concessions like restaurants, lodges, and gift shops, fall into place. However, in parks like Sequoia and, especially, Kings Canyon, many of these close up for the winter. It may be a bit more difficult to grab a bite to eat or room to sleep in (or close to) the park if that’s your style.
All in all, as with anything, there are pros and cons to visiting a national park during the off season. You just have to ask yourself what you want: do you want solitude or free reign? More parking spots or more amenities? Prime weather or seasonal features?
One thing you will know is that your time spent in a national park will be special.
Psst! Here are some awesome late-winter activities you can enjoy in Sequoia & Kings Canyon:
- General Sherman Tree: the largest tree in the world by volume
- Hiking in the Giant Forest: several interconnecting trails to make your own path
- Moro Rock: a .25-mile climb rewards you with incredible views of the Western Pass
- Marble Falls: 7.4-mile round trip moderate hike in the Foothills area
- Giant Forest Museum: interesting exhibits & ranger programs
- Trail of Sequoias: 5-mile loop trail in the heart of the sequoias. Follow blazes when there is snow.
- General Grant Tree: The “Nation’s Christmas Tree” and third-largest by volume
- Wuksachi and John Muir Lodge lobbies: warm, cozy, free WiFi
- Drive to Hume Lake: Amazing views of Kings Canyon