Exploring Mono Lake – Gateway to Yosemite
When planning the itinerary for our visit to Yosemite National Park, we decided split our time between the east side and the west side. The west side, specifically the El Portal entrance, provides the fastest route to Yosemite Valley. We also wanted to visit the east side to have some extra time around Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass and to explore the Mono Lake area.
Grant had heard, and a little research confirmed, that the area around Mono Lake (just outside the east gate of Yosemite) is teeming with great views, good hikes and interesting things to do.
Our itinerary had us staying in Mariposa, on the west side of Yosemite, for seven nights. This gave us five days to explore the park and a day to rest, work and do laundry. We also scheduled five nights in Lee Vining, on the east side of Yosemite. This would give us four days to explore Tuolumne Meadows, Devil’s Postpile National Monument, and the Mono Lake area.
You can read about our visit to Yosemite here.
After a week in Mariposa, our plan was to drive Tioga Road across Yosemite National Park to get to our campground in Lee Vining on the east side. Mother Nature had other plans for us.
When we arrived in Yosemite on June 7, Tioga pass was still not open. And they laughed at us when we asked if it would open anytime soon (i.e. within the next week). Last we heard, they are hoping it will open by early July.
Since Tioga Pass is not open, the entire east “arm” of Yosemite, including most of Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows was not accessible. The road is usually open mid-late May or early June, but the area got twice their average snowfall this year.
We still wanted to explore the area east of Yosemite, known as the Mono Basin Scenic Area. We did initially decided to cut our stay here short (three nights vs. five) since Devil’s Postpile is still closed as well. Ultimately, however, we ended up staying all five nights, as planned, and enjoyed some relaxing days of exploring, reading and working.
Lee Vining, CA
We chose Lee Vining as our base because it is the closest town to the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. And we found a great campground at a great price, the Mono Vista RV Park. The population of Lee Vining is only about 400 people. It is also the hub for the Mono Basin Scenic Area, which provides several amazing outdoor adventures, other than Yosemite.
There really is not much to the town, other than great scenery, but we loved our stay!
Mono Basin Scenic Area
The Mono Basin Scenic Area is just east of Yosemite National Park, along US 395. Bordered by the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and Cowtrack Mountains to the east, the scenery is amazing. The main attraction of the area is Mono Lake, a gorgeous salt-water lake with no fish, but plenty of tiny brine shrimp. There are no streams running out of Mono lake, thus it has a high level of salt and the water is alkaline. This means it feels more “slimy” than ocean water.
The Inyo National Forest encompasses much of the area west of Highway 395, providing some great hiking. The area south of Mono Lake is dotted with 20-30 volcanic craters, forming the youngest mountain range in North America.
If you are visiting Yosemite National Park or Devil’s Postpile National Monument, the Mono Lake area is definitely worth an extra day or two. Even if you’re not visiting either of those attractions, this is a great place to explore and relax for a few days!
The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, located just north of Lee Vining, can provide maps and answer any questions you have about things to do in the area. You should definitely start your visit here.
Bodie State Historic Park
Located about 20 miles north of Lee Vining, the Bodie State Historic Park preserves the ghost town of Bodie. One of the best preserved ghost towns in the West, Bodie peaked in the late 1800s after gold was found. Nearly $35 million worth of gold and silver was mined in the 1870s and 1880s.
Once the mines ran dry, the town, which at one time had a population of nearly 10,000 people, slowly died. By 1910, there were less than 700 residents, consisting mostly of families who just never left.
Today, more than 100 buildings remain, preserved in a state of arrested decay. We walked through the streets, peeking in the windows of many buildings. There is a church, a schoolhouse, a bar, a hotel and many other buildings. There is a small museum and gift shop inside one building. We also visited the cemetery, set up on a hill outside of town.
Walking through the town was really a step back in time. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit here.
Logistics: The entrance fee is $8/adult. The park is about 13 miles off US 395 and only 10 of those miles are paved. Most any vehicle should be able to handle the dirt road. There are very limited services at the park…only a couple of bathrooms and no potable water. It is hot during the summer, so be sure to bring your own water. We spent a little over an hour here, but you could easily spend more time if you want.
South Tufa Reserve at Mono Lake
One of the most unique and extremely interesting features of Mono Lake is tufa. Tufa is a limestone that somewhat resembles drip sand castles. According to my Lonely Planet guidebook, it is formed “when calcium bubbles up from subterranean springs and combines with carbonate in the alkaline lake waters.”
The biggest concentration is found on the south end of the lake. To get there, drive about five miles south of Lee Vining and take Hwy 120 west. There is a parking lot about five miles down on the left. We spent about an hour walking through the tufa, taking pictures and marveling at the almost other-worldly formations.
Nearby is Navy Beach, the best place for swimming in Mono Lake.
The most accessible volcanic crater in the area is Panum Crater. It is a 650-year old volcano that is a textbook rhyolitic plug-dome volcano. Located off Hwy 120 west, just before you reach South Tufa Reserve, the volcano provides some fun hiking and exploring.
There are two trails here: a trail around the rim and the “plug trail” which goes up to (and into) the crater itself. How often do you get to walk into a volcano? Of course, we chose the plug trail!
It took us about 10 minutes to get to the top. It was a steep trail, with several switchbacks going up the side, but very short so not too bad. We spent about 25 minutes taking pictures and walking through some of the trails at the top. There was a lot of obsidian, which was cool. I wanted to take some with me, but I know better than to do that!
