The Complete Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms on the planet

Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks you’ll spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms in the history of the planet.

If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, the main attractions in these twin parks in Central California are approximately 40 different sequoia groves. These behemoth trees only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation and the parks are home to seven of the 10 largest trees in the world.

Amazingly these trees which stretch up to nearly 300 feet high aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively dwarfed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley hemmed in by 4,000-foot-high granite walls and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,494 feet.

Located in the Southern Sierra Nevada about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kings Canyon and Sequoia are actually two national parks for the price of one. They share a border and a long history dating back to the early days of the conservation movement in America.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the country’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the area’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later he added General Grant National Park to the roster.

In those early days, America’s first Black national park superintendent (and the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army), Col. Charles Young, led efforts to build a road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest and by 1903 the landscape had opened to tourists coming in by wagon. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established Kings Canyon National Park which absorbed the former General Grant Park. 

Today Sequoia comprises 631 square miles which include the famed Generals Highway which cuts through dense sequoia groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine Mineral King glacial valley; and Crystal Cave, a marble cavern.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bifurcated 722-square-mile Kings Canyon meanwhile sits atop Sequoia like two lopsided bunny ears: To the west, a squiggly sliver of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and the neighboring village and visitor center; to the east, a much larger swath of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The meandering ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections as it cuts through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest. 

Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free much of the year.

Tuning in to the soundscape is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness. Find a secluded spot, take a few steps off the trail, maybe sit down, maybe close your eyes, and just be silent and listen to the sounds of the park for a couple of minutes.

Forest
Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip 

The parks are relatively centrally located within the state and a bit of a trek to reach from major cities: You can expect about a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles.

When planning your trip, note that it’s hard to generalize about the weather in these parts. There’s an enormous elevation shift from the foothills in Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the big tree groves in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you ascend higher through the parks. Fortunately, the NPS maintains a helpful website with forecasts for specific areas.

The foothills tend to have milder winters and hot, dry summers with average highs in July and August reaching into the upper 90s and average winter lows dropping to the mid-30s. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove summer temperatures are significantly milder usually in the mid-70s in the daytime and the 50s at night. Even if it’s scorchingly hot when you enter the parks (it has been known to hit 114 degrees) you may still need a light sweater by the time you’re surrounded by sequoias. Plan and pack accordingly—layers are your friend. 

Castle Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the winter can be peaceful and the parks look gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during those months. Several roads, including 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road, and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road close due to treacherous, icy driving conditions and many of the parks’ lodging options shutter. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume gate until spring 2023.

In general, you’ll want a car in these parks. From late May through mid-September there’s also a shuttle bus system with free routes covering such areas as the Giant Forest, Moro Rock, the General Sherman Tree Trails, and Wuksachi Lodge. Meanwhile, the $20 Sequoia Shuttle (reservation required) transports guests in from the gateway town of Visalia.

Overcrowding isn’t much of a concern even during the summer high season in July and August. Avoiding crowds has a lot to do with timing. Weekdays are always more forgiving than weekends. If you can get to the entrance station before 9 a.m. you’re likely to be rewarded with ample parking at your destination

Potwisha Campground, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay

The jewel in the crown of lodging options in these parts is Sequoia’s 102-room Wuksachi Lodge which features an architectural style that screams national parks lodge thanks to its native granite and oak, hickory, and cedar touches. Located 2 miles from Lodgepole Village the hotel is a perfect jumping-off point for hiking trails that lead out into Cahoon Meadow and Twin Lakes. It’s now open year-round but things can get a little dicey in the winter if you’re not used to driving in snow because it sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet; remember to pack those snow chains! Amenities in mobility- and hearing-accessible rooms include widened doorways, visual fire alarms, and phones with flashing lights.

In Kings Canyon, Grant Grove Village is home to two seasonal lodging options in the park’s western section: The 36-room John Muir Lodge (open late March to late October) includes a stone fireplace in the lobby that’s an inviting spot to cozy up next to as you plan tomorrow’s adventures.

Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grant Grove Cabins, a collection of timber and tent-style cabins are open from April through October. Book early and request Cabin No. 9, one of the few with an en suite bathroom instead of a shared bathhouse, a particular luxury on those cold Sierra nights. The lodge does not have an elevator so anyone with mobility issues will want to request a room on the first floor. 

For a slightly more off-the-beaten-path option, the 21-room Cedar Grove Lodge is remotely located in Kings Canyon’s eastern wilderness. It’s only open late May through late October after the snow has melted but it rewards the intrepid with access to scenic Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring Falls, and Muir Rock.

The parks also play host to more than a dozen campsites, four open year-round: Azalea Campground, under a stand of evergreen trees near King Canyon’s Grant Grove; Potwisha Campground, set among a hot and dry oak woodland in Sequoia; Lodgepole and South Fork Campgrounds, in a remote area of the Sequoia foothills.

Park campgrounds differ wildly in terms of amenities, locations, and crowds so study the options before you go. Reservations are made available one month in advance though you can often snag a spot on the day of your visit. Most offer a few accessible campsites with amenities like paved paths to restrooms and raised fire pits for people with impaired mobility. 

Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to eat 

At the Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge tuck into hearty fare like pan-seared ruby-red trout and braised short ribs while taking in the Sierra views. The restaurant also serves a daily breakfast buffet. Nearby, head to the seasonal Lodgepole Café for grab-and-go picnic goodies like breakfast burritos and hot dogs.

In Kings Canyon, the seasonal Grant Grove Restaurant serves dishes like beef chili and a trout sandwich. In the park’s other section, Cedar Grove Grill is open May through mid-October and serves hearty burgers and sandwiches on the drive out to Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls.

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Visit the parks’ enormous trees

We know what you’re here for—very big trees! And, yes, you’ll see giant sequoias everywhere but there are a few not-to-miss standouts. In Sequoia, the General Sherman Tree ranks as the world’s largest by volume and stands 275 feet tall with a base width of 36 feet. You can access it by two trails. One runs a half-mile downhill from a parking area; it’s paved and includes a few stairs but the climb back uphill can be tiring. If you have a disability parking placard you’ll have access to a small lot on Generals Highway with a wheelchair-accessible trail.

About a five-minute drive down the road in the Giant Forest Grove you’ll reach the free Giant Forest Museum with informative exhibits about this unique landscape and the 1.2-mile Big Trees Trail which is a great option for people with limited mobility. It’s flat, paved, and easy to navigate with benches for rest stops. 

In the Grant Grove area in Kings Canyon just 1.5 miles from the visitor center you’ll meet the General Grant Tree—aka the nation’s Christmas tree—the world’s second-largest tree with a height of 268.1 feet and a base circumference of 107.5 feet. The one-third-mile paved loop trail passes through a dense collection of sequoias with other highlights including the Fallen Monarch, a hollow sequoia log wide enough to walk through, and the historic Gamlin Cabin, which dates to 1872. The trail has tactile informational signs with Braille and raised illustrations. 

Although these generals are popular especially in the summer don’t stop there: They’re a great jumping-off point for exploration. People visiting the parks will find a lot of opportunities for solitude if they’re willing to hike for even 15 minutes. The Giant Forest and Grant Grove both have miles and miles of wonderful trails that see surprisingly few hikers. On these trails, you’ll have time and space to linger, take in the evergreens’ woodsy scent, and listen for the chirps of squirrels and the calls of acorn woodpeckers, Steller’s jays, and other birds.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb Moro Rock

Yosemite has Half Dome, Sequoia has Moro Rock—and much like its more famous cousin to the north this granite dome beckons visitors to summit its dramatic topography. While the climb up Half Dome isn’t for the faint of heart, Moro Rock can be doable for relatively in-shape visitors who can handle steep stairs. A concrete and stone path leads up more than 350 steps to postcard-perfect views out over the foothills and the San Joaquin Valley.

