For our Fourth of July day hike in Kings Canyon National Park, Sean and I chose the popular trail to Mist Falls on the South Fork of the Kings River. From the parking area at Roads End, the trail gains about 800 feet of elevation in just under four miles, with most of the elevation gain at the end.
We set out just before 12:30pm. The early part of the trail on the canyon floor was very dry and had undergone a prescribed burn back in April.
Adding to the dryness was a cloud of dust kicked up by a pack train making its way west toward the more developed portions of the canyon.
Right at the start of the trail we crossed Copper Creek and chuckled at an extremely melodramatic warning against swimming in the South Fork of the Kings River, which ran through the center of Kings Canyon. In early July, it seemed pretty tame, and we saw families laughing and playing in the water to cool off.
It was a hot afternoon, and there was precious little shade in the early part of the hike as the trail led us east across a brown meadow.
With its walls of soaring granite, Kings Canyon invites obvious comparisons with Yosemite Valley. At 4,600 feet above sea level, Kings Canyon is about 600 feet higher than and eighty-five miles southwest of Yosemite Valley (as the crow flies). Kings Canyon feels much drier than Yosemite, which boasts wetland meadows. It is also much less developed or busy than its famous neighbor. The campgrounds are more rustic. There are no elegant lodges.
As we walked along snapping photos, a few other hikers passed us, one of whom had a serious pack and was obviously off on a backpacking adventure. I felt a bit envious of the fellow.
After about half an hour of walking, the trail entered a more densely wooded area nearer to the river. The canyon walls were closer here, and there were even some wetland areas.
With the additional moisture came a change in the understory, which now included ferns.
Soon afterward, we were in sight of the bridge across the Kings, but our trail turned north just before the bridge to head up Paradise Valley.
The trail was now quite close to the river, which was much noisier because its grade was steeper and it was beginning to rush around boulders.
After an initial bit of steepness, the trail remained pretty easy, alternating level portions with some obvious elevation increases.
The river became louder and the trail lifted us higher.
About halfway from the fork in the trail to the falls (per the GPS), we stopped and had a snack. Other hikers passed occasionally, mostly young, quite a few people of color. Everyone was cheerful.
One couple asked, “Are you on your way up or down?”
“Up,” we replied.
“Keep going! It’s so worth it.”
We also found it pleasant to be hiking in a National Park on a national holiday. We smiled and wished hikers, “Happy Fourth!” as we passed.
People were clearly enjoying themselves. A lanky fellow who’d passed us earlier was taking a break and lying on a rock in the sun along the river.
The trail rose more steeply and climbed above the river. It became more open and after a couple switchbacks, emerged onto exposed granite.
And what a view! On one side was Glacier Monument, on the other Buck Mountain. And down opposite the mouth of Paradise Valley was the distinctive Sphinx formation.
The switchbacks brought us above an unnamed short fall on the South Fork Kings.
Now we were back in the shade of the forest as the trail continued its friendly flirtation with the river.
Some passing hikers stopped us and remarked on the contraption that held my extra lenses (a 50mm fixed and a 50-250mm zoom) to the strap of my pack. I showed them how it worked. They said that they’d seen videos about the gear online but hadn’t seen it in person yet.
Again, people on this trail on this Fourth of July were super friendly and cheerful.
The roaring grew louder. At a little after 2:30 we reached the falls. A social trail led down the bank to the river beneath them. We found a spot just beyond the reach of the mist to have our lunch. A group of hikers was lunching and relaxing a bit closer to the falls.
And a lovely little American Dipper was cheeping and bouncing and hoping for a lunch of river insects.
After we ate we strolled over to look at the falls. There was so much mist in the air, that I had to wipe off my lens after practically every photo I shot. After a hot hike, it was refreshing. And it left us invigorated for the hike back down.
It also left me intrigued. This hike was the first part of a classic, multi-night backpack trip (Rae Lakes Loop) that continued up into Paradise Valley and into the High Sierra. I think we may have to put that on the list for a return trip.