a tour of Mono Lake & its Environs
(click on images to enlarge)
I first saw Mono Lake the summer of 1960 from the back of a stake bed truck. I was not quite 12 & attending a YMCA summer camp based south of Mammoth Lakes. One day from camp we drove north on Highway 395. During part of the drive we passed the lake on our right. When we reached Highway 167 we took a right then headed for the Bodie ghost town via the road that eventually appeared on the left. While in Bodie I toured the old buildings and spent a lot of time walking around boot hill. The summer of 1960 was just prior to the U.S. presidential election. Years earlier two residents were buried in Bodie, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Leaving Bodie we retraced the same route back to our camp. I remember the lake very well from that brief drive by. I was amazed to see rock formations sticking out of the water just north of the small town of Lee Vining. I didn’t know they were Tufa, or how they came to be. But I knew that they were outside of my experience and I wondered what they were.
When my children were very young I still hadn’t forgotten Bodie or the strange rock formations at Mono Lake. On our first family vacation to the Eastern Sierra I made sure we took some time to visit the area. Bodie was in an arrested state of decay, but Mono Lake had changed, the water was considerably lower than my fist visit. On subsequent vacations we visited again and again. Each time we did I found the area more fascinating and I found more things to photograph.
Although it is near some numbered highways, Mono Lake is not exactly along the most well travelled of routes. Situated on the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains in central California Mono Lake is on the far western edge of the Great Basin and well removed from most things. The nearest large population centers are Lake Tahoe, Reno & Carson City about 3 hours to the north on Highway 395 which is winding mountain road most of that way. Yosemite National Park is not too far west as the crow flies, maybe an hour from lake to valley via auto, but the highway is closed in winter, sometimes not reopening until May or June.
There is no doubt Mono Lake and its environs are one of my favorite places to photograph. Since the late 80s I visited there more times than I can count. I have thousands of photos of the area. Most are not that good, but many of the more interesting ones are here.
Mono Lake is the largest natural lake wholly within the California State border. It is at the bottom of a 450 square mile basin. Streams flow in, but none flow out. Water has no outlet other than evaporation. The lake is old, some say 750,000 years old. Others think it could be 3 million years old or older. It is a salt lake with a salinity greater than that of the ocean. Thousands of years ago the lake was much larger covering the playa or old lake bed shown above. The surface of the lake at times was some 600 or more feet higher than today.
Los Angeles is about 350 miles to the south. The town on the edge of Mono Lake, Lee Vining, may be L.A.’s most distant suburb. This is because of some wildly disparate facts. First, most of the surrounding water shed is owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. There is even a hydro power generation plant in the south of Lee Vining. If I remember correctly (don’t shoot me on this) it is a part of LADWP or Southern California Edison.
The other reason is geography. The lake is a straight shot north of LA via Highways 14 & 395. For Southern Californians it is just another drive. From LA the easiest way to get world class skiing & great mountain recreation is to go to Mammoth Lakes or other spots along the eastern Sierra. Mammoth, about 30 minutes south of Lee Vining, is chock full of vacation houses & condos owned by Southern Californians. San Francisco & the bay area is only 250 miles or less from Mono Lake. But the transit from the bay area is a lot harder because you have to cross the width of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Besides, Lake Tahoe with its world class skiing and other types of recreation is a lot closer and easier for those same bay area folks. Like I said, geography.
In 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting freshwater to Los Angeles from the mountain streams feeding Mono Lake. At that time the elevation of the lake surface was 6417 feet. By 1982 the diversions had helped the lake level to fall 45 feet to 6372 feet. In that period of time the lake had lost half its volume from 4.3 million acre feet to 2.1 million acre feet of water, while salinity of the lake doubled. Some of the species of birds who nested at the lake were under threat, some no longer came to Mono Lake, and toxic dust storms rose from the exposed alkali & salt flats. Where the streams had teemed with plants and wildlife there were only dry washes. In heavy rain years these could flood unchecked, widen, and scar parts of the land.