There are handrails much of the way so while you might not fear falling over the rather prodigious cliffs lining the trail this is still a strenuous climb made more challenging by the high elevations which top out above 6,700 feet. The climb can take as little as a half-hour but pace yourself and enjoy the experience to protect those lungs in the thinner air. In summer, keep your eyes and ears peeled for peregrine falcons nesting on the rock.

Eleven Range Overlook, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a guided horseback ride

Two stables operate within Kings Canyon. Grove Stables offers one-hour guided trail rides that loop past the General Grant tree and through a grove of giant sequoias; for an additional fee tack on a second hour through a second sequoia grove to a Sequoia Lake overlook.

The Cedar Grove Pack Station located outside Cedar Grove Village also has one- and two-hour guided trail rides but experienced riders can opt for a half-day or full-day itinerary.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the stars

The parks are amazing after dark, once you get used to the idea. Find a wide-open space to stargaze or take long-exposure photographs of the Milky Way. During a full moon take a night hike. Just be careful out there. The parks have a 24-hour dispatch center but help is definitely less readily available if you get into trouble late at night.

If you’d rather not go it alone, the parks occasionally schedule ranger-led moonlight walks (check the events calendar). This is also a great time to listen for the distinctive hooting of great horned owls and the squeaks of bats flying overhead.

Fun fact: While 17 species of bats call these parks home only three emit sounds the human ear can hear.

Gateway towns 

If you want to spend time in the communities outside the parks’ boundaries stick to the stretch along State Route 198 that leads into Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance Station. About 35 miles west of the park is Visalia, a small agricultural city in the San Joaquin Valley with handsome architecture (including an art deco post office), a boutique-filled downtown, and plenty of microbreweries. 

Even closer to the entrance station is Three Rivers Village with a surprising array of businesses dotting the foothills including local shops like Reimer’s Candies and Gifts (don’t miss the California walnut turtles), art galleries and artist studios, a nine-hole golf course, and even a jazz club.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

If you’re driving from San Francisco slow down to enjoy the underrated Central Valley. The state’s agricultural heart boasts some surprising hot spots. Merced’s recently revitalized downtown includes the chic new Hotel El Capitan and its tasting-menu restaurant Rainbird where you can sample innovative dishes like green garlic chawanmushi (egg custard) with coal-roasted kombu. The area is also home to excellent farm stands and a rustic-chic vineyard. 

From Los Angeles, Bakersfield is a worthwhile pit stop thanks to the numerous RV parks and the country’s largest collection of Basque restaurants. Established in 1893 as a boardinghouse, the Noriega Hotel was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Award and it’s beloved for dishes like pickled tongue.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The city’s also the birthplace of the so-called Bakersfield Sound, made popular by country artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Learn more about Nashville West at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a museum and music venue and the Kern County Museum.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Bakersfield and the Bakersfield Sound:

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Facts box

  • ​Location: Central California about 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles
  • Size: 865,964 acres or 1,353 square miles 
  • Highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet 
  • Lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1,370 feet 
  • Miles of trails: 866
  • Main attraction: Sequoia groves with record-breaking trees
  • Entry fee: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $70 for annual passes 
  • Best way to see: By car or by the free park shuttle (between May and September)
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds leave and before the snow falls

Worth Pondering…

No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

—John Muir, The Big Trees, Chapter 7 of The Yosemite (1912) 

Road Trip Inspiration

The summer of 2021 is going to be all about road trips

Many Americans and Canadians are planning their next road trip right now. Planning a trip is actually good for you. Nearly every respondent (97 percent) to a survey from Destination Analysts said having a trip planned makes them happier overall. Plus, 71 percent of respondents reported feeling greater levels of energy knowing they had a trip planned in the next six months.

