From inspiring future generations to offering once-in-a-lifetime adventures, there’s no limit to what visitors to national parks can gain from their experiences. And California, with nine national parks, boasts a remarkable range of natural wonders in its parks. That includes the hottest place in the United States, the biggest tree in the world by volume, and a national park accessible only by ferry.
It would take a while to visit all nine national parks, but fortunately, three are very close – within 140 miles of each other, actually. That’s Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park, in central California. Though you could spend weeks at each of them, you can visit all three by driving what’s known as the Majestic Mountain Loop. It’s the epitome of an action-packed long weekend in the outdoors. And with a perfectly planned itinerary, you can visit all three national parks in just three days. Here’s how.
How to get there
Fresno Yosemite International Airport is the closest airport to all three parks on the Majestic Mountain Loop. A YARTS bus is available from Fresno to Yosemite Valley, but to drive the Majestic Mountain Loop, you’ll need to rent your own vehicle. It’ll be cheapest to get it in Fresno.
A 45-minute drive will take you to Visalia, the closest city to Sequoia National Park, putting you very close to the start of the Majestic Mountain Loop so you can get into the park bright and early. If you need an international airport, Sacramento International Airport is 3 hours and 45 minutes from Visalia, while San Francisco International Airport is about 4 hours and 15 minutes away by car.
When to go
America’s national parks are beautiful in every season, but generally, the best time to visit these parks is late spring. When snow begins to melt in the mountains, it flows down to the parks, leaving forests lush and waterfalls at their max flow rate. But be sure to check the weather and snowpack reports before you visit, as years with lots of heavy snow may mean that some roads (like Tioga Pass in Yosemite) stay closed later into the year than normal.
Day 1 of the Majestic Mountain Loop: Sequoia National Park
You’ve no doubt heard of the magnificent giant sequoias: towering conifers found on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. Sequoia National Park is home to groves of these giant sequoias, including the General Sherman Tree: the largest tree in the world, measured by trunk volume. These wonders, along with awe-inspiring vistas, tons of hiking, and a behemoth of a log you can drive your car through, are sites on the first stop on the Majestic Mountain Loop road trip: Sequoia National Park.
From Visalia, it’s a 45-minute drive to Sequoia National Park.
Must-sees in Sequoia National Park
The Giant Forest Museum: A must-stop at the start of your day, the Giant Forest Museum holds all of the introductory information you could hope for before a day of exploration, from information on the lifespan of giant sequoias to archaeological records of human history within the park.
Moro Rock: 400 steps will take you to well-deserved views of the Great Western Divide and the west half of Sequoia National Park. It’s the most famous vista in the park, so you won’t regret getting your heart rate up on the short-but-steep hike.
The Congress Trail: To see the highest concentration of sequoias in a small area, take the park’s Congress Trail. The three-mile, relatively easy hike starts at the famous General Sherman, and meanders through the Great Forest. It’s paved the entire way, with a relatively gentle incline.
Tunnel Log: If you’ve ever wanted to recreate one of those classic photos of old-timey cars, you can at the park’s Tunnel Log. It was formed when a sequoia fell across the road decades ago. Tunnel Log is near Crescent Meadow and Moro Rock, but note that you’ll want a small car to make sure it can fit through the cut out. Otherwise, you can just walk through it.
Crystal Cave: Perhaps the most unexpected attraction along the Majestic Mountain road trip, this half-mile underground trail leads through a marble cavern filled with fragile formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The delicate nature of the cave means it can only be viewed by tour, so buy tickets online in advance.
Editor’s note: The cave is closed for the remainder of the 2023 season and will open again in 2024.
Night one: Where to stay
After a full day of exploring Sequoia National Park, you’ll be in need of some good sleep to refuel for the next two days of the Majestic Mountain Loop. You can stay in Visalia for a second night, but it may be more fun to stay in Sequoia or Kings Canyon National Park for a full national park experience.
Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park: Near the General Sherman Tree and Moro Rock, the Wuksachi Lodge is an elegant hotel inside the park. Room rates start around $140 in the off-season (winter).
