US 395 drops down from the mountains to pass Mono Lake, near the town of Lee Vining. If you’re headed southbound, this great viewpoint will be your first view of the valley.
It’s a panorama that’s simply too big to fit in one picture (or three).
Don’t forget to bring a bumper sticker, to add to the collection on the guard rail.
After dropping down from the viewpoint, but before reaching the lakeshore, I noticed an abandoned old building off to the right side of the road. It took several turns on unmaintained roads to get a closer look, but it was worth the effort.
A sign explained that this is the old Filosena Ranch, built sometime around 1885. It was one of the first homesteads in the Mono Basin. The Mono Historical Society is in the process of stabilizing and eventually restoring the building, the sign explained. The cabin is sealed shut, but a few missing boards on the windows gives you the chance to peek inside.
There’s plenty of other historic junk around the cabin–the kind that a child could get hurt on–so use caution.
I was surprised to find that one of the roads I took to get to the old homestead was actually, at one time, a two-lane paved road, with a line down the center. Perhaps it’s a historic old alignment of US 395, abandoned and slowly weathering away in the desert.
Back on US 395, the main road skirts the edge of Mono Lake. There’s a visitor center at the side of the road, where you can pick up a souvenir and get advice about the lake. Of course, you’re not going to need any advice from them, because I’m about to tell you the best place to view the lake’s unique feature: its tufa formations.
When I visited Mono Lake in 2004, I didn’t have much time to explore (I was also cramming a visit to Bodie and Yosemite into the same day). So, I stopped at the tufa viewing area nearest to US 395 (at the northwest corner of the lake). The tufa at that spot wasn’t very plentiful or dramatic. This time, I went to a much better spot, known as the South Tufa Area.
South Tufa Area, Mono Lake
From the South Tufa Area parking area, a boardwalk trail takes you down to the edge of the water. This trail is supposed to loop around, but once I reached the shore, I lost track of the trail and simply wandered around the tufa formations.
Tufa formations, in case you are wondering, are the rock-hard, calcium carbonate remnants of ancient underwater springs. Since it has no outlet, Mono Lake is highly alkaline and more than twice as salty as the ocean. When carbonates in the lake’s water reacted with the calcium in the fresh water from the springs, the calcium-carbonate tufa formed. Mono Lake used to be much higher, but water-thirsty Los Angeles sucked away much of the water from the Mono Basin, as well as the nearby Owens Valley, causing a drastic drop in the lake, and exposing the tufa.
Afternoon isn’t the best time for viewing the tufa. Some photographers have captured stunning pictures of the formations in the early morning light, when the eastern sun begins to shine on the tufa and the mountains in the background. In the afternoon, however, the sun is already preparing to set behind the mountains, making it tough to take a picture in that direction.
The weather was windy, and the lake’s surface was choppy when I visited, making it a little less photogenic.
Tufa aren’t just in the water. The entire path down to the water’s edge is surrounded by formations.
On the way back up the path, notice the signs that mark the historic water levels, starting back before 1941, when LA began stealing water from the area. This particular sign shows where the lake stood in 1930.