A study recently released by the vacation rental house website Vrbo states, “Families are making up for travel time lost during the pandemic. According to Vrbo, 82 percent of families have vacation plans for this year, evidence of that pent-up demand for travel. Whether it’s by RV or auto, road trips are expected to be the number one vacation choice for most of us this year.

The United States and Canada are made for road trips with beautiful scenery and wide-open spaces, making it easy to socially distance along the way. To kick off the Year of the Road Trip, I’ll feature a special itinerary focusing on bucket list destinations that feature some of the most spectacular locations as well as some lesser-known places yet to be discovered.

Icefields Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Scenic Drive of a Lifetime

Linking Lake Louise with Jasper is one of the most beautiful journeys on the planet—the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93). Rated as one of the top drives in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, the Icefield Parkway is a 145 mile stretch of double-lane highway winding along the Continental Divide through soaring rocky mountain peaks, icefields, and vast sweeping valleys.

Columbia Icefields © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Icefields Parkway is dotted with more than 100 ancient glaciers, cascading waterfalls, dramatic rock spires, and emerald lakes set in huge valleys of thick pine and larch forests.

Just as the name implies these glaciers or “fields of ice” are the largest south of the Arctic Circle. They are 80,000 acres in area and 328 to 1,197 feet in depth and receive up to 23 feet of snowfall per year.

Glacial Skywalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glacier Sky Walk, opened in May 2014, is a unique experience that puts you on a glass-floored observation platform 918 feet over the Sunwapta Valley. The entire experience starts with a walk along the Discovery Trail. If you are not into heights, you can still view the Sunwapta Valley from a look-out point nearby.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Taste Your Way through the Okanagan

Imagine a valley floor filled with a 90 mile-long lake, wildlife including bighorn sheep, cougars and rattlesnakes, rainfall of fewer than 12 inches a year but with the greatest concentration of wineries and orchards, you can imagine. The Okanagan Valley is the heart of British Columbia’s grape-growing region and boasts more than 130 licensed wineries. An ever-changing panorama, the valley stretches over 150 miles, across distinct sub-regions, each with different soil and climate conditions suited to a range of varietals. 

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two towns are standouts for their concentration of vineyards and wineries: Oliver (named for long-ago British Columbia Premier John Oliver) and Osoyoos (which shares a name with one of seven Okanagan tribes (called “bands” in Canada); pronounce it “oo-SUE-yooze”. Together the towns boast 39 wineries that extend from the lush valley into the semi-arid mountains that surround the area. Prior to the development of the wine industry, almost all of the agricultural land in the Oliver area was planted first to ground crops and later to fruit trees such as cherries, apples, apricots, and peaches.

Add to this the Okanagan’s natural beauty (it’s a hallowed summer-vacation spot for Western Canadians), its wide range of non-wine-related things for the whole family to do—from riding the century-old Kettle Valley steam train and swimming in those pristine lakes to biking and hiking, and its lush orchards selling juicy peaches and cherries on the roadside—and you’ve got a wine-country experience like no other.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before becoming a wine destination, the Okanagan was a family holiday spot, best known for its “beaches and peaches”—the lakes with their sandy shores, boating, and waterskiing as well as the countless farm stands offering fresh produce and fruit. The beaches and peaches—and cherries, apricots, and apples—are still there, and the Okanagan still welcomes families. But now the RV also comes back loaded with cases of wine.

Wells Gray © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Land of 41 Breathtaking Waterfalls and Counting

Wells Gray is not as highly acclaimed as Mount Robson or the national parks in the Canadian Rockies. And having been there, I have no idea why. I mean… this place is awesome!

Wells Gray has something to offer every outdoor interest: lush alpine meadows, excellent birding and wildlife viewing opportunities, hiking, boating, canoeing, and kayaking. Guiding businesses offer horseback riding, canoeing, whitewater-rafting, fishing, and hiking. The history enthusiast can learn about the early homesteaders, trappers, and prospectors, or about the natural forces that produced Wells Gray’s many volcanoes, waterfalls, mineral springs, and glaciers.

