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Camping in California's Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks

Special to The Los Angeles Times

After a five-hour haul up to Sequoia National Park with a tent and cooler stuffed for a weekend camping sojourn in big-tree country, you wouldn't dream of pulling into Lodgepole campground at dusk without a reservation.

More than 200 chock-a-block campsites occupy this unofficial Mission Control for car campers in one of the country's most popular parks. And on a warm evening in late summer, with the world's largest tree hulking just minutes down the road and a 20% chance of isolated thunderstorms hovering somewhere above the western Sierra, you can bet that every one of them will be occupied by a friendly family grilling slabs of meat under a dome of cloudless sky.

"We're booked here for three more days," says a neighbor at site No. 132, a dad from Whittier dabbing barbecue sauce on food grilling about 20 feet from my tent.

The Whittier gang's up here for a family reunion and has already checked off just about everything that needs to be seen in downtown Sequoia. "Tomorrow, we all may head over to Kings Canyon for the day. It's a bit of a drive, but I hear it's pretty nice over there too."

It's a common strategy among Lodgepole weekenders. Explore by day, perhaps even into Sequoia's not-quite-as-famous next-door neighbor, Kings Canyon National Park (which gets about half the visitors Sequoia does), before bee-lining back to a cramped but safely reserved square of numbered earth in the area's busiest hub -- home to the Lodgepole Visitor Center, a Giant Forest Museum, the 2.7-million-pound, 2,100-year-old General Sherman Tree (reputedly the world's largest living organism by volume) and the only two campgrounds in either park that take reservations.

Booking your first night ahead in a place that receives 1.6 million annual visitors isn't a bad idea, especially on a weekend during high season.

But after an evening at Lodgepole campground, wedged among a family reunion, an RV or three and a lone silhouette with a guitar singing "Candle in the Wind" into the late hours, one might be swayed the following morning to throw all caution (campsite reservations) to the wind and see what else is available farther up Generals Highway.

A 45-minute drive away, there they are: a trio of quieter, nicer campgrounds in Kings Canyon's Grant Grove, none of which can be reserved. You just have to show up at Sunset campground (157 sites), Crystal Springs (36 sites, no RVs) or Azalea (110 sites) and stake your claim. Usually, that's not too difficult.

"On holiday weekends and at certain times in the summer, those can fill up too," says Alexandra Picavet, public information officer for the two parks.

"But, in general, finding a site in Grant Grove -- and certainly Cedar Grove [30 miles past Grant Grove] -- is easier than at the two campgrounds in Sequoia that take reservations. And if you're planning on spending some time in Kings Canyon too, which I highly recommend, it saves all that time doubling back."

On a weekend morning under a cloudless sky, all three Grant Grove campgrounds are dotted with vacancies far more alluring than the car-camping convention at Lodgepole.

In Azalea, the prettiest of the three, a circuitous road winds past several good options before reaching site No. 59, that night's choice -- a semi-hidden nook tucked among some rock mounds, a wall of lanky pines and an empty forested valley blanketed in gargantuan pine cones.

There are no RVs or family reunions in immediate view. No late-night guitar strummers within earshot.

If you don't happen to have reservations already, it may be exactly what you were looking for.

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