In 1978 the Mono Lake Committee was formed in an effort to protect the lake and stabilize its level. In 1994 after years of litigation a court agreement was reached with the LADWP, the Committee, & other interested groups. The agreement stabilized the lake outflows and allowed the lake to rise to a higher level. Since that time the lake elevation has slowly been rising, although it still falls in dry years. Eventually it is hoped the lake will rise to 6392 feet, 25 feet below the 1941 level.
Because of the rising waters some of the tufa towers the lake is so well known for and some of the small islands in the lake will disappear back under water. Many of these photographs show objects that have been submerged, damaged or altered by the rising lake. If the lake continues to rise some of these objects may not be seen again.
Because of the lake’s high salinity there are no fish in the lake. With no fish there are no fishermen, with no fishermen there are virtually no boats and no commercial launch facilities. Most boat traffic is via personal canoe or kayak launched from the shore. There is one private dock I am aware of. It was used for a commercial brine shrimp fishery, but the fishery closed around 2007. Through the well known photographer Stuart Scofield I met the owner. It is from his boat I gained access to the remote portions of the lake.
Other areas can be easily accessed by vehicle. Most of the western side of the lake, Panum Crater, & South Tufa are reached with almost any vehicle. Also accessible is Black Point to the parking lot at the end of the dirt road on the east. Anything after that you should be in a 4 wheel drive equipped vehicle. Wide tires, tow cables, winches, jacks, lifts, boards, stakes, a friend in a similarly equipped vehicle, etc. are a good idea & recommended. Driving close to the lake on the playa off of marked roads is particularly ill advised as what can look like firm ground could easily be a thin crust of dry dirt on top of a wet bog that can quickly swallow you or your vehicle. This is no exaggeration. I recall a walk near the lake once off the beaten path. One step I was on solid ground, the next found my leg knee deep in the mud.
Lee Vining & Area
Most people used to visit to Mono Lake while passing through. By the 1990s the area had become so popular that a visitors center was built. Now people come for a few days. Some weekends you may find Lee Vining over run with photographers attending workshops. The workshops started in the 80s or 90s, but the phenomenon of their popularity seems to be something of the last few years.
I got this photo in August, 2004. It was from the parking lot of the visitor center looking north. It looks toward the area where I first saw tufa in 1960. The photo exhibits no great technical expertise. The 6×7 medium format camera was on a tripod, and it had a short telephoto lens. On a sunny day at high noon anyone can get this shot & the tones are all within the range of transparency film. This was the cover of the Mono Lake Committee 2006 Calendar. This is my reproduction of the original cover.
This next one was shot just off of Highway 395 within sight of the Visitor Center area. I set up my tripod just beyond the end of the parking lot and did a series of photos until dark. This was pretty much the best. I used a 3 stop graduated soft edge split neutral density filter to bring the sky down into balance with the darker foreground. The shoreline is on an angle so the filter had to be along a matching angle in the holder.
Strangely, I have no photos of Lee Vining itself. The town is rather small, only 220 residents or so. There are at least two motels, a gas station or two, a few restaurants, a high school, and Nicely’s. I did a Google search on ‘Nicely’s’ and they were the first 3 hits out of 153 million! A coffee shop at the corner of Hwy 395 & 4th St., Nicely’s is a walk back into time. Their decor seems to be pure 1970s and their food is decent American style fare. Whenever I get back to Lee Vining I eat there at least once. I have a Nicely’s tee shirt I bought from them ages ago. I have worn it proudly.
South of town used to be an old cabin or home. It is featured elsewhere in this website if you want the whole story. Here is a photo of it.
The the cabin or home was torn down when Highway 395 coming into the south of town was widened. Also changed was the marker over the Unknown Prospector’s grave at the junction of Hwy 395 & eastbound Hwy 120. Here are 2 photos. The first is one of my earliest slides & shows snow on the ground. The color of the slide is so bad I changed it over to black & white. The second shows the new marker that replaced the old one.
