Since my return to California in 2016 one of scenic highways I've traveled with the greatest frequency is California State Route 180 east of Minkler to Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. California State Route 180 is a stunning display of the western Sierra Nevada Mountains and traverses the heart of Kings Canyon.
The original date of publication for this article was in May of 2017. Since then I've frequented California State Route ("CA 180") numerous times and through several different seasons in the Kings Canyon region. That being the case the article will now feature photos from various seasons and different times ensure proper continuity. In addition several new sources of information regarding CA 180 through the Kings Canyon region has come to light.
CA 180 east of Minkler makes an accent into the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the Kings Canyon Highway to Grant Grove of Kings Canyon National Park. CA 180 is signed by the National Park Service within Grant Grove but is not actually State Maintained. CA 180 from Grant Grove travels 30 miles east through Sequoia National Forest to the bottom of Kings Canyon where it enters the Cedar Grove district of Kings Canyon National Park. From the Cedar Grove boundary of Kings Canyon National Park the road continues to the Road's End Trailhead near Bubbs Creek. As originally envisioned CA 180 would have followed Bubbs Creek to Kearsarge Pass and descended to Owens Valley via Onion Valley Road.
Part 1; the history of the Kings Canyon Highway and failed Trans-Sierra crossing by way of Kearsarge Pass
The modern history of the present Kings Canyon region of CA 180 begins in 1846 when a miner by the name of Hale Tharp became the first European to explore the Giant Forest Redwood Sequoia Grove of Sequoia National Park. Tharp established a cabin in and is said to have had friendly relations with the Native Tribes inhabiting the area. Tharp's experiences drew the interest of other European settlers which led to much of the western Sierra Nevada Mountains being opened to logging in 1865.
Advocacy groups began to call conservation of the Redwood Sequoia Groves of the western Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1870s. In 1872 a 160 acre logging claim was filed in what is now Grant Grove of Kings Canyon National Park by the Gamlin brothers. The Gamlin brothers constructed a cabin which they occupied until 1878.
In 1886 the Socialist Kaweah Colony was established on the North Fork Kaweah River with the intent to build a logging road into the Giant Forest. To the north The Kings River Lumber Company had been established in 1888 in the form of a 30,000 acre purchase of forest lands which known as "Millwood." The Kings River Lumber Company originally planned on constructing a railroad from Sanger to Converse Basin by the terrain of Kings Canyon proved too formidable of an engineering challenge. This led to the Kings River Lumber Company beginning construction on the 62 mile Sanger Log Flume which was complete months prior to the establishment of General Grant National Park and Sequoia National Park in mid-year 1890.
The Kaweah Colony and Kings River Lumber Company spurred further conservation efforts which led to the establishment of Sequoia National Park on September 25th, 1890 and General Grant National Park on October 1st, 1890. General Grant National Park consisted of what is presently the Grant Grove district of Kings Canyon National Park. General Grant National Park can be seen for the first time on the 1891 Thompson Map of Fresno County.
The Kings River Lumber Company's lumber yard can be seen at the corner of Academy Avenue and 11th Street in downtown Sanger on also on the 1891 Thompson Map of Fresno County.
Subsequent to the creation of Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park all logging operations within their boundaries were terminated. The Kaweah Colony continued lumber operations outside the National Park Boundary but ultimately the logging operation was shuttered in 1892. This led to the Colony Mill Road largely being abandoned despite it being well engineered with an 8% grade that was constructed with the prospect of a railroad in mind. In 1903 the Colony Mill Road was extended by 8 miles into the Giant Forest by the U.S. Army to facilitate wagon travel into Sequoia National Park.
To the north the interests of Kings River Lumber Company spurred development of a road network as far east to Millwood near what is now Sequoia Lake. Access to General Grant National Park was made east from Millwood via what came to be known as the Don Cecil Trail in modern times. The Don Cecil Trail continued east from General Grant National Park into Cedar Grove of Kings Canyon to a community known as Mehrtens (also known as Kanawyers). From Mehrtens a trail continued east along Bubbs Creek to the Kearsarge Mine and Onion Valley. On the 1911 Edward Denny & Company Map of Fresno County the original road to Millwood can be seen east of Dunlap following what is now; Dunlap Road, Millwood Road, and modern Sequoia National Forest Road 13S97 east towards Sequoia Lake.
