The beauty and geologic marvels of Kings Canyon are best appreciated from a raptor's perspective.
In short, get above the park.
Some climbing is required – sorry, no getting around that – but in return, you'll get an eye-popping view of the canyon that John Muir compared to Yosemite. On the way down, you'll pass through a rejuvenated forest and even get a far-off glimpse of the Monarch Divide.
Park at the Lewis Creek trailhead and begin by walking along the old road toward Cedar Grove that stays on the north side of the Kings River. (A trail also parallels the road.) After this 1 1/2-mile warm-up, just before the market, you'll reach the Hotel Creek trailhead.
Now comes the tough part. Over the next 2 miles, the Hotel Creek trail climbs 1,300 feet on a series of switchbacks carved into the canyon's north wall. Because the trail is sun-exposed, an early start is recommended. The views get better the higher you go.
After gaining the requisite elevation, you'll hit the half-mile spur trail that leads to the Cedar Grove Overlook. From this outcrop, even amateur geologists can trace the distinctive U-shaped canyon, scoured and widened by glaciers, before it narrows into North America's deepest river gorge.
Now look across the canyon. Remember last summer's Sheep Creek fire? The smoke may be gone, but the acres of blackened trees stand as a reminder.
Keep those blackened trees in mind as you return to the Hotel Creek trail and turn left (north) toward the Lewis Creek trail. The next 1.5 miles of pleasant hiking traverses a fern-lined forest of stately Ponderosa pines. If not for a few charred remnants, you'd hardly guess this area burned in 1980.
All this time, a ridge of peaks lies in the distance, a spur of the seldom-visited Monarch Divide. Mount Harrington is the distinctive granite fin on the left. Hogback Peak, which looks like an upside-down salad bowl, sits on its right. (When I did this hike in early June, both were still covered in snow.)
Just before reaching the creek, the Hotel Creek trail dead-ends into the Lewis Creek trail. From there, it's a little less than 2 downhill miles to the canyon floor. This trail never intersects with the creek either, although on hot days you really wish it would.
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