Wells Gray © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many people head to Wells Gray for the lakes, but there are also over 40 named waterfalls in the park. Many of them are in remote corners of the park, but eight of them are easy to reach from the Clearwater Valley Road.

So you might be wondering: Why are there so many waterfalls in the same small area? And how did they form? It turns out the waterfalls in Wells Gray use the same secret formula as another favorite waterfall destination, Iceland: volcanoes + glaciers = waterfall magic.

Wells Gray © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The whole Wells Gray area is part of a massive volcanic complex that dumped lava over the landscape, which hardened into lava rock called basalt. During the last ice age, glaciers covered the basalt. When the volcanoes erupted underneath the glaciers, the ice melted, causing huge floods that carved deep river canyons.

Seven of the Park’s waterfalls originate on the Murtle River, but perhaps none are more famous than Helmcken Falls, and the very reason Wells Gray Park exists. The fourth largest waterfall in Canada, Helmcken cascades 462 feet to the canyon below. The fact you can access it just steps from the road is really an added bonus. The viewing platform hangs over the lip of the canyon providing a panoramic view of the Murtle River tumbling in the distance. For an up-close-and-personal view of the falls, strike out on a one-hour hike along the Rim Trail where you’ll find waterfall views seen mostly by birds.

Bakersfield Gate © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ever Walked the Streets of Bakersfield?

Despite its size, Bakersfield, California, is a large small town. It has the conveniences and amenities of a large urban area, but visitors comment on others smiling and saying ‘hello.’ With music, festivals, outdoor activities, performs arts and sports, there are ample activities for visitors to explore and reasons for a return visit.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bakersfield’s historic and primary industries are oil and agriculture. Oil was discovered in 1865; by 1870 more than 600 people called Bakersfield home. In the 1930s, Bakersfield saw a surge in population from those fleeing the Dust Bowl. In 2013 Kern County produced more oil than any other county in America. Kern County is a part of the highly productive San Joaquin Valley and ranks in the top five most productive agricultural counties in the U.S. Major crops for Kern County include grapes, citrus, almonds, carrots, alfalfa, cotton, and roses.

The city gained fame in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the Bakersfield Sound, an electric guitar-driven subgenre of country music that commercially dominated the industry for more than a decade. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Dwight Yoakam were its best-known stars.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buck first recorded “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1972 and re-recorded it in 1988 as a duet with Dwight Yoakam, again hitting No. 1.

Opening in 1996, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace is a must-see for visitors to Bakersfield. The all-in-one restaurant, museum, and music venue spotlights the rich history of the Bakersfield Sound and the career of Buck Owens. The Palace is home to countless items of memorabilia from Owens’ early days to his time as co-host of Hee-Haw and his final years as a living legend. Until his passing in 2006 Owens would perform each weekend for fans that came from across the globe to pay homage to the star. 

Blue Bell Creamery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This way to the Little Creamery

Founded in 1907 as the Brenham Creamery Company, Blue Bell began operation making butter. In 1911, ice cream for local consumption began production. Ice cream distribution was limited to the small town of Brenham in the Brazos River country of south-central Texas about 70 miles west of Houston. As transportation improved, distribution expanded. The company name was changed to Blue Bell Creameries in honor of a Texas wildflower in 1930. A reproduction of one of the first route trucks, a 1932 Ford, sits outside company headquarters.

Blue Bell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rest is history! Blue Bell ice cream flavors are often the exciting grand finale to any celebration. The products are now sold in 22 states according to its website. That’s quite a change for a company that still promotes itself as a small town business selling a locally produced product. “We eat all we can and sell the rest,” one of the company’s favorite marketing slogans says.

Blue Bell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The century-old, Brenham-born brand offers a wide variety of ice creams, sherbets, and frozen snacks. Ice cream flavors include 25 classic year-round options like cookie two-step, mint chocolate chip, and pistachio almond. As well as rotational limited-time flavors like fudge brownie decadence, spiced pumpkin pecan, and confetti cake. And yes, I’ve tried them all!