The old marker reads “The Unknown Prospector/Heard There’s Gold in Heaven/Gone to file my Claim”. The caps are reproduced just as they were on the old marker. The old marker was out in the open. You could run it over with your car if you weren’t careful. So many people had stopped to see it that the dirt around it was pounded hard and bare of most growth. The site itself would change as some visitors left offerings or small momentos at the site. Slowly these fell apart & disappeared only to be replaced by other nicknacks. Now there is a stone marker & a metal fence where the boards of a make shift grave once stood.
The most popular place to see tufa is a place called South Tufa. The trip there is quite easy via Highway 120 about 5 miles east of Highway 395. Using topographic maps of the area, access can be gained via the dirt roads from Lee Vining that follow the lake bed past Panum Crater on to South Tufa. For about 10 years there has been a parking charge at South Tufa. I don’t know if coming in via the lake roads will avoid the parking fee or get you into trouble.
South Tufa is well known for its fantastic formations. The tufa tower shown above grabbed my attention & I shot it year after year. The hole in it framed a tufa tower out in the lake always giving me a virtually identical place & composition whenever I could visit. When the lake rose in the late 90s this tower fell. All that is left of it is in pieces on the lake bed. These are a few shots taken from the early 90s to 1998.
The photo with snow deserves a special mention. I was there in February, 1994 with my nephew Keith. We were on a skiing trip to Mammoth. After a day of skiing we drove up to South Tufa in the late afternoon. Heading east Highway 120 was plowed to the entrance of South Tufa. After that the highway was all snow. It was all snow down to South Tufa also. At the entrance was a parked car and a black & white with very worried California Highway Patrolwoman. We were in a Chevy truck with 4 wheel drive so the snow didn’t bother us. The CHP asked us if we were going to drive down to the parking lot. I said yes and she told us we were crazy. Off we drove anyway. Along the way we passed two tourists walking through the snow from South Tufa back to their vehicle. A few hours later when we drove back the CHP and the car were gone. I have no idea if the CHP waited for the tourists to give them a lecture.
Once you reach the edge of the lake a walk a few minutes east from the remains of the tower above and this view of the lake and horizon will appear. It is a favorite spot for many photographers. I got this photo in 1996. It became the September, 1999 Mono Lake Committee Calendar shot. Its story is described elsewhere in this website.
Two years earlier I took this photo from almost the identical place. It is about a 1 or 2 minute exposure with a Hasselblad and I believe I was using the 903 with the super wide built in lens. I don’t recall any other particulars.
Here is another photo of South Tufa, this one from 2004. The black line along the shoreline are billions of black flies! If you walk among them they will fly about the same area, but try to avoid you. Sometimes you can see gulls hopping among them snapping them up for food. Other times I’ve seen gulls dining on shrimp blooms out on the lake.
Near South Tufa is a place named Navy Beach. During WWII the U.S. Navy apparently used that area as a small rocket or artillery proving ground. Near Navy Beach are formations called sand tufa. These are made of squat columns of sand with tufa on their top. As I understand it, these formations began to appear in 1964 as the lake receded from the area. Under the court agreement the lake will probably not rise high enough to reclaim the sand tufa.
Sand tufa is very fragile. I expect the sand columns will quickly erode leaving the tufa caps to slowly crumble away. In a few years or a few decades this sight will be difficult or impossible to reproduce. This photo was shot with Fuji Velvia in the early 90s. I think the color original looks washed out so I converted it to black & white. Those are lenticular clouds in the sky.
Beyond the Normal Beaten Path
If you are the adventurous sort there is a dirt road that heads east from South Tufa. It is a narrow track and the vegetation will be very happy to scratch the paint on your vehicle. The road gradually curves north, widens, and many miles later intersects Highway 167 far from the north eastern shore. A photo of that intersection area is shown a few photos below. Parts of the dirt road follow the old Bodie & Benton Railroad right of way. Here and there are some rotted & twisted railroad ties (the rails are long gone), a couple of old cabins, and any number of places to get your vehicle stuck. Travel this lonely road and you may see this cabin perched below a wave bench far from the south eastern shore.
