The Early Years of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing America's second national park. Created to protect the giant sequoia trees from logging, Sequoia National Park was the first national park formed to protect a living organism: Sequoiadendron giganteum. One week later, General Grant National Park was created and Sequoia was enlarged.
Tasked with protecting these new parks, U.S. Army Cavalry troops were detailed from the Presidio of San Francisco from 1891 through 1913, including the first African American military superintendent, Colonel Charles Young (1903). The first civilian administrator of the park, Walter Fry, was appointed in 1914. The National Park Service was established three years later in 1916.
Early access to the Giant Forest to see the sequoia trees was limited to little more than a pack road. Under the leadership of Captain Charles Young, then the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, the road into the Giant Forest was completed in August 1903. For the first time the "big trees" were accessible by wagon.
The growing popularity of automobile travel led to the building of the Generals Highway in 1926 opening up the Giant Forest to increased visitation. The Ash Mountain entrance became the main gateway to Sequoia -- even in 1927, park visitors sometimes experienced traffic at the check-in station.
Better access to the Giant Forest led to the creation of amenities for the increasing number of visitors. One of the first projects undertaken by the New National Park Service in 1917 was the construction of the first steps to the summit of Moro Rock, a favorite destination. Those first wooden steps to the top of Moro Rock must have provided a thrill for many early park visitors.
Backcountry trail construction also became a priority. In 1932, the new High Sierra Trail was completed connecting the Giant Forest and Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked in the parks to build and improve campgrounds, trails, buildings and other facilities.
A New National Park
In 1940, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new national park to include the glacially-formed splendor of Kings Canyon. The newly established Kings Canyon National Park subsumed General Grant National Park into it. Since the Second World War, Kings Canyon and Sequoia have been administered jointly.
For more information about the history of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, read the Challenge of the Big Trees by Larry Dilsaver and William C. Tweed. It's available online through the National Park Services's Park History program.
Last updated: May 13, 2021