Worth Pondering…

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

—Lewis Carrol

Visit Friendly Bakersfield, the Southern Gateway to the Central Valley

Bakersfield is considered the southern gateway to the Central Valley

Huge for the economy of California, Bakersfield is significant in production of the nation’s agriculture, as well as oil production. The County Seat of Kern County, Bakersfield is the ninth largest city in California and covers over 150 square miles in size and ranks as the 52nd largest city by size in the country, ahead of Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Bakersfield Gate © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bakersfield was founded on hospitality. In the mid-19th century, Col. Thomas Baker was known for offering travelers a place to rest in the area he settled. It was called “Baker’s Field.” By 1870, with a population of 600, Bakersfield was becoming the principal town in the area.

Bakersfield Gate © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oil is what drew people here at the turn of the century. It’s what kept the Okies here fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. And when they came—nearly doubling Kern County’s population—they brought their hillbilly music with them. Displaced and impoverished, they sang around campfires in work camps. They held dances in Farm Security Administration settlements. They opened cheap beer joints—later called honky-tonks—whose house bands began to play a different kind of country music: electric, danceable, swinging.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace with Bakersfield Gate © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Music became the region’s second natural resource. Performers such as Lefty Fizzell, Wynn Stewart, and Ferlin Husky ignited a national buzz around Bakersfield. The 1953 Jean Shepard/Ferlin Husky classic, “A Dear John Letter” marked the inauguration of the musical eminence that would define this town. It was the area’s first national hit.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right around this time, Buck Owens strapped on that Telecaster. He started out as the lead guitarist for Bill Woods’ Orange Blossom Playboys, the house band at a local honky-tonk called the Blackboard (which has since shut down). He hit sharper, more rock-and-roll lyrics than the sweet country tunes being over-produced in Nashville by Chet Atkins and performed on the Grand Ole Opry.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buck Owens moved from Texas (by way of Arizona) in 1950 when he was 20 and had dreams bigger than the truck-driving career he’d landed. And in 1969, Buck Owens hit his first Top 10 single, “Under Your Spell Again”. Three years later, he was off and running on his marathon of Number-Ones. Most significant, perhaps, he’s credited with giving rise to a new kind of country—the hard-driving, bare-bones honky-tonk style that came to be known as the “Bakersfield Sound“.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buck’s Bakersfield legacy is rivaled only by that of local boy Merle Haggard, who also started out by playing in honky-tonks when he wasn’t doing time. (Merle sings about these establishments—Blackboard, Lucky Spot—in “Bars of Bakersfield”.) Buck and Merle share that guitar-driven sound, a line-up of No. 1 hits, an ex-wife by the name of Bonnie Owens (herself a local singer of note) and a reverence for Bakersfield which reveals itself in many of their lyrics.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The difference is that Buck stayed here. He lived on a ranch 20 miles out of town while Merle moved up to Shasta County in the early 1980s.

The main exit of Highway 99 is now known as Buck Owens Boulevard. The old Bakersfield sign, once down on Union Avenue/Highway 99, now arches over Select Avenue adjacent to the Crystal Palace, a $6.7 million nightclub and restaurant opened by Buck in 1966. Buck bought the sign to save it from the wrecking ball. He also owned the main country music station, KUZZ.

Buck first recorded “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1972 and re-recorded it in 1988 as a duet with Dwight Yoakam, again hitting No. 1.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Bakersfield River Run RV Park, Orange Grove RV Park, Bakersfield RV Resort

Worth Pondering…

Streets Of Bakersfield
I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
I’ve spent a thousand miles a-thumbin’
Yes, I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better
Here on the streets of Bakersfield

—lyrics by Dwight Yoakam; vocals by Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam

Bakersfield Sound

In the 1950’s and 60’s Bakersfield became an unlikely birthplace for a new sound—The Bakersfield Sound

The city gained fame in the late 1950s and early ’60s for the Bakersfield Sound. The sub genre of country music—described as a mix of twangy guitars, drums, fiddle, and steel guitar—was a defiant reaction to the string orchestras and the polished sound of albums being recorded in Nashville during this time.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oil is what drew people here at the turn of the century. It’s what kept the Okies here fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. And when they came—nearly doubling Kern County’s population—they brought their hillbilly music with them.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Displaced and impoverished, they sang around campfires in work camps. They held dances in Farm Security Administration settlements. They opened cheap beer joints—later called honky-tonks—whose house bands bean to play a different kind of country music: electric, danceable, swinging.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Music became the region’s second natural resource. Performers such as Lefty Fizzell, Wynn Stewart, and Ferlin Husky ignited a national buzz around Bakersfield.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many musicians and entertainers were involved in making the Bakersfield Sound a global phenomenon, however none were more well-known than Country Music Hall of Fame members Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Both artists cut their teeth at the bars and honkytonks around Bakersfield before gaining international prominence.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Owens would go on to have a extremely successful entertainment career, charting 21 number one hits including “Act Naturally” and “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail.” Owens also spent nearly 17 years co-hosting the popular country-themed variety TV show Hee-Haw.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Haggard, in trouble with the law in his early days, rose to fame with songs like “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin Side of Me” among his 38 number one songs. Both artists have local streets named in their honor.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps the most popular artist aside from Owens to be influenced by the Bakersfield Sound is Dwight Yoakam. In 1988 Owens and Yoakam collaborated on “The Streets of Bakersfield,” a duet which became Yoakam’s first number one singles hit. Yoakam’s album, Dwight Sings Buck, is a tribute honoring the legacy of Owens and his lasting impact on country music.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Opened in 1996, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace is a must see for visitors to Bakersfield. The all-in-one restaurant, museum, and music venue spotlights the rich history of the Bakersfield Sound and the career of Buck Owens. The Palace is home to countless items of memorabilia from Owens’ early days to his time as co-host of Hee-Haw and his final years as a living legend. Until his passing in 2006 Owens would perform each weekend to fans that came from across the globe to pay homage to the star. 

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of today’s biggest country stars interrupt world tours to play the intimate 550-seat venue. Visitors can experience live entertainment  and dancing every Tuesday through Saturday night. The world famous Buckaroos entertain guests most Friday and Saturday evenings and occasionally are fronted by Buck’s son, Buddy Owens.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Palace is regularly nominated for Nightclub of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.  In 2005 country superstar Garth Brooks proposed to then country singer girlfriend Trisha Yearwood on the Palace stage.  

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a comprehensive history of the Bakersfield Sound, a visit to the Kern County Museum is essential for visitors. The permanent exhibit is located inside the main museum building and features costumes, instruments, and memorabilia related to country music in Bakersfield. 

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Bakersfield River Run RV Park, Orange Grove RV Park, Bakersfield RV Resort

Worth Pondering…

Streets Of Bakersfield

I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
I’ve spent a thousand miles a-thumbin’
Yes, I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better
Here on the streets of Bakersfield

—lyrics by Dwight Yoakam; vocals by Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam

Find the Unexpected in Bakersfield

We went to Bakersfield to tour the home of the Bakersfield Sound

It might make sense to begin a story about RVing to Bakersfield with a disclaimer or two. We do not know anyone in Bakersfield, no family members who invited their relative down for a visit. The motorhome did not break down as we were making our way to the Coachella Valley.

