Road Tripping the West: Yosemite, June Lake, and the Extraterrestrial Highway Skip to Content

A Quirky Desert Road Trip: Yosemite, Tonopah, and the Extra Terrestrial Highway

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As part of our back-road adventures across the United States, we’ve toured some pretty amazing places, but most of our family agrees that some of our southwest road trips have been the most memorable, especially the trips that end up so far removed from the vision we start out with. One of our favorite road trips started out in Yosemite National Park, and took us on a strange and lonely adventure through June Lake, Tonopah, NV, the Extraterrestrial Highway, and Cathedral Gorge State Park. 

We had originally planned on spending a huge chunk of time camping and hiking in Yosemite, followed by a fast and furious drive through Nevada, and a leisurely saunter through Utah. Here’s how it played out in real life.

Yosemite National Park

The view from an overlook of Yosemite National Park

The view from one of the overlooks heading into Yosemite National Park

When we headed east from San Francisco, we were all excited to check out the grandeur of Yosemite, but the park had other plans for us.

One of the many parking-lot pull offs in Yosemite National Park

Looking back on the parking lot from a short foray into the wilderness of Yosemite.

Our first mistake? Not making reservations. Yes, I realize that Yosemite is one of the busiest national parks, but I had no idea that every single parking spot would be full. Or that the permits to hike on the trails would all be reserved. That the pristine mountain lakes would have the vibe of a shopping mall on Black Friday. We visited on a perfect summer weekend and decided not to fight the crowds. We’ll have to remedy that situation in the off season. We did get to see an awesome moonrise over Yosemite’s rock formations, which I didn’t capture on camera.

Rainbow Pool, CA

Yosemite Rainbow Falls and Pools

The falls and swimming hole at Rainbow Pools, just before Yosemite’s western entrance.

One of the highlights of the Yosemite portion of our road trip took place just before we reached the western entrance to Yosemite National Park. We followed a sign (as we’re known to do) off of Highway 120 to Rainbow Pool and Falls, and before we had time to think, we were immersing ourselves in a fabulous swimming hole with a picturesque cascade at one end. The photos don’t do it justice, but it is an awesome spot to cool off. There were plenty of people swimming and lounging, but I wouldn’t call it crowded, and we were there on a Saturday. It was totally worth the stop, and I hope we make it back there for another dip. You can read more about Rainbow Pool, and read some reviews on Sierra Nevada GeoTourism.

Once we were cool and refreshed, we headed into Yosemite National Park. We didn’t hike or camp because there was no where to park the car. We did stop at a few overlooks where we could find a parking spot. 

An overlook in Yosemite National Park

Hanging out at one of the overlooks at Yosemite National Park

I’d like to give Yosemite National Park another chance. I have heard so many awesome things about it, and I just need to follow my own advice and plan ahead!  After reading a review by Practical Wanderlust, I think I’d like to stay at Rush Creek Lodge, which looks like an awesome vacation getaway. I’ll keep you posted.

June Lake, CA

A view of June Lake and the mountains on a hot summer day

June Lake on a super hot summer day

Just east of Yosemite on route 158 is the little resort town of June Lake, CA. Like most of our favorite discoveries, this one was made with the help of a little road map that suggested good swimming. Since the temperatures were well over 100 ℉, swimming was our very first priority. Lucky for us — June Lake was painfully cold, incredibly blue, and surrounded by mountains, a most welcome surprise. We spent the day of course — swimming, sleeping, reading, and relaxing in the California sunshine. I’m not sure we’ll ever make it back there, but June Lake will live in my memory forever and always.

June Lake Camping

If you fall in love with June Lake like we did, spending an afternoon won’t be enough. The June Lake Campground is located right on the water (although the individual campsites are not), with easy access to a marina and swimming. From the campground you can hike into the Ansel Adams Wilderness, with stunning views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The June Lake Campground has just 27 sites, so it’s important to reserve ahead, especially on summer weekends. The elevation at the June Lake Campground is 7,600 feet, which makes for cooler nights than down in the valley, and also incredibly cold water for swimming. Picnic tables, fire rings, and bear lockers are available at each campsite.

Tonopah, NV

A field with distant mountains and a bright blue sky in Tonopah, NV

The road to Tonopah, NV

Onward into Nevada on route 6, characterized by flat grey desert, distant mountains, and not another vehicle in sight. Gas stations were few and far between. The radio was loud, and our son was feverish in the back seat. We kept the windows up to save ourselves from the desert heat. There were many times when I thought we were on another planet. When we pulled into Tonopah, NV in the late afternoon, we decided to find a motel. Rowan’s condition was deteriorating, and camping in the desert just didn’t seem like a good idea. Here’s what we learned while staying in the old mining town of Tonopah, NV:

  • Tonopah came into being when silver was discovered in 1900. It thrived for several years until the silver dried up and investors moved on.
  • Because Tonopah is strategically located between Las Vegas and Reno, it serves as a stopover for Nevada road trippers like us.
  • Tonopah has one of the darkest night skies around and is considered one of the best places in the country for stargazing. 
  • There’s a cool, 100-acre historical mining park where you can learn all about the silver-mining boom that put Tonopah on the map.
  • There are a few restaurants and a few motels, but don’t expect luxury. You really are in the middle of nowhere.

Welcome to The Clown Motel, Tonopah, NV

A lit-up sign of the Clown Motel in Tonopah, NV

Welcome to the clown Motel

The Clown Motel offices at night

The Clown Motel office

Right on the main drag in Tonopah, NV, the Clown Motel has history. We had no idea. It’s been featured on National Geographic, and more recently on Atlas Obscura. We didn’t think it was creepy at all, but I love quirky motels — and we had been sleeping on the ground for several months by the time we ended up here. The motel itself is two stories, with all the doors leading to the outside. Each room features a dancing clown on the door, two full beds, and dated furnishings and decor. There are several clowns in the lobby for your viewing pleasure, and the staff is very nice and accommodating. 

The entrance to the Old Tonopah Cemetery

The old Tonopah Cemetery is right next to the Clown Motel

The Old Tonopah Cemetery is located right next to the Clown Motel. The cemetery was “active” from 1901-1911 and features wooden gravestones and the graves of many of the original settlers, as well as 14 silver miners who died in a mine fire in 1911.

A wooden gravestone (Charles Smith) in the Old Tonopah Cemetery

Grave detail

The Extraterrestrial Highway

The lonely Extra Terrestrial Highway with mountains in the distance

The very lonely Extra-Terrestrial Highway

A single Joshua tree in the desert off the Extraterrestrial Highway

A lone Joshua tree on the Extraterrestrial Highway

We just couldn’t resist sidetracking on to the Extraterrestrial Highway (also known as Nevada State Route 375), just east of Nevada’s famous Area 51. It’s basically 98 miles through some of the most desolate desert terrain in the United States. Be sure to fill up the gas tank in Tonopah because you are heading into the Great Unknown. We drove for miles and miles and miles. The scenery never changed. We never saw another car, person, or animal.

The outside of the Little Ale Inn in Rachel, NV

The Little Ale Inn in Rachel, NV

A small picnic area with a UFO sculpture next to it in Rachel, NV

The picnic area outside the Little Ale Inn in Rachel, NV

And then, out of nowhere popped the Little Ale Inn (pronounced alien) and a town (that isn’t really a town) called Rachel. Surrounded by a few run-down mobile homes, this little dive pays homage to all things out-of-this-world: UFOs, aliens, and Area 51 are all discussed ‘round the bar, and there are even a few dusty souvenirs available. We loved it! Quirky charm in the middle of nowhere serving tourists who love that kind of thing. You’ve got to travel the road and visit the store. You’ll never forget it.

Cathedral Gorge State Park

After the long and lonely drive on the  ET Highway, we hopped on route 99, hoping to get to Utah’s border by nightfall. We only made it as far as Cathedral Gorge State Park because we fell in love. I won’t go into details here, because I wrote a whole post about it, but I will reiterate that this park has been my favorite state park in the United States for several years. It is a place I will go back to. Hopefully soon. Hopefully as a campground host if the powers-that-be approve.

The whole road trip from Yosemite to Cathedral Gorge took us three nights and two days. We drove the route on the hottest weekend in July. I think it would be better to travel through in April or September, but it was pretty awesome all the same.

Resources for Exploring Yosemite, Nevada, and the Extraterrestrial Highway

  • Where to Stay – While we almost always recommend camping, there are lots of lodging opportunities outside of Yosemite, in June Lake, and in Tonopah (in case you aren’t into clowns). We’ve had the best luck getting good lodging deals on Trivago. 
  • June Lake – If you’re passing through, June Lake, CA is worth spending a few days in, especially if you’re into fishing, hiking, and paddling. The June Lake Loop Chamber of Commerce is a great resource for events, lodging, shopping, and recreation opportunities.
  • Tonopah, NV – While we didn’t spend a lot of time in Tonopah, there’s lots to do here. For information about events and attractions, including the historic mining park and where to see the best night skies, visit the Tonopah, Nevada website.  
  • Cathedral Gorge State Park – We’ve got a review of our stay at Cathedral Gorge State Park here, but if you’re interested in reserving a campsite, visit the park’s official website. 

More Resources for Your California/Nevada Road Trip (click on the photo to learn more and check prices):

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 A three-day road trip through some of the west's most beautiful and quirky places. 3 days is all you need.Yosemite Half Dome, June Lake, and a UFO parking sign.

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