Mono Lake in California: Visit the Stunning Tufa Towers Near Yosemite

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Mono Lake in California is one of the oldest lakes in North America and a unique destination only 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park near the tiny town of Lee Vining.

The lake is an expansive 13 miles long, 8 miles wide and covers around 65 square miles.

What makes Mono Lake a must-see are the stunning tufa formations that emerge eerily from the water. Seeing the tufa at sunset and sunrise is a magical experience.

Below, you will learn more about this fascinating site, how to get there from Yosemite, where to stay, the best time to visit and some suggestions of things to do in Mono Lake.

At the bottom, you will find a Mono Lake California Map.

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Video of Yosemite Highlights

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Where is Mono Lake in California: Yosemite to Mono Lake

Road leading to Mono Lake, California
Beautiful, sunny day driving towards Mono Lake

Mono Lake in California is on Highway 395 in the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.

Head east of Yosemite National Park and exit from the Tioga Pass entrance/ exit (only accessible in summer). Follow Tioga Road (Highway 120) for 12 miles until it hits Highway 395.

The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center is the best place to start your visit, with lots of information about the history of the lake. You can pay the $3 per adult entrance fee here too. The Visitor Center is north of Lee Vining, just off the 395.

I would highly recommend adding an extra night to visit Mono Lake and Bodie, a ghost town near Mono Lake, as excellent additions to your Yosemite National Park Itinerary.

Visiting Mono Lake Distance/ Times

By Car:

  • Yosemite Tioga Pass entrance/ exit – Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center: 13.6 miles (21.9 km)/ 19 min
  • Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center – South Tufa Mono Lake: 7 miles (11.2 km)/ 17 min
  • Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center – Bodie Ghost Town: 51 miles (82 km)/ 1 hr 56 min
  • San Francisco – Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center (via Sacramento): 300 miles (482 km)/ 5hr 28 min
  • Sacramento – Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center: 215 miles (345 km)/ 4 hr 10 min

There is a map at the bottom of the post to give you an idea of the surrounding area.

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Where to Stay Near Mono Lake Yosemite

Front of the Yosemite Gateway Motel in the centre of Lee Vining
Yosemite Gateway Motel in the town of Lee Vining

We spent a night in the small town of Lee Vining which enabled us to visit nearby Mono Lake at sunset and sunrise.

Lee Vining is conveniently next to the lake but about a 20-minute drive south to the South Tufa area, where the spectacular rock formations are.

We stayed at El Mono Motel, which has modern, nicely furnished rooms, a small garden, and an onsite coffee shop. Rooms start from $84 per night.

You can also search for accommodation in Lee Vining here. It makes a great base to explore the neighbouring Mammoth Lakes and the wider Eastern Sierra area.

Camping at Mono Lake Ca is allowed as long as you stay above the exposed lake bed. You will also require a permit for campfires. There are campgrounds near Lundy Canyon, Lee Vining Canyon, and the June Lake Loop.

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Geology and History of Mono Lake in California

Mono Lake has a long, fascinating and often troubled history. It was formed in a basin over 760,000 years ago due to a volcanic eruption.

Mono Lake has no outlet, which means the water can only leave the basin by evaporation, causing salt to accumulate. As a result, it is highly alkaline and two and a half times as salty as the ocean.

The city of Los Angeles, in 1941, diverted water from Mono Lake. As a result, over a quarter of the water drained by 1981.

When the water diversions decreased the surface level, they exposed the dramatic Mono Lake tufa towers you see today. The calcium-carbonate spires are caused by the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water.

In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed to protect the lake and restore it towards a more sustainable future. Eventually, water diversion was limited, and the water level has been rising steadily ever since.

Mono Lake, California
The lake level has been rising since protections were put into place at Mono Lake Yosemite

The tufa towers lining the shores at Mono Lake are incredibly atmospheric. They are also important habitats for migratory birds that forage on the alkali flies that thrive in the alkaline water.

Mono Lake, California
The calcium carbonate spires are formed by the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water

There are two volcanic islands in Mono Lake: Negit Island and Paoha Island. These islands were formed by volcanic activity and are part of the chain of Mono Craters in the area. Panum Crater south of Mono Lake is popular for hiking.

When visiting Mono Lake, please take care not to stand or climb on the tufa towers as they are very fragile.

Learn more about how was Mono Lake formed and the history of Mono Lake.

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When Is the Best Time to Visit Mono Lake?

Best Season

We visited Mono Lake and Bodie ghost town in the summer. To easily combine these side-trips with Yosemite, you need to visit when the Tioga Rd is open between June and October.

It is, however, the busiest time to visit the South Tufa area.

Visiting Mono Lake in winter (December-March) would be a quieter experience, with the tufa towers no doubt looking incredible in the snow. 

However, please note that the Tioga Pass entrance/ exit on Tioga Road (Highway 120) closes from Mid-November to Mid-May.

South Tufa Mono Lake is still accessible if you take Highway 50 (south of Lake Tahoe) and follow Highway 395. Please check the forecast before you set off and be equipped to drive in wintry conditions.

Mono Lake Sunset

Visiting Mono Lake at sunset or sunrise is an ideal time to explore the towers with their variety of twists and spires.

Both make for different experiences.

Our first visit to Mono Lake was about an hour before sunset, following the easy one-mile track to get up close to the tufa towers.

Mono Lake, California
The last of the sun rays at sunset at Mono Lake

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 beautiful as the setting sun warmed the grey rock to a soft pink glow.

Mono Lake Sunset with pink clouds
Mono Lake sunset, featuring pink clouds and the contour of the lake

Mono Lake Sunrise

However, going at sunrise is utterly magical as you see the towers silhouetted against a sky that changes from purple to pink to orange.

Mono Lake, California at sunrise
Seeing the Mono Lake tufa towers at sunrise is one of the best times to visit
Mono Lake, California at sunrise
The silhouettes of the tufa towers look otherworldly, especially with the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains as a backdrop

The tufa towers glow and reflect in the still water when the sun is up, with a backdrop of pink-tinged mountains.

Mono Lake, California at sunrise
A Mono Lake sunrise with pink-tinged surrounding mountains
Mono Lake, California at sunrise
Gorgeous reflections of the tufa towers greet the Mono Lake sunrise

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Can You Swim in Mono Lake?

Aerial view of Mono Lake in California in summer
Aerial view of the tempting waters at Mono Lake

We were tempted to swim in the lake and float courtesy of the high salt content as we loved swimming in the Dead Sea in Jordan.

Unfortunately, clouds of buzzing flies at the edge of the water put us off.

However, plenty of people do swim in the lake, citing the medicinal qualities of the salty water.

If you decide to swim, keep your head above water and make sure you don’t have any cuts as that would sting!

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Things to Do in Mono Lake

Our visit was limited, but we are keen to revisit the area to explore the various things to do in Mono Lake.

Here are some suggestions:

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Mono Lake California Map

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Is Mono Lake Worth a Day Trip From Yosemite?

Yes absolutely! Mono 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.

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17 Comments

  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!
    sue

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  2. I’ve seen tufa around hot springs, but never this big. When I make it to Yosemite, I’ll be sure to take this in!

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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. Fabulous photos! The scenery looks like something from another planet. Thank you for sharing! You really made a nice job.

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  6. 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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