John Muir Lodge in Kings Canyon: Nestled in sweet-smelling pine groves, the John Muir Lodge is a classic wooden lodge for those looking to have a true nature retreat. It has hotel rooms and cabins and is open seasonally, from roughly mid-April to the end of October. Rooms start around $107.
Camping: Campsites are available to reserve in both Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park. A healthy way to disconnect from technology, camping can be a great way to connect with your fellow Majestic Mountain roadtrippers, especially if you split up to see different parts of the park during the day. The campgrounds around the parks have dark skies, meaning millions of stars will appear after the last light of day fades – adding meaning to the phrase “half the park is after dark.” As always with camping, make sure you’re prepared with proper equipment, clothing, water, and an understanding of wildlife-resistant food storage.
Day 2 of the Majestic Mountain Loop: Kings Canyon National Park
Connected to Sequoia National Park by the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon National Park is an easy drive from Sequoia and is the usual second stop of the Majestic Mountain Loop. On the morning of day two, you’ll drive to the park’s eponymous (and 8,200 feet deep) Kings Canyon to enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia to the Kings Canyon Visitor Center is a 45-minute drive on Generals Highway, though driving deeper into the park takes longer.
Must-sees in Kings Canyon National Park
General Grant: The General Sherman is the biggest living tree in the world, and the General Grant is the second. It’s also the only living thing designated by Congress as a war memorial. (Technically, it’s a “living shrine.”)
Panoramic Point: To get a glimpse of the canyon this park is named for, head to Panoramic Point. It’s an easy half-mile round-trip walk to breathtaking views of the canyon and the surrounding Sierras.
Roaring River Falls: Just off Highway 180, Roaring River Falls will be your first glimpse of a roaring waterfall along the Majestic Mountain Loop (but not the last). The 40-foot-tall marvel is as pretty as can be and offers a great spot to take a snack break and think about how lucky you are to see such a beautiful, protected natural wonder.
Zumwalt Meadow: With otherworldly trees and rushing waterfalls, Zumwalt Meadow is a must-see in the park. The 1.5-mile trail gives hikers a different perspective of the park: sweeping meadows, blooming wildflowers, and a wandering river.
Editor’s note: The trails off of Cedar Grove are closed through 2023 for road repairs, but are expected to reopen after summer.
Night two: Where to stay
It’s time for a three-hour drive to the Yosemite area after you’ve spent the day exploring Kings Canyon. Most people will find staying near one of the west entrances of Yosemite in a town like El Portal (30 minutes to Yosemite Valley) or Mariposa (1 hour to Yosemite Valley) more convenient than trying to find budget lodging further out. And the drive on El Portal road to the park (above) is pretty darn cool in the daytime.
That said, the official “Majestic Mountain Loop” marketing organization recommends staying in Oakhurst, which is closer to Kings Canyon (about a two-hour drive). Oakhurst is closer to the Wawona Grove, but further from the Yosemite Valley, so you may want to choose where to stay based on where you’re going in the park (and on park construction updates).
Yosemite View Lodge: Yosemite View Lodge is one of the best places to stay near the park at just two miles from the gate and on the shore of the Merced River. It’s not the fanciest hotel, but it has an on-site restaurant, plus an outdoor pool and hot tubs. Rooms start around $155 per night.
Yosemite Rush Creek Lodge & Spa: Rush Creek Lodge and Spa offers easy access to the park and additional spa amenities to keep your legs in top-notch hiking shape. It’s a destination in its own right and is perfect for mixed groups where some people want an active adventure while others want to relax and recharge. The cheapest room rate you’ll find is around $228 per night.
Best Western Plus Yosemite Way Station: The Best Western in the Gold Rush town of Mariposa is a budget-friendly option for travelers who don’t need fancy amenities. It’s less than an hour outside Yosemite, so not too far off the main route of the Majestic Mountain Loop. And Mariposa is a cute small town if you want to add on some extra time exploring the region, instead of doing just the highlights of the drive. Rooms start around $120 per night.
Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite: Tenaya Lodge feels more like a mountain resort than many hotels near Yosemite, with a lobby with exposed wood beams and rafters, a big pool and hot tub surrounded by pine trees, and outdoor fire pits. It also has a fairly tasty on-site restaurant, plus seasonal activities for guests like telescope classes and flashlight hikes, sunrise nature hikes, movies at the pool, gold panning sessions, and more. Rooms start around $189 per night. It’s close to the park’s southern entrance.