If you want to reach this place heading east from South Tufa is by far the tougher route. The easier route is south on the dirt road that runs south from Hwy 167. From Highway 167 south to the cabin is some 8 or so miles. You should have more luck with the road this way than from South Tufa, and be less likely to get stranded.
I have been to this place at least 5 times. It is usually cold and lonely. The quiet is amazing here. The only thing you hear is the wind.
A few miles farther north from this place hidden against a small tufa hill is another cabin. I have been there when it showed signs of recent habitation. Inside it is a make shift fireplace. Inside the fireplace was a partially burned newspaper dated only a few months earlier than when I took my photos. It is entirely possible the cabin is a construction of the 1990s, but it could be much older.
The first photo faces east and shows the wind chime made of old rusted cans, dried out bones, and empty bottles. The second faces west toward the lake. The third photo is a close up of the wind chime. All of these photos were made in the late 90s. The hill behind the cabin is an old tufa mound now dry and largely eroded away.
This is a photo at the intersection of 167 & the dirt road. Highway 167 runs east as straight as an arrow from Highway 395 to the Nevada State Line, which is also near where the old lake bed ends. This is easily 16 or 17 miles without a bend or a twist. Along that road about half way to the Nevada border you will find this historical marker commemorating the Bodie & Benton Rail Road. The old right of way crosses the highway at about this spot along with the dirt road heading south to the old cabins. If you go far enough the dirt road eventually leads to either the old Mono Mills site or South Tufa. Make sure you take a topographical map with you. A GPS used with the topo map would certainly help.
Out on the Lake – Lee Vining Tufa
There are lots of things to see other than South Tufa. Another tufa area is named Lee Vining Tufa because it is so close to the town. Back in the early 90s there was a road and parking lot there. There was even a boardwalk down into the tufa for visits up close, but it was being overgrown even then. I can’t tell you about the road and the parking lot today, but I can say that the best way to see Lee Vining Tufa is via boat, kayak, or canoe. Here are a few shots.
This is some submerged tufa. My boat was heading north to the Lee Vining Tufa field seen at the horizon. Just before we floated over this formation I shot it with a 20-35mm zoom on the 20mm super wide setting. Tufa only grows under water. It results as spring water rises through the lake bed. The chemistry is roughly this – fresh water mixes with the salt water of the lake causing Calcium Carbonate to come out of solution. Calcium Carbonate is left behind in small quantities as a deposit forming what we call tufa. The process is pretty much the same as stalactites and stalagmites growing inside a cave, but I suspect it is faster as the quantity of water involved is greater. As the water passes through more tufa grows. This tufa was active & growing. As we floated over them I could see water rising from the heads of the tufa flowers in the center of the photo.
This is shot a few minutes later with a Hasselblad 501, a 120mm lens, & a 4.5×6 cm back. This photo was one of 20 exhibited in 1998 at the offices of the Mono Lake Committee in celebration of their 20th anniversary.
This is from the same trip. It was the cover of the Castle Press 2001 Calendar.
Out among the Islands
Mono Lake has a number of Islands in its north west. Paoha is the largest. Negit, the second largest island, is a recently formed cinder cone. There are many others. This shows an abandoned movie set, I believe from the movie Fair Wind to Java filmed in the early 1950s. I shot this with a Hasselblad 903 with its fixed 38mm super wide angle lens. This is the uncropped original.
Somewhere to my left of this shot I got this next one.
Paoha Island is at the center of the lake. It is about 1×3 miles in size. About a century ago there was a cattle ranch on the island along its western shore. At the north east of the island are 3 cinder cones. If the highest elevation of Paoha is not here then it certainly must be close by. It was a long climb from the shore to this spot. The black of the rock was so deep it seemed to absorb light like a sponge absorbs water.
From this spot if you make about a 3/8th turn you will be looking south down the Paoha shoreline. Wave benches marking past higher shorelines are obvious in the foreground. The photo above was shot with Fuji Velvia 50. This one below, shot only a few minutes before or after on the same camera was with Kodak Ektachrome 100. The Mono Craters are seen below the clouds in the distance.
