All Articles Weekend in Visalia: the gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Weekend in Visalia: the gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Christine Sarkis
By Christine Sarkis6 Jun 2024 7 minutes read
Path leading between tall trees with mountains in the distance
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Image: BangkokSachse/Tripadvisor

There’s just something about Visalia. The small Central Valley city is best known as the gateway to sister parks Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks, but ask a local and you’ll discover it’s so much more.

Left: Robinson wearing sunhat and smiling outdoors; Right: Vargas smiling and wearing blue button-up shirt
Ashley Robinson (L), Nick Vargas (R)

Ashley Robinson, nursery manager and stewardship specialist at Sequoia Riverlands Trust, sums it up: “Visalia has a small-town feel but is still big enough to have so much to do. I also love how close we are to so many beautiful natural places while still having the amenities of living in town.”

Nick Vargas, Director of Development and Strategy at The Source LGBT+ Center, says “I appreciate that Visalia is an affordable place to live and visit, especially compared with similar cities in California.” He’s also happy that Visalia is becoming known as a safe and welcoming spot for all. “I’ve heard of LGBTQ+ people who are moving to Visalia because they believe it’s the best place to be an out queer person in the Valley.”

Late spring and early summer is a great time to visit. “The crops are growing, rivers are flowing, and we still see the snow capped Sierras,” says Vargas. Robinson adds “it's perfect for camping, swimming, and just being outside.”

This is from The WeekEnder series: local insider guides for new destinations throughout Southern California, delivered to your inbox twice a month. Sign up here!

Robinson’s favorite things to do around Visalia include strolling downtown, where “there are so many cute shops and great restaurants.” She also suggests visiting the area’s preserves. Two of the closest are Kaweah Oaksin Exeter and Dry Creek in Woodlake. “They’re both open every day,” she says.

Vargas has his own tips: Keep it simple when you’re packing and bring your active clothes. But you can leave the swanky stuff at home. “Nowhere will require anything fancy,” he says. Something you can’t do without though is a car. While downtown is walkable, you’ll need some wheels to get around other spots.

Ready to check out the small-town charm and big-time trees of Visalia and its nearby national parks? Here’s what to do, where to eat, and where to stay on your big weekend.

Christine Sarkis, SoCal’s Senior WeekEnder Guide

Things to do

From big trees to baseball.

Wooden walkway leading to buildings amid tall trees
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

For big-tree splendor, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park share a border (you can go from one to the other easily) but are two separate venues that are managed jointly. Sequoia was the nation’s second national park, and the first dedicated to protecting the giant sequoia. Next door, Kings Canyon is home to the country’s deepest canyon. Together, these national parks are underrated heavy hitters. Highlights include Sequoia’s giant sequoia groves (and notably, the famous General Sherman Tree), Kings Canyon Overlook, Crystal Cave, and Roaring River Falls. For even more epic tree spotting, head to nearby Giant Sequoia National Monument and the Trail of 100 Giants.

For a day out with a national park expert, Sequoia Sightseeing Tours

It’s not that you can’t drive yourself around these national parks and see a lot of the same things you’d see on a Sequoia Sightseeing Tour. It’s more that the trees can’t tell their own stories, and you get so much more out of the experience with the local knowledge of a guide. The mix of highlights and secret spots makes this an unforgettable day out, you get a picnic lunch in a beautiful spot, and since you’re being driven around, you don’t have to deal with the parking. It’s an all-around win.

For play time with the kids, ImagineU Children’s Museum

When younger kids have maxed out on national parks and tree time, bring them here. This hands-on educational museum lets little artists paint murals on glass walls and compose their own music. Kids can also play farmer and pack toy fruit at a make-believe farmers’ market, pretend to be mechanics working on play engines, or be budding scientists peering into microscopes. There are plenty of places to run wild here too, with indoor and outdoor areas plus a tree climbing structure with a long slide.

Left: Exterior of beige theater with large clock; Right: Baseball field with teams in red or blue uniforms standing for national anthem
Fox Theater (L), Rawhide Ballpark (R)

For a minor league baseball game, Rawhide Ballpark

“If the Rawhide is playing go watch a baseball game!” says Robinson. Inexpensive, easy, and fun is a magic combination at Visalia’s ballpark. The Visalia Rawhide are a minor league team affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the recently spruced-up stadium is a nice place to catch a game. There are more than two dozen home games this summer, and prices for tickets are in the $10 to $15 range.

For a fun night out, Fox Theater

Mariachi, movies, and tribute bands take the stage of Visalia’s Fox Theater this summer. The 1930s venue has funky murals that feel like entering an East Indian temple at night, complete with a sky full of glittering stars. The theater is downtown within walking distance of The Darling, Sequoia Brewing, and Vintage Press.

Where to eat and drink

A bit of everything, from brew pubs to supper-club steaks.

Rooftop with dining tables, couch, and views over city
The Elderwood

For relaxed brew pub vibes, Sequoia Brewing Company

If you’ve ever wished that fries were an acceptable side for tacos, you will feel truly seen here. Sequoia Brewing Company makes its own beer—order the sampler flight that features its award winning brews like General Sherman IPA. But it also goes big on menu items that boldly blend taqueria faves, gastropub standards, and biergarten snacks. So go ahead and say yes to fries and tacos, top that burger with a chile relleno, and dig into smoked sausage beer mac and cheese. The standard pub vibes get a local twist with the addition of walls decorated with images of the big trees you’ll find nearby.

