North America’s second-oldest lake is 70 sq miles, and a quiet and mysterious expanse of deep blue water. The glassy surface reflects jagged Sierra peaks, young volcanic cones and the unearthly tufa (too-fah) towers that make the lake so distinctive. Jutting from the water like drip sandcastles, tufas form when calcium bubbles up from subterranean springs and combines with the lake's carbonate waters.
There's more to see here than just Mono Lake itself and the dramatic tufas, however. The area around Mono Lake is full of other treasures and intriguing landscapes. The spine of the Mono Lake region, Hwy 395, has turnoffs into the mountains to the west or the high desert to the east. No matter which direction you choose, Mono Lake's unique and almost meditative profile beckons.
For a time warp back to the gold-rush era, swing by Bodie, one of the West’s most authentic and best-preserved ghost towns. Virginia Lakes and Lundy Lake provide quick access to backcountry wilderness trails, as does the June Lake area. Even the drives here are magnificent, passing through deep canyons with steep mountain slopes rising ahead. The best place for swimming in Mono Lake is at Navy Beach, off Hwy 120. It’s also the best place to put in canoes or kayaks.
For a bit of old west and art buff history, head to the Mono Inn. A restored 1922 lodge owned by the family of photographer Ansel Adams, this elegant yet casual lakefront restaurant makes everything from scratch and has correspondingly delectable lake views from inside and out. Stop in for the occasional live band on the creekside terrace. Located about 5 miles north of Lee Vining. Call reservations as opening hours are subject to change.
The South Tufa area
In Roughing It, Mark Twain described Mono Lake as California’s ‘dead sea.’ Hardly. The brackish water teems with buzzing alkali flies and brine shrimp, both considered delicacies by dozens of migratory bird species that return here year after year. So do about 60% of the state’s population of California gulls, which nest on the lake’s volcanic islands in spring and summer. The best way to see them is around the South Tufa area.
Peculiar-shaped tufa spires ring shimmering Mono Lake; the biggest grove is on the southern rim, with a mile-long interpretive trail. Visit at dusk (on wind-free days) for the most awesome scene – the surrounding mountain ranges are mirrored in the perfectly still surface. Ask about ranger-led tours and talks. Note that climbing on the tufas destroys them and is prohibited, as is collecting pumice or obsidian. To get to the reserve, head south from Lee Vining on Hwy 395 for 6 miles, then east on Hwy 120 for 5 miles to the gravel road leading to a parking lot. Pay via the honesty box.
Rising above the southern shore of Mono Lake, 640-year-old Panum Crater is the youngest, smallest and most accessible of the string of craters scattered south toward Mammoth Mountain. A panoramic trail circles the crater rim (about 30 to 45 minutes), and a short but steep ‘plug trail’ puts you at the crater’s core.
A dirt road leads to the trailhead from Hwy 120, about 3 miles east of the junction with Hwy 395. In some weather, skilled driving or a 4x4 may be recommended for the dirt road. Alternatively, walk to the crater.
The Black Point Fissures
On the north shore of Mono Lake are the Black Point Fissures, narrow crags that opened when a lava mass cooled and contracted about 13,000 years ago. Access is from three places: east of Mono Lake County Park; from the western shore off Hwy 395; or south off Hwy 167. Check at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center for specific directions.
Despite the foreboding name, Convict Lake is one of the prettiest in Mono County, fed by Convict Creek and just a couple miles from Highway 395. Like other glacier-carved lakes in the area, the trout fishing is sublime and any hikes you embark on will be framed by the hard angles of the Sierra Nevada, including Mount Morrison.
Part of Convict Lake's enduring appeal has nothing to do with outdoor recreation or scenery, however. It gets its evocative moniker not from the Paiute's name Wit-sa-nap (where the tribe believed childlike fish spirits dwelled), but from an 1871 shootout that followed a Carson City prison break. It's perhaps not surprising that with a historic pedigree like that and the epic landscape, Convict Lake has been the filming site of three different Westerns, including 1951's The Secret of Convict Lake.
After Conway Summit, Hwy 395 twists down steeply into the Mono Basin. Before reaching Mono Lake, Lundy Lake Rd meanders west of the highway for about 5 miles to Lundy Lake. This is a gorgeous spot, especially in spring, when wildflowers carpet the canyon along Mill Creek, or in fall when the landscape is brightened by colorful foliage. Before reaching the lake, the road skirts first-come, first-served Lundy Canyon Campground. At the end of the lake there’s a ramshackle resort on the site of an 1880s mining town, plus a small store and boat rentals.
