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 when the first civilian administrator of the park, Walter Fry, was appointed. 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 ParkIn 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.
Over the past 125 years, these parks have grown to encompass 1,353 square miles of which 97% is designated and managed as wilderness. Today, more than 1.5 million people enjoy these special places each year. While we face new challenges in the 21st century that were not envisioned when the parks were created, the basic purpose of the parks remains essentially unchanged: to protect and preserve these public lands for future generations.
Last updated: October 15, 2020