No less an authority than John Muir once called Kings Canyon a "fitting rival" to Yosemite. That might help explain the allure of the Mist Falls Trail.
A leisurely 8.2-mile out-and-back hike from Roads End, the terminus of Kings Canyon Road, the Mist Falls Trail traces the South Fork of the Kings River during the final steps of its spectacular journey from High Sierra snowmelt to the canyon floor.
Starting from ranger station at Roads End (no permits are required for day hikes, but it's always wise to inquire about conditions), begin on the well-marked trail toward Mist Falls and Paradise Valley. These first steps can be hot and dusty, so be sure to get an early start and pack water.
Beginning a gentle ascent through a forest of pines and incense cedars, cross Copper Creek with help from a log bridge and two small streams that usually are dry by mid-summer. Soon the cathedral-like surroundings open up as the high granite walls of the canyon come into view.
Until now, the Kings River can be heard but not seen. That changes after 1 1/2 miles as the trail descends toward the river and the sparse forest gives way to a jungle of ferns, grasses and other foliage.
At Mile 2, one reaches the Paradise Valley/Bubbs Creek trail junction. Keep left toward Paradise Valley, but don't pass up trampling on the nearby Bailey Bridge to observe the rushing water.
Following a brief ascent, the canyon wall begins to creep closer to the river. This forces the trail on a meandering journey through rockfalls caused by erosion.
By the time one begins to tire of the repetitive ascents and descents, the trail veers alongside the river, allowing glimpses of cascading waterfalls. After ascending a granite escarpment, it's time to turn around and enjoy a breathtaking view dominated by the Sphinx (elev. 9,143), a uniquely shaped peak atop the southern wall of the canyon.
The trail returns to the forest for another half-mile until Mist Falls abruptly comes into view. Leave the trail (and anything you want to keep dry) and head toward the falls. You'll soon be engulfed by gentle (but frigid) spray.
Many hikers make the mistake of turning around now, but just a quarter-mile farther the trail climbs to the top of the falls, where its tumbling waters can be more easily observed.
From here, it's mostly downhill and level back to the parking lot. For those with extra wanderlust, continue another 1 1/2 miles to picturesque Paradise Valley.
Originally published in The Fresno Bee and on fresnobee.com on May 23, 2002