The history of the State Highway System in the Kings Canyon region began in 1905 when Legislative Chapter 598 ordered the following:
"locating, surveying, and constructing a public highway from the General Grant National Park in Fresno County, thence E-ly into Kings Canyon"
Interests in a State Highway from General Grant National Park east to the floor of Kings Canyon seem to have been spurred by the Sanger Lumber Company (the 1892 renaming of the Kings River Lumber Company). The Sanger Lumber Company had been sold to an investor group led by Thomas Hume in 1905 who renamed it to the Hume-Bennett Lumber Company. The Hume-Bennett Lumber Company needed a storage facility for it's uncut strands of lumber and thusly sought to build a dam at Long Meadow east of Converse Basin. This new dam was the first multiple arch concrete design of it's kind and was completed by 1908. Said dam would impound what is now Hume Lake and led to a new flume being built. The new mill at Hume Lake along with the new flume segment following Ten Mile Creek can be seen in detail on the 1911 Edward Denny & Company Map of Fresno County.
In 1909 during Legislative Chapter 223 the State authorized the following:
"The highway now completely located and surveyed, and partially completed ... from the General Grant National Park to the floor of the Kings River Canyon is hereby made a state highway."
Legislative Chapter 223 effectively assumed control of a partially built road from General Grant National Park to the floor of Kings Canyon. The 1917 California State Automobile Association Map shows that this new State Highway essentially had only been constructed from General Grant National Park east to Hume Lake Road. Note; a road to General Grant National Park from Dunlap is shown following what is now Dunlap Road, CA 245, and CA 180 can also be seen.
The Kings River Highway appears on the 1918 Division of Highways State Map as a special appropriations road.
The February/March 1928 California Highways & Public Works shows a couple photos of a highway survey in Kings Canyon.
In 1933 the definition of LRN 41 was extended west from General Grant National Park to Tracy by way of Fresno. LRN 41 can be seen in with this definition for the first time on the 1934 Division of Highways State Map. LRN 41 is shown utilizing what is now CA 180, CA 245, Dunlap Road, and Kings Canyon Road west from General Grant National Park to the City of Fresno.
One of the more vexing mysteries of the early Sign State Route era is the planned route of California State Route 180 ("CA 180") over Kearsarge
Pass. The original Sign State Route definition of CA 180 announced in
the August 1934 California Highways & Public Works shows that it was
intended to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains to an eastern terminus at
Independence via Kings Canyon and Kearsarge Pass. CA 180 would have used LRN 41 east from Fresno into Kings Canyon but from Kearsarge Pass it's planned route did not match any planned State Highway.
Notably the October 1931 California Highways & Public Works
discusses a reconnaissance trip of the South Fork Kings River Basin via
Kearsarge Pass, Bullfrog Lake, and Junction Meadow to survey snow
courses. The article elaborates further by stating a cooperative survey
between the Division of Highways and Forest Service was in the works to
survey a route for a new highway through what are now Sequoia National Forest and Inyo National Forest.
Despite CA 180 clearly being intended in it's original definition to reach Independence the definition of LRN 41 was never extended east of Kings Canyon. This implies that any road from the Kings Canyon east over Kearsarge Pass to Independence would have been maintained by the Forest Service and Inyo County. Regardless several early Sign State Route era maps show CA 180 existing from near Kearsarge Pass east via Onion Valley Road to Independence (note; early Sign State Routes were signed by the Auto Clubs and not restricted to State Maintained Highways). CA 180 can be clearly seen on Onion Valley Road along with the planned connecting route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Kings River Canyon on the 1935 Goshua Highway Map of California.
Onion Valley Road can be seen under local control on the 1935 Division of Highways Map of Inyo County.
The November/December 1934 California Highways & Public Works details the construction of CA 180/LRN 41 through Horseshoe Bend. 74,450 pounds of explosives are cited to have been used to blast out a route for CA 180/LRN 41 in Horseshoe Bend.
The July 1936 California Highways & Public Works details the ongoing construction of CA 180/LRN 41 in Kings Canyon.
The July 1938 California Highways & Public Works details the almost complete CA 180/LRN 41 in Kings Canyon. The highway is shown completed to the vicinity of Boyden Caverns where the South Fork Kings River Bridge is seen under construction.
The October 1939 California Highways & Public Works displays the completed route of CA 180/LRN 41 on the cover from Horseshoe Bend.
The November 1939 California Highways & Public Works detailed the opening of CA 180/LRN 41 to Cedar Grove. CA 180/LRN 41 is cited to terminate at Deer Cove with a continuation eastward as a Forest Service Road to Road's End in Cedar Grove.
