Ever since becoming a mom, I’ve had a dream that our family would visit as many National Parks as we could. Before our trip to California this fall we had only crossed one off of our list - Smoky Mountain National Park. I knew visiting California meant we would be able to check off at least one more since California is brimming with National Parks.
We went to watch my younger sister play college volleyball at a tournament in Bakersfield, so we decided to add Sequoia National Park to our itinerary. It was an excellent National Park to visit with little kids. I was with my 5-, 3-, and 1-year-old whose legs get tired after even short hikes. When I read that there were lots of short flat paths in the park, I knew we had chosen well.
We arrived around 10 and stayed until about 4:30 in the afternoon. I felt like that was plenty of time to fit in everything we wanted to do. Of course, if you stay in or near the park, you can add a few things to your itinerary and spread it out over two days. We were heading to Santa Barbara next so we kept it to just one day.
Here are my tips on how to do Sequoia National Park with little kids from the moment you enter the park, including the top things to do and see with kids.
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK WITH LITTLE KIDS
We came to the park through the Ash Mountain Entrance. The gateway town is Three Rivers, and as you’re driving through you’ll already start to get some stunning views.
The cost per vehicle is $35. You can buy passes online here. Or you can just pay at the entrance.
Start your day at the Foothills Visitor Center which opens at 8 a.m. You’ll arrive just a short drive after entering the park, and it’s a great spot to stop and get your bearings. There are restrooms, so if you have older kids this is the time to have them go one more time before the long drives begin.
My parents showed the kids the displays around the small Visitor Center while I spoke to one of the incredibly helpful Park Rangers to plan out which spots would be best to see with little kids. She walked me through her recommendations and how to get there which took a lot of the stress out of our day.
We decided on a few key spots we knew we could manage with the kids, and drove off.
After driving a few minutes away from the Visitor Center, you will come up to Tunnel Rock. We hadn’t really planned on making a long stop here, as the Park Ranger only mentioned it in passing in a very offhand way. But once we got there we saw a few people posing for pictures in front of it and even on top of it.
We decided to take turns getting out of the car with the big kids while one adult stayed in the car with the one-year-old. Tunnel Rock is right on the side of the road with no barrier. Our 17-month-old definitely would have attempted running away, and we just didn’t want to deal with that.
I’m so glad we got out! Pippa, our 5-year-old, and Teddy, our 3-year-old, had a blast running through the tunnel and pretending they were in a cave. My mom and I both decided to be brave and took turns climbing on top of the rock. (Do so at your own risk, and DON’T let little kids climb up there!)
Anyway, it’s a really cool rock that cars used to be able to drive through. Nowadays, vehicles are too large to fit, but people are still welcome to walk through!
Hop back in the car for some more driving and you’ll reach Hospital Rock next. We read that this is a great spot for a picnic and an interesting place to see some petroglyphs, or paintings on rocks done by Native Americans.
We didn’t end up stopping here, but I included it because it’s a very kid-friendly spot. It’s also the last stop before you hit some real mountain driving.
GIANT FOREST MUSEUM
As you make your way to the Giant Forest Museum, you’ll experience your first few switchbacks. My dad was driving, and commented that they weren’t quite as harrowing as some they had previously encountered in Colorado.
I was relieved to hear this, as I had originally planned to do Sequoia by myself with the 3 kids. I’m very glad my parents decided to join me (man-to-man defense on the kids instead of zone), but wanted to know that I would have been ok by myself.
Anyway, the drive from Tunnel Rock to the Giant Forest Museum took about an hour. Once we arrived, we were ready to get out and stretch our legs. We parked across the road from the museum, and decided to get out our stroller and picnic lunch, since one of the hike we wanted to do was just a short walk from the museum.
The Museum has a lot of very interesting displays, but since only 1/3 of our kids can read, it didn’t hold their attention for very long. I was kind of disappointed since I wanted to read all of the placards and information, but that’s life with little kids.
BIG TREES TRAIL
You can followed the paved path on either side of the highway to get to Big Trees Trail. If you head out from the parking lot you won’t have to cross the road. If you follow the paved path north from the Giant Forest Museum, you’ll just have to cross Generals Highway. Both paths lead you to the trail.
Once we got to the trailhead we were distracted with taking pictures by some of the giant sequoias when a man leaving the trail mentioned to us that you could see a family of black bears in the meadow at the center of the trail loop. You can imagine how quickly we stopped taking pictures and started our short hike!
As I mentioned earlier, we had the baby in the stroller for this one, and it was no problem as the paths are wide and flat. It’s about a 1 mile loop around a meadow with some interesting trees along the way. One giant tree is fallen so you can see the twisted and tangled roots. Another tree seems to have grown out of a giant bolder which we naturally climbed because who doesn’t love a challenge? (I think my 5-year-old was braver about climbing up than I was, but to be fair, I was worried about both her and my safety. She was worried about no one’s safety).
Anyway, about halfway around the loop we saw people taking pictures and whispering to each other so we looked in the direction their cameras were pointing. Sure enough a mama bear and a few of her cubs were climbing a tree in the distance. I’ve never been more devastated to not have my zoom lens with me! Can you spot the bears in these pictures?
I could have stayed there all day watching this mama bear wrangling her unruly cubs, because she felt like a kindred spirit. My own Teddy Bear brought me back down to earth with his cries that he wanted to ride in the stroller because he was tired and he didn’t want the bears to come over by us. We decided that was a good time to move on and finish the trail.
GENERAL SHERMAN TREE
The General Sherman Tree is bound to be the highlight of your trip to Sequoia. It is the largest tree in the world and people line up to take their picture in front of the sign and tree. Follow the signs to park in the main parking lot for the Main Trail to the General Sherman Tree.
You will have a half-mile hike descending into the forest. It’s mostly paved with quite a few stairs, so I wouldn’t bother bringing the stroller (although I did see people along the way using their strollers, so it definitely can be done. You’ll just be lifting a stroller up and down stairs for a half mile, so…keep that in mind).
When you get closer to the bottom there is a lookout point where you can see the General Sherman Tree from a distance so you can really take in its spectacular height. The tree’s “footprint” is outlined on the ground so you can stand in the middle of it to get a sense how just how big this tree is.
From there, it’s just a short walk to the base of the tree where you can stand in line for a few minutes for pictures. People seemed to be pretty helpful about snapping photos for the group in front of them in line.
Once you are done admiring the tree (and trust me, you’ll want to do this for a few minutes) and taking your picture, there are several trails through the giant sequoia groves. If your kids are up for it, you won’t regret taking a walk through the peaceful forest. We wandered around for a bit but didn’t stray too far because we knew we had a long drive to Santa Barbara ahead of us.
Side note: we did stop and take pictures between these two giant trees and it was a fun spot to give some perspective about the size of the trees vs. the kids.
The the walk back to the car is only a half mile, remember that you’ll have to climb back up all those stairs you descended, and probably with a baby or toddler in your arms. It’s not so bad, but you will probably be a bit out of breath at the end due to a combination of the altitude and the uphill climb.
IF YOU WANT TO KEEP GOING
As I mentioned, this is where we ended our day at Sequoia National Park. There’s so much more to see and do at this amazing National Park and I know my kids and I haven’t even scratched the surface. Talk to the Rangers at one of the Visitor Centers and inquire about other family-friendly trails or make your way over to Kings Canyon National Park since you’ve already paid the entrance fee anyway!
Crystal Cave tours are supposed to be really cool. You must go with a guided tour, and the website says all ages are welcome. I think if we had more time I might have added this to our itinerary.
Moro Rock is another great spot I kept reading about, but when I looked at pictures of both the hike up and the guard rail situation at the top, I imagined my strong-willed toddler and preschool trying to run away from me and decided to save that one for another time. If your kids are better behaved, on a leash, or young enough to wear in a baby carrier it would probably be doable!
SHUTTLES - If you don’t want to deal with the mountain driving, take the shuttle. It’s $15 round trip per person which includes your entry fee into the park. There is also a free in-park shuttle if you don’t want to worry about parking. They stop at Lodgepole, General Sherman, and the Giant Forest Museum.
JUNIOR RANGERS - Remember you can pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for your kids ages 5 and older to complete during your time in the park for a Junior Ranger Badge.
GAS UP - there are no gas stations within the park. It may seem obvious, but make sure your car is filled up before entering the park as you’ll be doing a lot of mountain driving. It hardly seems like an ideal place to run out of gas.
LAYERS - dress in layers. The weather can be sunny and warm at the park entrance and get progressively colder as you increase altitude. You can always shed sweatshirts, hats, and gloves as you go if it warms up.
SNACKS - There are plenty of picnic areas around the park, so feel free to bring food and water. Just make sure read up on Food Storage Regulations to prevent bears from ransacking your car if they see or smell food.
SICKNESS - I’m unsure if it was the altitude sickness or motion sickness from trying to read as we drove down the mountain, but I ended up feeling pretty sick as we made our way out of the park. (I’m not usually prone to motion sickness so I wasn’t prepared!) If you are prone to motion sickness, come prepared with the medication or gear you need!
WATER - Drink tons of water the day before you go. Keep sipping water throughout your day at the park. It’s easy to get dehydrated at that altitude.
I hope this guide helped you navigate your way through the basics of Sequoia National Park. Like I said, what we experienced was only the tip of the iceberg, and I would love to go back someday when the kids are older and spend a bit more time camping and exploring.
Be sure to check out the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park website for all the information you need about planning your visit!