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Mono Lake: One of the Best Stops on US-395

One of the most wildly convenient beauties in Northern California.

By: AJ Johnson + Save to a List

THE 395!!! Several rad cats at the Outbound have written up the 395, boasting all of its road tripping and sightseeing merits. I really got trapped inside my own mind when I contemplated this, which seems incredible to me… Mount Whitney is the highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation in the neighborhood of 14,500 feet – and about 80 or 90 miles to the southeast, we’ve got the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park at 282 feet below sea level. What. The US-395 bisects the two, which are the tip of the iceberg for all that is to be seen along the way - Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Death Valley National Park, Bodie State Historic Park (Ghost Town), Alabama Hills, Tioga PassYosemite National Park, Mammoth Mountain, Whitney Portal, hot springs galore, a quiver of lakes, the JMT, everything I haven’t said yet, and everything out there I’ve yet to discover. Good gracious.

I gotta say – if you’ve got the choice of a California sightseeing roadtrip, if you’re not doing the coastal route via CA-1/PCH, I’d have to recommend the US-395. On Highway 1, there’s pretty much one way up and back along the coast. It’s truly breathtaking. Do it if you haven’t. Period. But I’ve hit the US-395 more times than I can count, have never done the same trip twice, and am not even close to scraping the surface of all the natural wonders it offers along the way. Literally, lifetimes of exploration. 

So most recently, I shot up the US-395 with a good buddy of mine (What up, Jake!?). He’s been learning the photog ropes and I suggested we do a little workshop at Mono Lake. I’d driven past the lake before, you know, from a distance, but had never seen the tufa structures on its south shores. Nugget: basically, tufas are formed when carbonates from lake water meet calcium that’s found in underwater springs, forming calcium carbonate – limestone. As a result, they grow exclusively under water. As a part of the early water diversion projects that would become the California Water Project, the water levels of Mono Lake fell dramatically after WWII.

Anyways, I thought these tufas would make for really photogenic, naturally-occurring elements, and knew that the surrounding area was pretty much all-time gorgeous, so we headed up there with the idea that we’d explore the space, rummage the grounds, hunt for some good photo spots, and take some photos around the lake between, say, 3:00 PM and 10:00 PM. As an iron-fisted travel buddy, I made Jake stay at Mono past the golden hour, sunset, and into the night because I wanted to take some astrophotos, even though it wasn’t Milky Way season (we went in February, where peak MWS is around the June solstice. First time I’ve used MWS to refer to Milky Way season. Will not be the last). I google-imaged (this is a verb, right?) the lake ahead of time to see what other folks had captured from their time there, and noticed that there wasn’t much by the way of winter scenes. So I did a little more research. I thought it would be cool, even though we wouldn’t have the best galactic visibility (you can’t have it all, AJ, #GalacticVis), to try our hand at some compositions that had the tufas, lake, snow-capped mountains, etc. Bizarre, maybe otherworldly, even. I figured that at such a low elevation, it would be unlikely that the regular road closures in and around the area would affect our chances at visiting the lake. And that was about the only risk we ran, a potential road closure near the south rim of the lake.

So we went for it, and the road was very not closed. We walked right up to the lake and got to work. Here’s what happened:

If you love nature, and taking photographs, please stop here next you have the chance! The best part? If rushed, you could legitimately make this stop in 30 minutes!!!!! It’s right off the US-395, and well marked. The tufas aren’t but 300 yards from the parking lot. I ended up taking more like 8 hours, but I have a lot of time on my hands ☺ 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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