On March 4th 1940 General Grant National Park was expanded into what is
now Kings Canyon National Park. The new boundary of Kings Canyon
National Park annexed a great deal of National Forest lands north from
the boundary of Sequoia National Park towards the planned route of the
Piute Pass Highway (planned CA 168). It seems that the National Park
Service didn't have an interest in buildings a Trans-Sierra Highway via
the Kings River Watershed or allowing the Piute Pass Highway as both
routes more or less faded into obscurity. The newly expanded Kings
Canyon National Park can be seen for the first time on the 1940 Division of Highways State Map.
The May 1940 California Highways & Public Works notes that a new alignment north of Dunlap Road connecting directly from Squaw Valley to Kings Canyon National Park (still noted as General Grant National Park) was budgeted.
The John Muir Wilderness was established in 1964 which enhanced protections over existing National Forest Lands. The John Muir Wilderness was enabled by the Wilderness Act of 1964 which largely sought to stop highway development in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The John Muir Wilderness largely seems to have been an attempt to stop numerous planned Trans-Sierra Highways as it's boundaries cover the planned routes of:
- The original planned route of the Lone Pine-Porterville High Sierra
Road (CA 190) through Horseshoe Meadows and Mulky Pass.
- The previously planned route of CA 180 over Kearsearge Pass.
- The previously planned route of CA 168 over Piute Pass.
- The often proposed Minaret Summit Highway.
The boundaries of the John Muir Wilderness can be seen below:
Part 2; a drive on California State Route 180 from Minkler east to Cedar Grove
Modern CA 180 bypassed Centerville and Minkler via the Kings Canyon Expressway extension in August of 2019. CA 180 west previously passed through Minkler on Kings Canyon Road and crossed Byrd Slough.
Minkler was essentially a rail siding that was created back in 1920.
Back in the hey day of Minkler it was located at the junction of the
Wahtoke District Railroad and Porterville-Orosi District Railroad. The
Wahotke District Railroad used to travel north on the Kings River
towards Piedra which terminated at a local rock quarry. Both lines were
abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today there are only a couple structures in Minkler still inhabited. One of the older buildings on the south side of Kings Canyon Road is known as the Minkler Cash Store The photos of Minkler below are from 2018.
Pictured below was CA 180 on Kings Canyon Road east of Reed Avenue as it was in 2017 before it was bypassed. Note the scenic placard beneath the CA 180 shield.
The CA 180 Kings Canyon Expressway merges back into Kings Canyon Road east of Frankwood Avenue at Friant-Kern Canal at Postmile FRE 78.61. CA 180 eastbound enters the Sierra Nevada Foothills and passes by Mount Campbell. Mount Campbell was a way point on the 19th Century Stockton-Los Angeles Road.
CA 180 eastbound begins a steep climb from Cove Road to CA 63 at Postmile FRE 87.70.
The road east on CA 180 flattens out through Squaw Valley.
Approaching Dunlap Road/Old CA 180 (Postmile FRE 95.14) traffic is advised by way of large advisory sign the status of CA 180 and the Generals Highway in Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks.
CA 180 east of Dunlap Road passes by the noted attraction of Cat Heaven at Postmile FRE 97.491.
The 1941 alignment of CA 180 east of Cat Heaven begins to ascend quickly and has a vast view of Dunlap Valley to the south. At Postmile FRE 98.81 CA 180 eastbound enters Sequoia National Forest/Giant Sequoia National Monument. The boundary has a vista and lies at approximate elevation of 3,000 feet above sea level.
CA 180 eastbound ascends above 4,000 feet and intersects Millwood Road at Postmile FRE 104.08.
At Postmile FRE 108.12 CA 180 east intersects CA 245 at approximately 5,000 feet above sea level. CA 245 north of Dunlap Road as noted above is part of the original alignment of CA 180.
CA 180 east passes by Sequoia Lake at Postmile FRE 108.84. CA 180 east briefly enters Tulare County at Postmile FRE 109.52 but continues using Fresno County mileage. CA 180 crosses the 6,000 foot elevation mark near park entrance for the Grant Grove section of Kings Canyon National Park. The State Maintained portion of CA 180 east pauses at Postmile TUL 110.56.
CA 180 eastbound as noted above is signed by the National Park Service within Grant Grove. CA 180 east in Grant Grove interests the Generals Highway which continues south to Sequoia National Park and CA 198.
From the Generals Highway CA 180 east is signed as 2 miles from Grant Grove and 32 miles from Cedar Grove. CA 180 east passes by Wilsonia and the Grant Grove Visitor Center before intersecting the turn offs for Grant Grove and Crystal Springs Road.
The star attraction of Grant Grove is the Redwood Sequoia known as the General Grant Tree. The General Grant Tree is the second largest tree in the world (second to General Sherman Tree) by volume and has a 267 foot height. The General Grant Tree is thought to be 1,650 years old and was named in 1867. The General Grant Tree was named the Nation's Christmas Tree April of 1926.
The Gamlin Cabin can be found in Grant Grove. The Gamlin Cabin saw use as a U.S. Army Calvary storage house after the creation of General Grant National Park in 1890. After the creation of the National Park Service the Gamlin Cabin housed the first Park Ranger in General Grant National Park.
A tunnel log can be found in Grant Grove and be used as a connecting trail.
Crystal Springs Road becomes Panoramic Point Road and ascends to the namesake vista point. Panoramic Point sits above Park Ridge and overlooks Hume Lake and Kings Canyon.
CA 180 eastbound crosses Abbott Creek and Caltrans maintenance resumes at the edge of Grant Grove at Postmile FRE 112.09. CA 180 is signed as 28 miles from Cedar Grove.
At Postmile FRE 113.83 CA 180 eastbound crosses Cherry Gap. A vista of Converse Basin along with the scars of the 1955 McGee Fire can be seen along CA 180.
CA 180 east descends from Cherry Gap following the course of Indian Creek to Hume Lake Road at Postmile FRE 116.85.
CA 180 traffic east of Hume Lake Road is advised of 8 miles of downhill grades and that snow is not removed during nighttime hours.
CA 180 east emerges onto the watershed of Ten Mile Creek which opens up onto a massive vista of Kings Canyon.
CA 180 east drops below 5,000 feet above sea level and edges out onto the rim of Kings Canyon. At Postmile FRE 121.51 CA 180 east passes by the Junction View vista which overlooks the confluence of the Middle Fork Kings River and South Fork Kings River.
CA 180 east turns southbound and begins to loop back north at Postmile FRE 123.55 while crossing Ten Mile Creek. Above Ten Mile Creek a sign alerting drivers to "Ice Cream Ahead" can be found.
The ruins of Kings Canyon Lodge can be found at Postmile FRE 123.85. In 2015 the grounds of the Kings Canyon Lodge burned in a forest fire. The Lodge and gas station have not been rebuilt but a small temporary ice cream shop has been put in place.
The Kings Canyon Lodge in 2017 before any restoration efforts had taken place.
CA 180 east tracks north to rim of Kings Canyon and passes the Yucca Point Trail.
CA 180 eastbound turns east again from Yucca Point. A vista of the Middle Fork Kings River and South Fork Kings River can be seen near Yucca Point. CA 180 eastbound begins to follow the South Fork Kings River into Kings Canyon.
CA 180 eastbound turns northward at Redwood Creek.
In the Spring Redwood Creek runs as a waterfall above CA 180.
CA 180 east swings northward and drops further into Kings Canyon as it narrows approaching Horseshoe Bend. A vista of Horseshoe Bend can be found at Postmile FRE 128.96.
In 2017 there was four fatalities at Horseshoe Bend. In two unrelated accidents there was two vehicles that went over the barrier on CA 180 into the waters of the South Fork Kings River. One of the vehicles was so obscured by the rushing waters that it was only found when parts of a second car were discovered by mistake. The volume of water in the South Fork Kings River was far higher in 2017 due to the heavy winter.
CA 180 east drops to the South Fork Kings River and Boyden Caverns at Postmile FRE 130.12. The South Fork Kings River Bridge bears a date stamp of 1939 as it was the key final piece to the Kings Canyon Highway as described above.
CA 180 eastbound follows the South Fork Kings River and climbs above 4,000 feet above sea level.
At Postmile FRE 135.22 CA 180 east passes by the Grizzly Falls Picnic Area.
CA 180 east terminates at Postmile FRE 137.90 at the Cedar Grove District Boundary of Kings Canyon National Park. Kings Canyon Road continues eastward as a Park Service Road.
Kings Canyon Road east passes by the Lewis Creek Trail.
Kings Canyon Road eastbound crosses over the South Fork Kings River and intersects Cedar Grove Village.
Kings Canyon Road east Cedar Grove Village passes by the Don Cecil Trailhead. As noted above the Don Cecil Trail was the original foot path into Cedar Grove.
Kings Canyon Road east of the Don Cecil Trail passes by the Canyon View.
Kings Canyon Road eastbound passes by Knapp's Cabin. Knapp's Cabin was built in 1925 by George Owen Knapp, the founder of Union Carbide. Knapp's Cabin is the oldest remaining structure remaining in Cedar Grove.
Kings Canyon Road east of Knapp's Cabin crossing the Roaring River, a small trail accesses Roaring River Falls.
More regarding Kearsarge Pass, the Kearsarge Mining District, and former CA 180 on Onion Valley Road can be found in the article below.