Explore the Mono Lake Tufas under the Milky Way

Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

Surreal landscape of tufa formations. Incredible star and Milky Way viewing under very dark night skies. Wildlife viewing, with an estimated 2 million annual migratory birds. Solitude.

This past spring, I got the urge to photograph the Milky Way over the other-worldly landscape of Mono Lake, a large, desert saline lake at the edge of the eastern Sierras in California. One of the the lake's defining features is it’s incredible tufa rock formations, a variety of limestone. The eastern Sierra is also known for it's dark night skies, which make the perfect backdrop for light painting and photographing the tufas under the gorgeous Milky Way.Knowing that the Milky Way is visible in the northern hemisphere from April through October, I picked a weekend of the new moon in mid-April and forecast meteor showers to book a room at nearby dog- and budget-friendly Murphy’s Motel in Lee Vining, and keep my fingers crossed for clear skies.After 1:am, I parked at a popular and well marked gravel parking lot at the end of Test Station Road, and walked the loop trail down to the lake shore.It was fun to play around with a little light painting on the tufas. I came prepared with a powerful LED flashlight, and colored gels to get different effects. I also used my little red headlamp, and a battery powered string of purple Christmas lights set up hundreds of feet away to get a pleasing color composition that was barely detectable by the naked eye during the exposure.

Gear & Settings Used:Camera: Canon 6D,Lens: Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8,ISO: 3200,Exposure: 25 seconds,Aperture: f/2.8,File format RAW.

As the long night wandering among the Mono Lake tufas photographing the Milky Way started to wind down, the hours before sunrise when the millions of stars started to fade in the skies over Battleship Rock conjured a beautiful blue glow, and eventually photographers arrived to capture the sunrise, just as I was leaving to get some sleep!

Pack List

  • DSLR Camera
  • Wide angle lens with a wide aperture of F/2.8 or wider.
  • Tripod
  • Headlamp with a red light to keep your eyes adjusted to the dark
  • Extra camera battery
  • Flashlights and colored gels, or battery operated Christmas lights for light painting the tufas
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Activities Photography, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Spring, Summer, Autumn
Easy Parking


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Stay Warm And Hydrated

If shooting at Mono Lake or any place along HWY 395, keep in mind that the temperatures do go down with the sun. It is also a good idea to have water with you. A backpacking pad and sleeping bag can come in handy while you are waiting for awesomeness in the night sky.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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