Day 3 of the Majestic Mountain Loop: Yosemite National Park
The most well-known park on the Majestic Mountain Loop, Yosemite National Park is an incredible combination of immense cliffs and raging waterfalls, tight woods and sprawling meadows. Though Yosemite will be the busiest stop on your road trip, it’s definitely worth braving the crowds to see this natural wonder. You may want to time your trip so your day in Yosemite is on a Tuesday or Wednesday to reduce your chance of getting stuck in a conveyor belt of people on the trails.
Must-sees in Yosemite National Park
Glacier Point: One of the most iconic views in the park, Glacier Point is 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and gives visitors a birds-eye panoramic view of Half Dome, massive waterfalls, and the endless-looking Sierra Nevada mountains. If possible, try to check out Glacier Point at sunrise. You won’t regret it.
Yosemite Falls: With a 2,4250-foot drop, it’s no wonder Yosemite Falls is one of the most iconic scenes in the park. Peak flow is typically in May, and includes three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall, the middle cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall. You can hike to lower or upper falls, but the views are actually best from the valley floor.
Tunnel View: There’s no doubt you’ve seen photos from Tunnel View. With a panoramic overlook of Yosemite Valley, visitors can see El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Falls from the overlook. It’s less than a 10-minute drive to reach the lookout from the west side of the valley.
Mirror Lake: The Mirror Lake Trail is an easy-to-moderate, two-mile hike to the spectacular Mirror Lake, named for the mirror effect it can have when its water is calm and reflects nearby cliffs.
Mariposa Grove: With 470 giant sequoias, many of which are around 2,000 years old, the Mariposa Grove is a must-stop in Yosemite. If you visit in winter and the road is closed, you can venture on a two-mile snowshoe through the snowy trees. You’ll need to take the free shuttle from the Mariposa Grove Welcome Center (about 40 minutes from the Yosemite Valley) to reach the sequoias.
Extending the Majestic Mountain Loop
Unless your PTO and vacation days are unlimited and you can spend summers exploring the national parks to your hearts’ content, extending the amount of time you spend on the Majestic Mountain Loop could just be a dream. Fortunately, three days really is enough to get a sense of the beauty of central California.
But if you can extend it, you can add on backpacking trips in Yosemite or Kings Canyon and Sequoia. Drive the loop when Tioga Pass in Yosemite is open, and you add days in Mammoth or June Lake. In the peak of summer, you can spend a day or two camping and paddling at Bass Lake. And if you have a few more days to add on to the drive, you can keep going north to Lake Tahoe and the gorgeous lakes in Stanislaus, El Dorado, and Tahoe national forests.
But even a few days to spend along the Majestic Mountain Loop is better than no days. As long as you bring your camera, your hiking shoes, and your willingness to go without Wi-Fi for a few afternoons, you’ll likely fall in love with the region (and be planning your return trip for the following spring) before you leave.
Where to stay in Visalia
If you’re driving the Majestic Mountain Loop from south to north, you’ll want to stay in Visalia on the first night before you begin. If you’re starting in the north, you may want to stay there after leaving Sequoia, instead of driving back to Merced that same night
We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
The Darling Hotel is in a restored historic building in central Visalia. It’s a boutique hotel with a rooftop restaurant, an outdoor pool, and playful Art Deco decor. It’s a comfortable place to stay before or after a busy few days of hiking and driving. Room rates start around $169 per night.
Comfort Suites Visalia
If you’re adding the Majestic Mountain Loop onto a longer trip in the area, either for work or play, the Comfort Suites Visalia is a perfect launching point. It’s a one-minute walk to the convention center, and has large rooms with work spaces ideal for bloggers or digital nomads. It’s also quite budget-friendly, with room rates starting under $100 per night.
If you’re collecting your Marriott points, check out the Visalia Marriott. It’s a modern hotel with balconies with city views and is within walking distance to coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. There’s also a nice pool and a roomy gym in vase you want to get in a little stretching to soothe tired muscles. Rooms start around $127 per night.