We went to Bakersfield for Bakersfield.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

And at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace just off Highway 99—a long, flat highway packed with cars and other RVers speeding to places perceived as bigger and better—we found ourselves among people who came to Bakersfield for the same reason we did: to tour the home of the Bakersfield Sound.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Crystal Palace is a country night club that was owned and operated by Buck Owens, a honky-tonk guitarist and singer who moved from Texas (by way of Arizona) in 1950 when he was 20 and had dreams bigger than the truck-driving career he’d landed. Like the oil town he’s helped enhance the reputation of, Owens suffers some misperceptions of his own.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Such as the one that his main contribution to the entertainment industry consists of his 17-year tenure as co-host of “Hee Haw”. There’s a whole lot more to Buck than those TV years joshing around with banjo player Roy Clark and a certain woman known for her dangling price tag.

The songs he made hit have been covered by the Beatles (“Act Naturally”) to Ray Charles (“Together Again”).

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Musicians including John Fogerty, Jerry Garcia, and Emmylou Harris have cited him as a major influence. His stretch of 15 consecutive No. 1 hits between 1963 and 1967 was unprecedented on country charts. Most significant, perhaps, he’s credited with giving rise to a new kind of country—the hard-driving, bare-bones honky-tonk style that came to be known as the Bakersfield Sound and spawned a fleet of successors, namely Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Buck opened his Crystal Palace, a $6.7 million nightclub and restaurant, in 1966. To be honest, the place is less palace than Disney-Does-The-Old-West. Outside, the peach-colored building is lined with signs like “Telegraph Office” and “Lulu’s Millinary”.

Inside, 646 seats at long tables surround a stage and scuffed dance floor.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Exhibit cases walk you through artifacts of Buck’s career from his 1966 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame to his Pontiac signed by Elvis Presley to a number of black-and-white glossies of Buck: There are signed photos from Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

Is there any other kind of music?

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Heck no—not as far as Bakersfield is concerned. Country music is the town’s trump card, the thing locals point to with pride when the rest of California dismisses their city as a good place to fuel up, maybe buy a coke and some fries and get back on the road.

Buck Owens Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace corrects the misconceptions about Bakersfield and eliminates the need for disclaimers of any kind. It memorializes not only Buck by Bakersfield’s music history, a history that runs rich as the oil beneath the thirsty-looking plains surrounding the town. The two are linked. Oil is what drew people here at the turn of the century. It’s what kept the Okies here during the depression years. And when they came—nearly doubling Kern County’s population—they brought their hillbilly music with them.

Bakersfield River Run RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

For RVers like us, Bakersfield is an excellent RV adventure destination with three 5-star, big-rig friendly RV parks and resorts.

Located one mile from the Crystal Palace, big-rig friendly Bakersfield River Run RV Park is a well-maintained facility with 123 sites including 31 pull-though and 46 river view (back-in) sites, wide paved streets, compacted gravel/sand sites, concrete patios, and large grassy area. 50/30/20-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV (84 channels) are centrally located. Wi-Fi internet works well from our site (#50); no problem locating satellite. Back-in sites to the Kern River are 65 footers. The park also has a recreation room with a fitness center, computer work stations, and laundry facilities. Ample shopping including Costco are located nearby.

Benji’s French Basque Restaurant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

On our way back to our home-on-wheels, we treated ourselves to some amazing food at Benji’s Basque Restaurant, conveniently located two blocks from River Run RV Park. Bakersfield is home to the largest collection of Basque restaurants in the U. S. Numerous Basque restaurants offer traditional Basque experiences, carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. A Basque meal is served family style with hearty courses and meat (often lamb) or seafood entree.

Benji’s French Basque Restaurant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

We ordered the Set Up and a excellent choice it was for our first Basque food experience. The soup, pinto beans, and salsa brought out to be mixed at the table in accordance with our wants was the first. The cabbage filled soup along with French bread was delicious. We were served the salad next. The fresh garden lettuce and sliced tomatoes were heartily dressed and delicious as was the pickled tongue.

Everything was delicious. We rolled out full of amazing food. Would visit this diamond again.

Worth Pondering…

Streets Of Bakersfield
Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me
You say you care less how I feel
But how many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
—lyrics by Dwight Yoakam; vocals by Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam