Prev NEXT  


Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

The History of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

©2006 National Park Services The celebrated General Grant Tree is the largest tree in the world. It is more than 267 feet tall and 107 feet around.

Sequoia became America's second national park. It was established in 1890 as a wilderness sanctuary to protect groves of giant sequoia trees that were being destroyed by logging. Kings Canyon, a steep-walled valley, was mandated as a national park in 1940, absorbing General Grant National Park, which had been created by Congress almost as an afterthought just one week after it approved neighboring Sequoia.

The largest trees by weight and volume in the world, the sequoias in these parks are the last relics of a species that covered much of the world before the most recent ice age. The glaciers swept over all but a few thousand acres too high in the Sierra Nevada for the ice to reach, destroying all the trees in their path.


Sequoias used to be considered a subspecies of the coastal redwoods that are found in Redwood National Park and elsewhere. The scientific term for the redwood tree is

Sequoia sempervirens -- a name that came from Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, who was much admired by the Austrian botanist who named the redwoods. The same name was at first also given to the giant trees of the Sierra Nevada. Today, botanists realize the Sierra Nevada sequoia is a separate species. They now call it Sequoia gigantea.

The groves of these huge trees seem to go on forever, but these sequoia forests cannot compare with what existed here just a little over a century ago. Logging of what was then one of the world's finest and most extensive old-growth forests began in about 1862 and continued relentlessly until the turn of the century.

Vast stands of these giant trees were wiped out, including at least two trees, and possibly as many as four, that were bigger than the biggest tree in the world today, the park's famed General Sherman sequoia. Two of these trees were cut for a reason that today seems frivolous. Their trunks were put on display at world's fairs.

The King of Canyons

The Kings Canyon area was first proposed as a national park by John Muir as early as 1891, the year after the creation of Sequoia National Park, but the park was not fully established until 1940. It bears the name of the river that in 1805 a Spanish explorer dubbed Rio de los Santos Reyes, or "river of the holy kings."

Formation of this stunning steep-walled cleft in the granite of the Sierra Nevada began about 25 million years ago as powerful geologic forces lifted up the land in what is now eastern California. About three million years ago, the highest peaks towered three miles above sea level. Then a series of earthquakes along fault lines in the earth deep below the Sierra Nevada cracked off the mountains' eastern face, which began sliding downward. This accounts for the stunning appearance of the eastern side of the mountains, which rises dramatically from Owens Valley.

Swiftly moving rivers made faster by gravity began carving narrow V-shaped canyons through the mountains. Over eons, the canyons plunged deeper into the earth. During the Pleistocene ice ages, glaciers advanced into the Sierra Nevada and began scooping out basins that eventually became lakes, at the same time gouging out the walls of these canyons, making them sheer and steep.

More than one-and-a-half-miles deep, Kings Canyon is the most dramatic of these glacier-carved defiles. Several other canyons in the park exceed 3,000 feet in depth, and Kern Canyon is nearly 6,000 feet deep.

From the highest highs of the giant sequoias to the lowest lows of the steep-walled Kings Canyon, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks abound with natural beauty. This parkland provides visitors with memories that last a lifetime.

©Publications International, Ltd.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles