We drove around a bend and BOOM – there was a stretch of road lined with sequoia trees covered in snow. Sunbeams were filtering through the branches and I gasped. Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks in the winter are simply breathtaking.
They’re also really challenging to visit during the winter months. You need to be prepared. In this post I’m sharing all the things I wish I knew before visiting Sequoia National Park in the winter, my favorite things to do in the park during the winter AND an area travel guide so you can plan the best trip ever.
Must-Know Tips For Sequoia National Park In the Winter + Huge Area Travel Guide!
First Things First…
YOU WILL NEED TO CARRY TIRE CHAINS
I put that in all caps because it’s often overlooked and It sucked seeing all those people with sad faces driving back down the mountain after being turned away. Because you WILL be turned away by police offers if chain requirements are in effect. Yes – by police officers, not rangers. You can’t sneak past them if you don’t have the proper gear for your car.
Yes, even if you have 4WD. The days leading up to our visit there was a HUGE snowstorm and any car, even those with 4WD, was required to be using snow chains to visit. (You can check daily updates on the park website.) By the time we arrived, snow chains were optional for 4WD but these requirements happen so quickly, it’s hard to know so it’s important to think ahead, buy your own chains, and learn how to install them.
Don’t worry, tire chains aren’t hard to install. I was super worried and intimidated by them, but there are tons of good YouTube videos out there. Just practice at home before you leave and you’ll be good to go! You can also rent chains in Three Rivers but it’s easier to just buy them ahead to save time at a counter, and also to make sure they fit your tires. Ok, soapbox moment over.
On That Note… The Parks May Be Closed In The Winter
The week before our trip, it snowed every day and I think the parks got about 5-7 feet of snow each. So, they weren’t open for a couple of days. We were sweating since we had no idea if we’d be able to get into the parks or not. Updates change every day and we lucked out- on the 4th and final day of our trip, they FINALLY opened the park roads enough we could get in to hike a bit and see the trees.
My advice to you: if you are visiting in the winter, mentally prepare right now that you may not be able to get into the parks if there is a snowstorm. Instead of a short 1-2 day trip, try to plan for a longer weekend to buffer the days in case there is a snowstorm. If the parks are closed, wait it out. Conditions change quickly and you may be able to get in on your last day as we did.
Lastly, if Sequoia isn’t open, don’t forget about Kings! Sequoia was still closed, but Kings had their main hiking loop open so we were able to drive over and not lose a day of our trip.
Kings Canyon National Park vs Sequoia National Park
I’m honestly a little confused why these national parks are separate. They’re right next door to each other and connected via the Generals Highway (but this is closed during the winter, you have to drive the long to access both.) They’re basically the same park, so people talk about them interchangeably.
I personally think Kings Canyon is underrated. We all loved the Grant Grove Giant Sequoia loop a lot better than the General Sherman Tree loop at Sequoia. In the wintertime, most of the trails in Kings Canyon will be blocked off, but it’s absolutely worth a day trip to visit the park too. Make sure to set time aside for it.
Where To Stay In Sequoia National Park / Kings Canyon
You can either book a hotel within the park, camp in the park, or stay somewhere in Three Rivers, the town right outside the Three Rivers park entrance.
- Wuksachi Lodge: The official Sequoia National Park lodging… and only hotel in the park. (There is John Muir Lodge in Kinds but that’s not open in the winter.) The benefits of staying at Wuksachi Lodge is you’re already in the park and can quickly get to trailheads (vs waiting in a car to get in.) The downside is there isn’t a lot of dining options in the park in the winter, so meals are bit complicated.
- Winter Camping: Campsites are available in the winter, but they may close if the weather gets too bad. If you have all the equipment for California winter camping and are looking to visit the parks on a budget, this is a great option.
- Glass House Airbnb in Three Rivers: You GUYS this was the Airbnb we stayed at during our visit and it was AWESOME. This stunning house is right outside Three Rivers, super close to the market (for last-minute wine runs) and 15 minutes drive from the entrance to the park. 10/10 recommend this house over a hotel. Read my full feature here.
Winter Hiking vs Cross Country Skiing Vs Snowshoeing
We chose to winter hike during our visit, but since we arrived right after a huge storm and trails weren’t packed in yet, I really wish we had snowshoes with us. Some of the trails are VERY hard to walk on covered in 4+ feet of snow!