Past the resort, a dirt road leads into Lundy Canyon; after 2 miles, it dead-ends at the trailhead for the Hoover Wilderness Area. A fantastic 1.5-mile hike follows Mill Creek to the 200ft-high Lundy Falls. Industrious beavers define the landscape along the trail, with gnawed aspens scattered on the ground and a number of huge dams barricading the creek. Ambitious types can continue on via Lundy Pass to Saddlebag Lake and the Twenty Lakes Basin, though the final climb out of the canyon uses a rocky and very steep talus chute.
Note: Lundy Lake Rd can be snow covered in winter and impossible to pass.
South of Bridgeport, Hwy 395 gradually arrives at its highest point, Conway Summit (8143ft), where you’ll be whipping out your camera to capture the awe-inspiring panorama of Mono Lake, backed by the Mono Craters, and June and Mammoth Mountains.
Also at the top is the turnout for Virginia Lakes Road (usually closed in winter), which parallels Virginia Creek for about 6 miles to a cluster of lakes flanked by Dunderberg Peak (12,374ft) and Black Mountain (11,797ft). A trailhead at the end of the road gives access to the Hoover Wilderness Area and the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail continues down Cold Canyon through to Yosemite National Park. With a car shuttle, the excellent 10.5-mile hike to Green Creek visits a bevy of perfect lakes; an extra mile (each way) takes you to windswept – check out the mammoth tree blowdown! – Summit Lake at the Yosemite border.
If camping ins't your speed, head to the 1923 Virginia Lakes Resort, which has snug cabins (accommodating two to nine people, usually with at least a three-day minimum stay) with kitchens, a cafe and a general store selling tackle, bait and groceries. Ask about maps and tips about specific trails open seasonally between May and October and fishing spots. It's at the end of Virginia Lakes Rd fronting Little Virginia Lake. Nearby, Virginia Lakes Pack Outfit offers horseback-riding trips.
The June Lake Loop
Under the shadow of massive Carson Peak (10,909ft), the stunning 16-mile June Lake Loop (Hwy 158) meanders through a picture-perfect horseshoe canyon, past the relaxed resort town of June Lake and four sparkling, fish-rich lakes: Grant, Silver, Gull and June. It’s especially scenic in fall, when the basin is ablaze with golden aspens. Catch the loop a few miles south of Lee Vining.
June Lake is backed by the Ansel Adams Wilderness area, which runs into Yosemite National Park. Hiking and horse-riding trips into the backcountry are as impressive as any in the Sierra Nevada. Mellow June Mountain Ski Area is good for beginners; Mammoth lift passes can be used here. Rush Creek Trailhead has a day-use parking lot. Gem and Agnew Lakes make spectacular day hikes, while Thousand Island and Emerald Lake (both on the Pacific Crest/John Muir Trail) are stunning overnight destinations.
Boat and tackle rentals, as well as fishing licenses, are available at five marinas and Ernie's Tackle & Ski Shop in town. For the most idyllic swimming spot head to June Lake Swimming Beach; in winter it makes for a pretty (if, not chilly) picnic spot.
Eager anglers line the shoreline of Twin Lakes, a gorgeous duo of basins cradled by the fittingly named Sawtooth Ridge. The area’s famous for its fishing – especially since some lucky guy bagged the state’s largest ever brown trout here in 1987 (it weighed in at a hefty 26lb). Lower Twin is quieter, while Upper Twin allows boating and waterskiing. Other activities include mountain biking and, of course, hiking in the Hoover Wilderness Area and on into the eastern, lake-riddled reaches of Yosemite National Park.
The main trailhead is at the end of Twin Lakes Rd (closed in winter), just past Annett’s Mono Village; parking costs $10 per vehicle for a stay of up to one week (you have to arrive/pay during operating hours: 8am to 5pm). From here, hikers can set off along Robinson Creek for adventures in the stunning Hoover Wilderness and overnight backpacking trips (wilderness permit required; can be applied for at Bridgeport Ranger Station & Visitor Center) into northeastern Yosemite.
The day hike to lovely Barney Lake (8 miles round trip) takes in magnificent views of jagged granite spires in Little Slide Canyon – where rock climbers detour to scale a fierce wall called the Incredible Hulk – and steep boulder rockslides on the ridge to the north.
For a hike with great views of Twin Lakes, go south from Annett's on the Horse Creek trail, which soon leads to the cascades of Horsetail Falls. It continues up to skirt the wilderness boundary and then descends back to Twin Lakes on the Cattle Creek trail. Loop back along the lake for 7.5 miles in total. In Dharma Bums, Beat author Jack Kerouac describes an ascent he made from Horse Creek Canyon to nearby Matterhorn Peak (12,300ft) with poet Gary Snyder.
Highway 395 skirts the western bank of Mono Lake, rolling into the gateway town of Lee Vining, where you can eat, sleep, gas up (for a pretty penny) and catch Hwy 120 to Yosemite National Park when the road’s open. A superb base for exploring Mono Lake, Lee Vining is only 12 miles (about a 30-minute drive) from Yosemite’s Tioga Pass entrance. Lee Vining Canyon is also a popular location for ice climbing.
The Upside-Down House, a kooky tourist attraction created by silent-film actress Nellie Bly O’Bryan, is worth a quick look. Originally situated along Tioga Rd, it now resides in a park in front of the tiny Mono Basin Historical Society Museum. The museum itself displays old farming equipment, artifacts, furniture, maps and photographs that document the history of the area. To find it, turn east on 1st St and go one block to Mattley Ave.
Gold was first discovered here in 1859, and within 20 years Bodie grew from a rough mining camp to an even rougher boomtown with a population of 10,000 and a reputation for unbridled lawlessness. Fights and murders took place almost daily, the violence no doubt fueled by liquor dispensed in the town’s 65 saloons, some of which did double duty as brothels, gambling halls or opium dens. The hills disgorged some $34 million worth of gold and silver in the 1870s and '80s, but when production plummeted, so did the population, and eventually the town was abandoned to the elements.
At Bodie State Historic Park, a gold-rush ghost town is preserved in a state of 'arrested decay.' Weathered buildings sit frozen in time on a dusty, windswept plain. Peering through the windows of the 200 weather-beaten buildings, you’ll see stocked stores, furnished homes, a schoolhouse with desks and books, and workshops filled with tools. The jail is still there, as are the fire station, churches, a bank vault and many other buildings.
To get here, head east for 13 miles (the last 3 miles are unpaved) on Hwy 270, about 7 miles south of Bridgeport.
Barely three blocks long, set amid an open high valley and in view of the peaks of Sawtooth Ridge, Bridgeport flaunts classic Western flair with charming old storefronts and a homey ambience. Almost everything shuts down or cuts back its hours for the usually brutal winters, but the rest of the year the town is a magnet for anglers, hikers, climbers and hot-spring devotees.
In an 1880 schoolhouse, the Mono County museum has mining artifacts on display from all the local ghost towns, plus a room of fine Paiute baskets. Only open during summer. Or head to the Mono County Courthouse, where the gavel has been dropped since 1880. This all-white Italianate dreamboat structure is surrounded by a gracious lawn and a wrought-iron fence. On the street behind it, look for the Old County Jail, a spartan facility fashioned with iron latticework doors and stone walls 2ft thick. Inmates overnighted in its six cells from 1883 until 1964.
Visiting Mono Lake
Eastern Sierra Transit Authority runs buses all along Hwy 395 between Lone Pine and Reno, NV ($59, six hours), with stops in Mammoth Lakes, Lee Vining and Bridgeport (fares between stops vary). The bus runs once a day in either direction between Monday and Friday.
At a junction with Hwy 395 in Lee Vining, Hwy 120 rises dramatically to the Tioga Pass and the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park.
Bodie is about 13 miles east of Hwy 395 via Rte 270; the last 3 miles are unpaved. Although the park is open year-round, the road is usually closed in winter and early spring, so you’d have to don snowshoes or cross-country skis to get there. Area visitor centers will help you to identify other road closures in the area. As a general rule, small roads will not be plowed throughout winter and will reopen after the snow has melted in the spring/summer.
Camping near Mono Lake
Campgrounds aren't in short supply in the region, especially around the June Lake Loop, where you'll also find a number of rustic resorts and inns. Lee Vining is popular as a gateway to Yosemite National Park.
First-come, first-served Lundy Canyon Campground, near Hwy 395, has 37 sites and vault toilets; there's also unfiltered water (boil or treat it before you consume it). The campground is maintained and operated by the Mono County Department of Public Works.
Perched atop a hill at 10,000ft and overlooking the reservoir, Saddlebag Lake Campground is a favorite with anglers. All 20 sites are small and well kept and some have splendid views over the lake. No reservations. Has drinking water and vault toilets.
Trumbull Lake Campground offers shady sites among lodgepole pines. Amenities include vault toilets, drinking water, campfire rings, picnic benches and bear lockers.
The Sawmill walk-in site is one of the most scenic established campgrounds in the entire Sierra Nevada, Sawmill offers 12 sites on the edge of the beautiful Monroe Hall Research Area (day hiking only). It’s about a quarter-mile walk to the campground. Vault toilets; no water source other than a nearby creek. No reservations.