Hi all, my name is Leah Horstman. Welcome to my article on the incredible Mono Lake of California! I have lived in Southern California my whole life and currently live in the mountains about an hours drive east of San Diego.
My passion for photography came at a young age from my father who is an avid travel photographer. I also spent 25 years of my life riding and training horses. I guess I have always loved anything to do with the outdoors.
Showing horses, I used to regularly drive up and down California’s scenic Highway 395 always passing by Mono Lake. The colors of the lake and its unique topography always intrigued me. It wasn’t until I retired from rodeo and picked photography back up that I had the chance to explore the lake.
Why Mono Lake is so Incredible
Today, I have explored the lake and its surrounding areas and can safely say that it’s one of my favorite “go-to” spots. The best way to describe the lake to people who have never been is to say: “close your eyes and pretend you just landed on the moon”. There are several factors that make it so unique.
The first and most notable factor are the formations called “Tufas”. They are oddly shaped formations of limestone that grow when fresh water (which contains calcium) mixes with the water of Mono Lake which contains carbonates. They can grow up to 30ft in height when submerged but stop growing when exposed to air. Tufas are a photographer’s dream!
Mono Lake is also home to many different species of migratory birds and other wildlife. The lake itself has no outlet. This causes high levels of salts to accumulate, making the water alkaline (it’s not a lake you could swim in).
But the colors of Mono Lake are absolutely breathtaking – from turquoise to teal depending on the light and time of day you visit. Another factor is the Eastern Sierra sunrises and sunsets that add the perfect finish!
My Favorite Place at Mono Lake – South Tufa Beach
My favorite part of Mono Lake is the “South Tufa Beach” area. I just find that the Tufas on this side of the lake are the largest and most unique. All of my favorite images that I have captured are from this spot. There is a wooden path that leads from a well-marked parking area (restrooms included).
People have asked if I think this is a better sunrise or sunset location, and I say “both”! You can’t go wrong either way. Even when there are no clouds, there is a soft pastel glow that happens before/after blue hour. For a different perspective, there are also Tufas on the east and north shore. From the north, you can get a better view of the islands (Negit and Paoha).
Top 5 Things To Do at Mono Lake
1. Take Highway 395 to South Tufa Beach
To get to South Tufa Beach, take the exit off of Highway 395. This road will follow high above the ridge of Mono Lake before heading down to the shore. Make sure you stop along this road and take in the beauty of the entire lake. During the summer monsoon season, I was able to capture a rainbow over the entire lake from this location. Such a wonderful moment!
2. Walk along South Tufa Beach and See Birdlife
Walking down the path to South Tufa Beach is a must-do. Spend time walking along the beach and around the different Tufa formations. Don’t forget your binoculars as there are some incredible species of birds that can be viewed. If you are planning on shooting, be sure to pack a sturdy tripod. Filters are helpful to capture the different colors in the lake and sky.
3. Explore the East and North Shores of Mono Lake
Explore the east and north shores for a different view of Mono. You never know where your favorite shot will come from. Sometimes the least visited spots of a destination can be the most amazing!
4. See the Wild Horses of Mono Lake Basin
There is a band of wild horses that live in the Mono Lake basin. If you are lucky, you may get a glimpse of them. I always bring my long tele lens for this reason. Be careful not to approach them. Enjoy from a distance.
5. Hike to Panum Crater for Spectacular Views
Just before the South Tufa area is Panum Crater. There are signs marking the road that leads to a parking area. From here it is a moderate hike to the rim of Panum Crater. The hike is fun and offers spectacular views.
Where to Stay at Mono Lake
The closest town to Mono Lake is Lee Vining (on the west side of Highway 395). Lee Vining is a small town with limited resources. I have stayed at the Lake View Lodge and found it to be comfortable and perfect for my needs.
I have also camped at Navy Beach along the southern shore of Lake Mono. Another campground I have stayed at is the Aspen Grove Campground which is off Highway 120 (Tioga Pass). This campground is seasonal and only open when Tioga Pass is open – normally during the summer and fall.
I know this sounds strange but a must eat-at place while visiting Mono Lake is the Mobil gas station on the corner of Highway 120 and 395. The Whoa Nellie Deli offers everything from breakfast to dinner and can get crowded during summer. The food is gourmet and not to be missed. My favorite pancake breakfast in the world comes from here!
Cherished Photos of Mono Lake
I have so many images of Mono Lake that are special to me. Each one tells a story and has a special memory attached. There are two photos that stand out for me and ironically were both taken on the same night.
The first is a low, pastel sunset that took my breath away (and because it’s my mom’s favorite image). Later that night, I captured the Neowise Comet over a Tufa. This one is epic because I will never be able to capture it again.
Other Amazing Places to Visit Near Mono Lake
- Yosemite National Park: A short drive up the Tioga Pass takes you from Mono Lake to Yosemite. However, this road is seasonal. Be sure to check for road closures before you decide on visiting Yosemite from the lake.
- Bodie Ghost Town: Bodie is a real old western ghost town. There are three Saturdays during the summer months when Bodie will stay open past sunset. It’s a great location for astro-photographers. Make sure to check their website as I believe reservations are required in advance.
- June Lake Loop: Known as the Swiss Alps of the Sierra
- Mammoth Mountain: Lots of great hikes and things to do here
- Convict Lake: A picturesque and beautiful loop trail around the lake
- The Town of Bishop: Visit Erik Schat’s Bakery!
- Mcgee Creek Trail: Discover beautiful autumn colors
- Bridgeport/Twin Lakes: Another great town with lodging and fishing!
- Lake Tahoe: One of my main “go-to” photography spots.
Need to Know Before you Go
Lake Mono can get crowded during summer, so be sure to have travel plans in place before visiting during that time of year. If you place your tripod in the water at Mono Lake while shooting, be sure to clean the legs with fresh water as soon as you get back to your car. The alkalinity of the lake is strong and can destroy a tripod (spoken from experience).
As mentioned above, the Tufas stop growing once they are above water. So, enjoy them, photograph them and love them – but please don’t climb on the Tufas as they crumble easily. There is a day fee at South Tufa Beach that can be paid into an “honor system” box at the trail-head. Apart from those considerations, just enjoy your time exploring this incredibly unique lake!