We managed, but we couldn’t visit the Tunnel Tree as we planned since there was no way we could have done that without snowshoes or skis. I suggest either renting out snowshoes at a place like Sports Basement ahead of time to have with you, or rent snowshoes at the visitor centers at the parks.
They are available to rent at the Lodgepole Visitor Center / Market in Sequoia, and Grant Grove Gift Shop in Kings Canyon. BUT — if there is a lot of snow, the roads leading to Lodegpeole may be closed (they were on our visit) so that is why I recommend you bring your own snowshoes into the park if you can.
If there is a lot of snowfall, that means the cross country skiing trails will be open! Both the Giant Forest in Sequoia and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon have ski trails around the Sequoia trees. There is also the Pear Lake Winter Hut that you can reserve a spot to ski to if you are an advanced skier.
Top Things To Do In Sequoia National Park In The Winter
Ok, now onto the fun stuff! All the best things to do in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks during the winter months! Again, always check the park website for road closure updates to make sure your desired trail is open. You can also ask the ranger on your way in to confirm or stop by the Giant Forest Museum to talk to a ranger.
General Sherman Tree Loop
The General Sherman Sequoia Tree is the main highlight of Sequoia National Park. This tree is the largest known living single-stem tree on Earth by volume and is over 3000 years old. Photos really don’t do this justice – I felt SO tiny standing under it! This loop is really short and in the snow will probably only take you about 20 minutes to hike complety. It is next door to the Congress Trail for longer hikes.
Despite being the showstopper of the park, the parking lot is super tiny. I recommend trying to get into the park as early as you can and beeline right to the Sherman Tree so you can hopefully get a parking spot without battling other cars!
Nextdoor to the Sherman Tree loop is the Congress Trail which is a 3-mile trail that takes you through Giant Sequoia groves. Since you’ll most likely need snowshoes or skis for a winter hike, that deters most of the visitors (including us) so the trail will be mostly empty. I REALLY wish we brought snowshoes so we could have hiked this trail. I’ll have to come back in the summer.
You’ll need snowshoes and maybe even poles to complete this 4-mile hike in the winter, but it’s worth it for all the mountain views (or, so I hear – we didn’t have the right equipment!) Tokopah Falls is a waterfall that obviously flows in the warmer months but in the winter, you can probably luck out and see the river and falls covered in ice. That’s why you may need poles for this trail – it can get icy.
Big Trees Loop Trail
This is probably my favorite Sequoia winter hike. The loop is only .75 miles long but when it’s covered in snow, it takes a while and is quite the workout! But it’s so worth it to get up close and personal to the trees covered in snow. You can get really close to the bases of the Giant Sequoia tree here in the winter.
Usually, it’s a big NO-NO to stand directly under a Sequoia tree (their root systems are super shallow and walking around their base can hurt them. That’s why so many are blocked off with fences.) BUT when there is 6 feet of snow on top of the roots protecting them, it’s safe to go hug the tree or take a photo at the base.
The parking lot is also small here but it’s less visited than the Sherman Tree so you can probably find a spot. If not, park at the Giant Forest Museum lot and hike over.
In 1937 a Sequoia fell over in the road and instead of moving it, a hole was cut into the log so cars can drive through. It’s one of the most Instagram-famous spots in the park. In the winter, the road leading to it is usually closed but you can still hike it if you have skis or snowshoes.
Park at the Giant Forest Museum lot, check-in with a ranger to ensure you have clear directions and hike the 3 miles over to the log. You’ll probably have it all to yourself which is awesome for photographers like myself who hate having to share spots with people or cars.
Top Things To Do In Kings Canyon In Winter Months
Kings Canyon is smaller than Sequoia but there are still fun things you can access in the wintertime!
Grant Grove Loop Trails
We LOVED our hike in the Grant Grove loop trail. It’s about 1.5 miles and takes you through a huge forest of sequoia trees and eventually to General Grant, the other famous tree in the park. It’s one of the other largest living trees on the planet!
My favorite part was walking through the Fallen Monarch log. This tree fell about 300 years ago and during it’s decay process, it started getting hollowed out. And you can actually walk through it!!! It was so freaking cool to walk inside a Giant Sequoia tree like this. I haven’t seen this anywhere else at national parks, like Mariposa Grove, before.
