Exploring the High Sierra and Nevada while discovering a stunning national park you never heard of…

Relief Reservoir is a brisk 2.5 mile hike above Kennedy Meadows Resort in the Sierra.

Beat the Valley heat; exploring the High Sierra and Nevada while discovering a stunning national park you never heard of along America’s “loneliest road”…

Author's grandson Jack at Columns of the Giants in the Kennedy Meadows area.

We’re headed for a hot summer in the San Joaquin Valley. If you’re looking for a way to beat the heat, find cool, scenic and high-mountain camping, as well as discover a stunning national park you’ve never heard of – here’s a week’s adventure just right for summer.

Our route will take you up Highway 108 to the Kennedy Meadows area in the Sierra, two hours from Stockton, then continue across the loneliest road in America, US Hwy. 50, to Nevada’s east side and Great Basin National Park.

Both the High Sierra and Great Basin National Park received heavy snow and rain deep into spring so they’re green and cool compared to anything around Stockton. Both offer lightly-visited campgrounds, affording scenic campsites even during the rush of summertime vacations.

On the first day, head east out of Stockton, taking Highway 108 past Pinecrest lake – you can stop for a swim at the iconic lake, and continue 25 miles east where you’ll find a chain of a baker’s dozen forest service campgrounds, first come, first serve, in the area around Kennedy Meadows.

Horses take back-packers into the area around Relief Reservoir and Kennedy Meadows.

Kennedy Meadows Pack Resort offers overnight lodging and a nice restaurant; just beyond, a several mile hike will take you to Relief Reservoir, cobalt blue at 7500 feet elevation. Our favorite campground in the area, Clark’s Fork Campground on the river of the same name, is also just a few miles south of The Carson-Iceberg Wilderness area for exhilarating treks to virtually untouched Sierra vistas at 8000 feet and above.

Along Hwy. 108 you’ll find the mighty Dardanelles, sentinel mountains to the north of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River and Dardanelle Resort, with restaurant open Friday, Saturday and Sunday and lodging options. Nearby, stop at Columns of the Giants; where a quarter mile hike on an easy trail accesses the base of this natural wonder, where lava flows cooled thousands of years ago, creating vertical, towering basalt columns which almost defy imagination.

Spend a few days luxuriating in the beauty and cool temperatures of the High Sierra, then continue on Highway 108, down the Eastside and find your way to Highway 50, long described as the loneliest road in America as it crosses Nevada. We have now covered this route close to a dozen times, and, with each trek, we find new points of interest and natural beauty to be admired.

Eureka's historic Opera House along Hwy. 50.

Crossing Nevada on Hwy. 50, spend the time to admire old pioneer towns like Carson City (the state’s capital), Eureka and its historic Opera House, Grimes Point, with petroglyphs and etchings by ancient Northern Paiute peoples, the remains of New Pass Station, an old stagecoach stop in this wild country and a Pony Express station that prospered in the short life of the Pony Express.

Your reward some 270 miles from Sonora Pass for crossing Highway 50 to the eastern side of Nevada is Great Basin National Park, stunning in its beauty and particularly alluring with its Lehman Cave. The park is so lightly-visited you can find campsites during the summer, by reserving in advance or arriving early.

Great Basin's Wheeler Peak, over 13,000 feet, with ancient Bristlecone Pine forest in foreground.

Compared to Yosemite, with over 3.5 million annual visits, Great Basin gets just over 100,000 visitors. With few tourists its beauty is almost untrammeled; home to Nevada’s second tallest peak, Wheeler Peak at 13,063 feet, the park offers scores of hiking trails including several through ancient forests of Bristlecone Pine. The park offers a full palette of desert, sagebrush, fir and pine, jack rabbits, mule deer, mountain lions and darkest of night-time, starlit-skies.

The park’s Lehman Cave, one of the most spectacular caves in the western United States, offers underground tours that will delight the youngest to oldest travelers. Ranger-guided tours take you 1500 feet into the mountain side, past still stalactites, stalagmites, shields and otherworldly formations in its impressive rooms, grottoes and tunnels.

Ranger prepares to lead tour group into Lehman Cave in Great Basin National Park.

We typically camp several nights at Upper Lehman Creek Campground, green and pretty at 7700 feet where sunny and warm days can drop to chili evenings down to the low 40s. The park offers additional campgrounds including another higher on the mountain, at over 9000 feet.

How to get there: From Stockton, Hwy. 4 to Copperopolis, then the O’Byrne’s Ferry Road south to CA Hwy. 108, then east past Sonora (the largest town, for provisioning), past Pinecrest and to the Kennedy Meadows/Sonora Pass area. From Stockton to Kennedy Meadows Resort, it’s 120 miles and about 2.5 hours. For Great Basin, continue on Hwy. 108 across the Sierra, then go north on Hwy. 395 to connect to Hwy. 50 at Carson City, then Hwy. 50 east.

For more info: In the Dardanelles/Kennedy Meadows area, you will find almost a dozen campgrounds along the Stanislaus and Clark Fork Rivers, contact Stanislaus National Forest, fs.usda.gov/stanislaus/, or the Summit Ranger District, 1 Pinecrest Lake Road, Pinecrest, CA 95364; (209) 965.3434; for Kennedy Meadows Resort, 209.965.3900; for Loneliest Road in Nevada highlights, TravelNevada.com; for Great Basin National Park, nps.gov/grba, address, 100 Great Basin National Park, Baker, NV 89311, phone (775)234-7331. Campingcan be booked in the park through www.recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

Huge stalactites, stalagmites are plentiful throughout Great Basin National Park's Lehman Cave!

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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