For a rooftop brunch, The Elderwood

Do it up at the Darling Hotel’s rooftop restaurant. Inside, blue velvet banquettes and gold Art Deco detailing deliver a swanky end to a nature-fueled day. But when the weather is nice, nothing beats sitting out on the deck, where you can snack, sip, and enjoy the bird’s eye view of the city, forest, and mountains. For a true Sunday treat, the brunch menu is packed with irresistible options like chilaquiles, glazed salmon BLT, and biscuits and gravy; along with brunch-ready cocktails like tropical mimosas, bloody marias, and dirty(er) chai. For dinner, Vargas recommends making a reservation for a meal during sunset, which “will give you an incredible view while dining.”

For creative quesadillas and local beer, Quesadilla Gorilla

Can gorillas even eat cheese? That’s beside the point at Quesadilla Gorilla, a Central California mini-chain that takes you on a wild ride into all the ways cheese and tortillas can be dressed up. Fillings like cilantro-lime chicken, pork chile verde, fajita veggies give quesadillas serious main course energy. For something a little sweet, there’s a nutella quesadilla dusted with powdered sugar. Visalia’s Quesadilla Gorilla is a super casual spot with a bit of sidewalk seating, and works well whether you’re just looking to grab some takeout or want a quick bite.

For a steak-and-martinis sort of night, Vintage Press

Picture a retro spot has box-beam ceilings, elaborate vintage murals, stained-glass details, and super-club vibes. That’s Vintage Press—the perfect place for a martini and steak or champagne and oysters. The drink menu is outstanding, with wines plus vintage spirits and cocktails. If you time your visit right, you can sign up for a Recipe Club lunch or dinner: it’s part cooking demonstration, part cooking conversation, and includes a set menu paired with wine.

Outdoor patio with seating under umbrellas
Component Coffee

For lattes and breakfast delights, Component Coffee Lab

With its cool digs in the city’s historic Planing Mill building, Component is like an exposed-brick and Scandi-chic dream complete with caffeine and avocado toast. Robinson recommends it as a great local coffee shop, and the perfect spot to stop for a quick java boost—you can choose from drip, flash brewed, or espresso drinks. Check the case for fresh house-made pastries like brioche donuts, or grab a seat and settle in for a breakfast burrito. Either way it’s a strong start to an action-packed day.

Places to stay

Camp out by the park or stay in the heart of downtown.

Exterior of four-story off-white hotel
The Darling Hotel

For a super local boutique hotel with a great story, The Darling Hotel

Darling? Definitely. A few years back, part of Visalia’s former courthouse—a cool but languishing Art Deco building—was lovingly transformed by five local families into a boutique hotel. The result is a 32-room jewel box of a spot that beautifully blends historic details and modern amenities. If you go, make time to hang at the hotel and enjoy the heated pool and the rooftop restaurant Elderwood. Bonus: its national parks package comes with a cute bag of everything you’ll need for your outdoor adventure—water, local snacks, and some insider tips for making the most of the parks.

For a comfortable night you can pay for with points, Hampton Inn Visalia

With Hampton Inn, you know what you’re going to get (and if you’re a Hilton Honors member, you can get it with points). The 88-room hotel is just off Highway 198, a few miles from downtown, but is on a free trolley line that connects you with local attractions. Daily hot breakfast, a swimming pool, and Wi-Fi are all part of the nightly rate, and the hotel has connecting rooms for families and bigger groups. There are also EV charging stations in the parking lot.

For rustic lodge vibes super close to the national park, Buckeye Tree Lodge & Cabins

OK, this one isn’t technically in Visalia, but it does split the distance between the city and Sequoia National Park so it’s worth a mention. This nature-forward spot in the woods—just along the banks of the Kaweah River—has an easy breezy mix of lodge rooms, cottages, and cabins, plus one larger three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. There’s a yoga studio, a spa, and a pool on the property, and it’s all just a quarter mile to the entrance of the national park. It’s a good spot if nature is top of your list and you don’t mind being a drive away from restaurants and towns.

For a location close to Visalia’s attractions, Holiday Inn Express Visalia

Clean and modern but not too fancy, Holiday Inn Express Visalia gets extra points among Tripadvisor users for its friendly and efficient service. It’s just across the street from the Visalia Adventure Park, so it's a particularly good fit for families with older kids or teens who might want a go-kart or mini-golf break from all that nature. Breakfast, a good size pool, and a fitness room make a stay easier and more comfortable, and IHG One Rewards loyalty club members score points with each night.

Two-story wooden-shingle lodge set amid trees and bushes
Wuksachi Lodge

To spend the night right in the park, Wuksachi Lodge

If you’re 100% in on the national park experience, staying in one of the parks is a smart choice. Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park is extra close to park superstars like the General Sherman Tree and Moro Rock. The rooms in this appropriately woodsy stone-and-cedar lodge are what I’d call national park practical: a definite step up from rustic but more functional than fancy. The hotel has its own full-service restaurant plus a fast-casual pizza deck, along with a retail shop. Heads up that while there is Wi-Fi, it’s limited and only available in certain parts of the hotel. So adjust expectations accordingly.

Christine Sarkis
Christine Sarkis is a travel writer and parent. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, SmarterTravel, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine.