The colors and incredible rocks at Mono Lake draw you in. It is like no place I have ever visited. The rock formations are called Tufa towers which form in a variety of ways at Mono Lake. The most visible formations are the towers on the lake’s shoreline. The largest concentration of the tufa towers is located at the South Tufa grove just off of Hwy 120 East, at the south end of Mono Lake which is exactly where we stopped. For a place that was kind of desolate and unfriendly, the colors were gorgeous.
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Road Trip Out
Driving south from Reno, Nev., my then-fiancée and I were slightly anxious. We were on our way to the wedding of one of Kate’s best friends to a Patagonia-sponsored rock climber who had completed first ascents and other impressive feats throughout the world. Their wedding location was the famous Buttermilk Country bouldering area outside their hometown of Bishop, Calif., and the invitation had said to wear comfortable shoes and prepare for a hike. We knew their other friends were in the upper echelon of the climbing community, a veritable who’s who in a world we knew nothing about. We felt so pedestrian.
As we approached Mono Lake, these thoughts were still with us. I knew the lake was a natural wonder with some cool rock formations, but the sun was setting fast, and it just looked like a big, ordinary lake from SH 395. After some hesitation, we fortunately made the left turn onto the little park road that led to one of the most surreal landscapes we’ve seen.
We drove and power-walked straight to the tufa—or calcium-carbonate spires—that the lake is known for, and we were lucky to have brought headlamps in order to maximize our time. The place is unreal—especially in that dim, soft light, with the distinctive Sierra Wave cloud formation overhead and the surrounding snow-capped Eastern Sierra Nevada range.
After reflection, we were no longer tripping out about the wedding—and we knew exactly where our break would be during the 200-mile return trip to Reno.
This was a good day.
I went to Bodie ghost town first, visiting for the whole day. Fantastic. Best ghost town in the U.S., and absolutely fascinating.
I drove back down, eating fish tacos at the Mobil Station in Lee Vining by Vista Drive. I had no idea that this was such a popular hang-out for people coming or going to Yosemite, but it was filled with people hanging out, drinking beer, and talking about their climbs. The fish tacos were good, and I had the ranger at Schulman Grove to thank for this other tip. She had said, "We have a joke here...all the best restaurants in the Owens Valley are in gas stations." And so it had been again, with the pleasant surprise of having mango salsa on one of the fish tacos.
I continued south after the meal, this time heading to the popular South Tufas instead of the Castle Tufas I had photographed earlier. As expected, there were many photographers there, although most of them left right after sunset. I continued shooting, getting this beautiful dusk shot.
This long exposure photograph brought out the beautiful colors of dusk even though it looked really dark. There's this very small window of time in which long exposures seem to bring out the warm colors of dusk even though our eyes cannot really see it any more.
I met a lot of interesting people that day, and saw beautiful beautiful scenes that create memories that last a lifetime.
For Photographers, Birders, Geologists and Quiet Seekers...
Your first glimpse of Mono Lake may be of a bland expanse, save for one large mound in middle and a salt crust around edge, visible even from up high. The pastels of the scenery will stick with you, however: the bushes are a mix of pale yellow and rose set against the sage brushes, the water is a light turquoise, encircled by light pink sand, and the hills are a calm brown punctuated by “poofy”, little, dark green trees which dot the hills.
Lee Vining is infinitely skippable… four motels, Bogie Mike’ss BBQ, Nicely’s diner, and a couple of kitsch shops. That’s it. But if you are there to shoot the lake, it’s really the only place to be. The Lake View Lodge is a quintessential motel: I felt the need to pull back the cover on the bed before I sat on it, the water ran luke warm at best. I suppose I expected a bit more for $140. (The June lake loop and town just south are cuter).
Getting there: just over 1 mile south of Lake View Lodge is a turn off to Test Site road… it’s dirt, but the views in and out are stunning as you drive along the lake and finally see tufa (I never did learn the plural: tufae??).