Another 10 minutes down to the bottom and we were ready to move on to the next adventure for the day.
Note: Panum is currently dormant, but another eruption is possible. In fact, geologists predict than any of the craters in the Mono Basin could erupt at most any time. The National Forest Service brochure says not to worry, though, as we’ll get some warning signs from the volcanos if they are going to erupt!
Whoa Nellie’s Deli
A drive through Lee Vining would not be complete without a stop at Whoa Nellie’s Deli, the restaurant inside the Mobil Tioga Gas Mart. That’s right… We are recommending that you eat at a gas station!
The deli, which is so much more than a deli, is the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. Granted, there are only nine restaurants in Lee Vining, but it has earned its top-ranking. I chose the Wild Buffalo Meatloaf and Grant had the World Famous Fish Tacos. Both were absolutely delicious.
The meatloaf was served with mashed potatoes and spaghetti squash. Yes, a gas station restaurant served spaghetti squash! Grant enjoyed a Mammoth Brewing Epic IPA.
The gas station also sells Yosemite souvenirs, wine, RV supplies and the usual snacks and drinks. The gas price was the best in town, as well. This really is a can’t miss stop if you are in Lee Vining.
June Lake Loop
The 16-mile long June Lake Loop Road winds past four scenic lakes, including June Lake. There are a couple of marinas and campgrounds along the northern end of the loop. The southern end, at June Lake, is where you will find a reasonably sized resort area with hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and even a micro-brewery.
The June Lake Loop is apparently a great fishing destination (we are not fishers, so I can’t say too much more about that). There are also several hikes off the June Lake Loop.
We chose the Parker Lake hike, which is about 1.8 miles each direction from the parking lot. The total elevation gain is about 400 feet, which isn’t too bad. The tough part is that most of the elevation gain is right at the beginning of the hike. I suppose that is better than being at the end, though!
It took us about an hour to hike to Parker Lake. The first mile was mostly uphill and it leveled out from there. We only spent about five minutes at the lake before heading down. The hike down took about 45 minutes. It would be easy to spend much more time at the lake.
We saw several folks carrying a lot of gear to spend several days camping and fishing. We could have taken a picnic lunch with us to enjoy at the lake, but instead we opted for June Lake Brewing and the Ohanas 395 food truck parked outside. A tasty beer was exactly what we needed after a 3.6 mile hike!
If doing this hike, prepare yourself with sunscreen and water. Much of the 1.8-mile trail is not shaded. You will find trees surrounding the lake and on the final approach, but that’s about it other than a few small patches here and there. Even with the temperature in the 70s, the sun was beating down on us and we were thankful for the cool breeze.
Also note that the road leading to the trailhead is not paved. While most of the road is easy to drive, there were a few places where we were glad to have a high-clearance, four-wheel drive truck.
Mammoth Lakes, CA
About 30 minutes south of Lee Vining (at the southern end of the Mono Basin) is the resort/village of Mammoth Lakes. Known mostly for skiing, but a year-round resort, Mammoth Lakes is the closest “big town” around. It boasts a population of about 7,000. Due to the large amount of snowfall this year, the ski slopes are still open and expect to be open at least through the end of July!
Here, we found a tasty restaurant, 53 Kitchen & Cocktails, for my birthday dinner. We also found a “real” grocery store with lots of options. The prices were high, but it is a resort town in California, so not too unexpected.
There is a scenic loop off US 395, but it was not nearly as scenic as the June Lake Loop. I imagine it would be a lot more scenic in the winter when covered in snow. There are tons of activities in this area year-round.
Hot Creek Geologic Site
About eight miles south of Mammoth Lakes you will find the almost-hidden Hot Creek Geologic Site. Here, the mix of hot and cold streams create some steaming/boiling water and a beautiful blue steam pool.
The mostly unpaved road is easy to drive and there is a good size parking lot at the site. There are even some vault toilets and a few picnic tables. A paved path leads down to the site.
If you’ve been to Yellowstone National Park, this site will probably be a little underwhelming. It is still an interesting spot, though, and you never know what you will find at a geothermal area like this. Minor earthquakes can cause more bubbling and steaming or even a geyser at any time.
Ten miles south of Mammoth Lakes is Convict Lake, another popular camping, boating and fishing destination. There is a fairly easy two-mile loop around the lake that you can hike.
We chose to park in the “trailhead parking lot.” From here, it was about a 10 minute walk/hike to a fabulous view of the lake. The blue water was gorgeous. Since it was just about lunch time, there wasn’t much shade and we were already hot, we opted not to do the full loop. Still, just hiking up to look at the lake was a good way to get in a little exercise.
There is a boat launch and parking lot at the lake. If you are interested in hiking around the lake, this might be a better place to park. Note: like many other destinations in the Mono Lake area, there is not much shade here. Bring sunscreen and water if you plan to hike, especially in the middle of the day.
Mono Lake – More than a Gateway to Yosemite
As you can see, the Mono Lake area is more than just a gateway to Yosemite National Park. There are tons of hikes, lakes, unique natural features and other activities here. Whether you are adding on an extra day or two before or after visiting Yosemite or making Mono Lake the main destination of your vacation, there is plenty to see and do.
We highly recommend you schedule a visit soon!