Big Stump Snowplay Area
Grab your sled and hit the slopes at the Big Stump Snowplay Area! I grew up in Wisconsin and would sled down the hill in our backyard each winter, but hot diggity, sledding around Giant Sequoia trees in a national park is much cooler.
Redwood Canyon Overlook
Just North of Grant Grove Village is this stunning overlook where you can view some of the oldest and largest trees in the park.
Hart Tree, Fallen Goliath, Redwood Creek Loop
If you’re up for more hiking, you can hike through the trees that you spot from Redwood Canyon overlook. This is called the Hart Tree, Fallen Goliath, Redwood Creek Loop. You’ll absolutely need snowshoes or skis if you are hiking in the winter. It’s a 7-mile loop so prepare with snacks and water. Since it’s longer and past the General Grant loop, it usually attracts fewer people. If snow, solitude and big trees are your jam, you’ll love this trail.
Frequently Asked Questions About Winter Visits To The Parks
I tried to answer all the questions I had before visiting below!
When Does It Snow In Sequoia National Park?
Sequoia National Park winter weather totally varies year by year (and gets harder to predict thanks to global warming.) But assume it can snow as early as Thanksgiving and as late as May. It’s important to kepe tabs on the Sequoia snow predictions. Winter mountain weather changes FAST.
For example, 2 weeks before our visit in January all the snow in both the parks had melted. We were really bummed out since we wanted to see the trees covered in snow. Well, fast forward 2 weeks and there was such a big snowstorm we almost weren’t able to safely make it into the parks at all.
Do I really need chains if I have 4WD?
YES! Most likely you won’t need to use them, but if you don’t have them with you and the park decides to make it a requirement, you’ll be out of luck. Remember, the parks are FEDERAL property. I know California has rules about 4WD being ok instead of chains in some places, but that doesn’t apply here. Just, bring chains ok?
Will there be people around to help me install chains?
Assume nobody will help you. I’ve heard from friends who like to visit Lake Tahoe in the winter that it’s common for locals to hang out at chain install areas and put them on for you for $20. Wasn’t like that in the national parks. I’m sure if you get stuck you can nicely ask someone and they may help you, but come knowing how to install chains and don’t assume you can hire someone on the spot.
What Do I Wear For Winter Hiking?
I have a whole detailed guide on what to wear for winter hiking and my favorite winter gear! Check it out.
Where Can I Eat In The Parks?
As I mentioned before, dining is limited in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. I suggest bringing a cooler for things like sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, etc along with other snacks and water so you can picnic in the park. We saw a lot of families bring grills and have a whole fancy cookout if that’s your thing.
There are a couple restaurants and markets that may or may not be open depending on weather:
Things To Do In Three Rivers, California
Three Rivers is the small town right outside the entrance to Sequoia. We stayed in an Airbnb in Three Rivers so we were in the town a lot when we weren’t in the park. It’s not a super hopping place but there are some restaurants to note for you. (Not much in terms of activities, pretty much just dining.)
This is a must-stop place for happy hour at least once during your stay. They have a huge outdoor patio overlooking a river. At night there’s string lights and a firepit – super vibey. And the beer is good, too. They don’t have a huge selection on tap (about 5 beers max) but we loved their unique spins on brews. There’s also a Pupusas food truck in the back for snacks.
Three Rivers Yogurt
This frozen yogurt shop makes SUPER Instagramable yogurts.
If you need coffee or breakfast before heading into the park, this is your stop. They open up at 7am for early birds and are known for their breakfast sandwiches!
Three Rivers Market
I think we visited here at least 2 times a day if not more. This is the main grocery store and market in town and it actually has a LOT of stuff in there. From wine runs to snacks to firewood, they have it all. If you need anything you forgot, it’s probably here.
We didn’t get a chance to stop here but a follower raved about the subs here. She said they were the best she’s ever had! Pick some up before you go into the park so you have a top-notch lunch on the trail. They also have take and bake options if you want to pick something up on the way back to your Airbnb.
So, that’s my massive guide on how to visit Sequoia National Park In the Winter. I hope you found it helpful! I was super nervous and unsure about visiting it in January and there aren’t a lot of other blog posts out there that answered my questions so I tried to be super thorough for you.
If you do have additional tips to add that I have missed, please leave a comment below so everyone can see! If you have questions, comment below or DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll be happy to help you out!