The Tufa Towers of Mono Lake: Yosemite Side Trip 1

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Last summer on our visit to Yosemite National Park we added an extra night to our trip to visit nearby Mono Lake and Bodie ghost town.

I’ve written about our 3 day Yosemite itinerary, but somehow I never got around to writing about stunning Mono Lake, just 13 miles east of the park, and well worth a visit if you are in this part of California.

After our third full day at Yosemite we exited the park in the late afternoon along the Tioga Pass (only accessible in summer) and spent a night in the tiny town of Lee Vining which enabled us to visit nearby Mono Lake at both sunset and sunrise.

Mono Lake is a large, shallow, saline lake 13 miles long and 8 miles wide and over a million years old. The lack of an outlet means the water can only leave the basin by evaporation which causes salt to accumulate. The lake is two and a half times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline.

Mono Lake, California
What makes Mono Lake special are the unusual tufa rock formations that emerge from the water, calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs and the alkaline lake water.
Mono Lake, California

Mono Lake at Sunset

Lee Vining is right next to the lake, but it’s about a 20 minute drive south to the South Tufa Area where the spectacular rock formations are. We began our first visit about an hour before sunset, following the easy one mile trail to get up close to the tufa towers.

It’s a fascinating place and we happily spent over an hour exploring the towers, many soaring above us in a variety of twists and spires. It was a cloudy sunset but still beautiful as the setting sun warmed the grey rock to a soft pink glow.

We were tempted to swim in the lake where, like the Dead Sea in Jordan, the high salt content makes it easy to float, but we were put off by the clouds of thousands of buzzing flies at the edge of the water.

Mono Lake, California Mono Lake, California Mono Lake, California

Mono Lake at Sunrise

Sunset and sunrise at Mono Lake were both different and worthwhile, but if you have to choose, go for sunrise.

It’s magical to see the towers silhouetted against the sky as it changes from purple to pink to orange. When the sun is up the tufa towers glow and are reflected in the still water, with a backdrop of pink tinged mountains.

Mono Lake, California at sunrise Mono Lake, California at sunrise Mono Lake, California at sunrise Mono Lake, California at sunrise Mono Lake, California at sunrise

Mono Lake, California at sunrise Mono Lake, California at sunrise Mono Lake, California at sunrise Mono Lake, California at sunriseMono Lake is a unique and otherworldly place and is well worth adding to your Yosemite National Park itinerary. It’s also close to the remote ghost town of Bodie which is another fascinating place to visit.

For more information see the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve website. We’ve written a recommended Yosemite itinerary which includes details of El Mono Motel where we stayed in Lee Vining. 

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17 Comments (3 pingbacks)

  1. we just arrived in Lee Vining for a 3 (or more) day exploration of Yosemite. I googled “hikes in yosemite” and your blog came up, and I’m so glad it did. i enjoyed reading about your experiences in Yosemite and will definitely do some of the hikes you did.
    i also appreciate the information on Mono Lake and Bodie…we only first heard about Bodie this morning on the Sunday Morning news…what a coincidence!
    Your photos are gorgeous…what type of camera do you use? what training/lessons have you taken? i’m an aspiring photographer and am just in the process of buying a new camera (nikon d750)…what lenses do you use?
    thanks again for sharing your adventures…we often say that life is short, but now i’ll add that the world is large!

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  2. I keep meaning to get to Mono Lake but just haven’t been yet because it’s a bit of a drive from other places we want to visit (and even the west entrance of Yosemite). I always travel with my kids and am curious if there’s much for them to do around there (besides see the lake, of course). I’m very interested in taking them to Bodie, so I should plan a road trip to that part of CA and visit Mono Lake and Bodie.

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  3. Mono Lake and Bodie are definitely worth a visit. We stayed at a campground overlooking Mono Lake when visiting Yosemite and I found the landscapes so different around the lake and Bodie compared to the park. Looking forward to reading about your experience in Bodie, I am going to be writing about my own soon

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    • That must have been a lovely place to camp. Glad you enjoyed the experience too, and I agree that they are so different to Yosemite that it’s well worth adding them on to a trip there.

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  4. Fabulous photos! The scenery looks like something from another planet. Thank you for sharing! You really made a nice job.

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  5. I just visited Yosemite last week, as a day trip while I was in San Francisco, and I wish I could have spent more time there! It was so beautiful and we only touched the tip of the iceberg – the park is so huge and varied! Great pictures of a piece of the park that I never had a chance to see myself.

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    • I’m impressed you did it as a day trip from SF -it must have been an exhausting day! Even in the 4 days we had in the area it still didn’t feel like enough -such a beautiful place.

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