Magical Mono Lake

Magical Mono Lake

Mono Lake in the Great Basin of the Eastern Sierras in California is a popular photography destination.  With the bizarre tufa formations, created from the accumulation of numerous minerals over thousands of years, and the backdrop of the Eastern Sierras, it presents many opportunities for the landscape photographer to explore.  Like many photo destinations in the area, it is not often photographed in the winter.  Since this was my first time to the lake, located near the town of Lee Vining, I was there more for scouting than to fulfill a particular photographic vision.  Having never been there before, it was hard to pre-visualize.

Mono Lake is considered one of the oldest lakes in North America, with an estimated age of somewhere between one and three million years.  High in alkaline content, the lake contains an unusual combination of chlorides, carbonates and sulfates.  It has fluctuated in depth over the years (current average depth is 57 feet),  but has steadily been losing water levels since 1941 when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting water from the lake to meet the water demands of California’s largest city.  As a result, the volume of the lake dropped while its salinity doubled.  The Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978 to bring legal, legislative and social pressure to bear in an effort to protect the lake, and its unique tufa features, from destruction.

Most of the tufa formations are located in what is called the South Tufa area, approximately a ten-minute drive from where we stayed at the Lake View Lodge in Lee Vining.  My first view of the tufas came by headlamp when Michelle and I hiked down to the lake from the parking area for the first time about a half hour before sunrise.  It was cloudy that morning, but return trips in the evening and next morning and evening produced some good results.  Temperatures were a bit chilly on the second morning; as the clouds cleared, the temperatures dropped to -11 F on the road, and a meager 3 degrees at the lake itself.

That raises a few points worth mentioning about visiting this part of California in the winter.  As we were driving north from Bishop after visiting Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery, we diverted to the community of Mammoth Lakes to refuel.  As we came into town, we noticed several vehicles pulled over in pullouts, parking lots and side streets so that drivers could position chains on their vehicle’s tires.  It was an interesting experience, as people generally don’t use chains on their tires in Alaska – we get to use studded tires in the winter.  But it brought to light the fact that this is winter in high elevations (7,000 to 8,000 feet) in the Eastern Sierras.  The area gets a lot of snow, and it can be cold.  Plus, businesses are generally closed.  When we stayed in Lee Vining, there was nothing really open other than the General Store and one restaurant, Nicely’s Diner.  I must say, though, we really didn’t need much more – Nicely’s turned out to have very well done American diner cuisine at really reasonable prices. 

But the drive through this stretch of Highway 395 exposed me to some incredibly inspiring scenery – I can see why Galen Rowell chose to make this part of California his home.  Michelle and I determined that another, longer trip to the region in the autumn would definitely be in our future.  Then we would also be able to explore Yosemite National Park from the east, an option not available in the winter as the mountain passes into the park from the east are closed in winter. 


Leave a Reply