Back down on the water looking back at the cinder cones you see this view below. The top of the cinder cone shown in the photo above is in this shot at center right. The lake was glassy, the only ripples caused by our boat.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Mono Lake and much of the eastern Sierra are still actively volcanic. In fact a good stretch of the eastern Sierra is this way. Long Valley is about half an hour south with Mammoth perched on its western rim. Long Valley is one of the 20 or 25 largest volcanic holes on the face of the Earth. It measures about 11×20 miles. When it blew some 3/4 of a million years ago it became one of Earth’s largest explosions.
The trip north out of Bishop toward Mammoth & Lee Vining takes you up part of the lava flow released by this blast. The elevation gain above Bishop is close to 3000 feet. By the way, that 3/4 of a million years coincides with some estimates of the beginning of Mono Lake.
Once you are past Long Valley the volcanic activity continues, but is much more recent. The line of features showing recent volcanic activity stretches north over 30 miles long. You have the Inyo Craters, Obsidian Dome, & The Mono Craters. The line continues from the Mono Craters to Panum Crater on the Mono Lake shore. From there it goes to the cinder cones on Paoha & Negit Islands ending at Black Point on the north shore of the lake. That long line, all volcanic, bisects the lake and is mostly straight.
Some of these volcanic craters erupted as recently as about 500 years ago. Current volcanic activity is small, but noticeable. The hot springs near the Mammoth airport is one, the recent earthquakes another. To the west of Paoha gas bubbles continually rise from the lake bottom. This next photo shows volcanic steam rising off the surface of the water along the Paoha shore.
Along the south shore of Paoha is this large lagoon or bay. Out in the distant brush are two bungalows built as a resort or spa in the early part of the 20th century. Walking & cutting your way through the brush is difficult. I never got inland to see the ruins & was picked up at the beach shown in the distance.
Landing on the western shore gets you close to the old McPherson ranch. A few small buildings still stand from the ranch including the outhouse. Nearby is this dead cottonwood tree.
By 1998 the lake had risen some 7 feet. Now the nest was below us as we floated by.
Well above Paoha is a small island. When the lake has a lower water level it is 1 island. With higher water it is split in two. There is a U.S. Geographical Survey marker planted here with the name Little Norway Island. The whole place is maybe 100-150 yards across. It is called Little Norway because of the one fjord leading from the north to the center of the island. Here are a few shots.
A detail or placement photo shot near the end of the Fjord. There is a rusted rocket part way up the rock in the center. It was ordinance from WWII when part of the southern lake shore was used by the Navy for testing projectiles. That area, near South Tufa is called Navy Beach. Here is the projectile. I last saw it in 1998.
A view north west from Little Norway shot with the 20-35mm lens on the Canon A2E, probably at a 20 or 24mm focal length. The abandoned movie set is seen in the distance. Negit Island is off in the distance at upper left. The water was just about that green.
Negit Island is a recent small volcano. From the southern shore of Negit this view is prominent. In case any of you are interested it takes sturdy boots and clothes to get here and some bush whacking besides. The photo was shot close to noon with a Linhof 617. I shielded the lens as best I could from the sun, but still got lots of lens flare. This is not art by any means, but it is a view very few people will ever see in person. The eastern edge of Paoha is at far left along with the cinder cones shown above. On the island somewhere at far right the old ranch is hiding. The Mono Craters are prominent at far right in the distance. Lee Vining is at far right out of the frame.
I also climbed to the throat of the cinder cone. There was no really good view of the throat, but I made a record shot anyway.
Near the throat of the volcano this interesting panorama becomes evident. From the top of Negit looking east & southeast you will see this.
This has been a pretty thorough tour of Mono Lake. I have shown most of the places I’ve visited. The next time I get to the lake there are a few more places I need to shoot to fill in some blanks. Please check back.
This was last updated August 31, 2012.