Destination: Mono Lake, California
(Bonus Tracks: An Authentic Western Ghost Town and The Devil’s Playground)
Sometimes, the best road trips are lightly planned. A few weeks ago I emailed my husband: “Let’s drive to Mono Lake for the weekend.”
It was Thursday.
He humored me and off we went at 6 (yawn!) a.m. on Saturday. It’s a bit of a drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. But during the 325-mile journey we had time enough to spare for a few wrong turns, well-placed bio breaks, and a burger at Mono Cone in Lee Vining, before barreling down the dusty road to the South Tufa area of the lake for the scheduled 1 p.m. free, naturalist-led walk.
South Tufa is one of the largest Tufa groves on the lake. Put simply: Mix calcium-rich water with baking soda, and bam! a chemical reaction creates gigantic underwater towers of limestone worthy of a scene in Frozen. Thanks to Los Angeles which for decades has diverted any water legally in reach to quench its thirsty SoCal residents, the salinity level in the lake is high and the water level is low. Therefore the limestone giants are exposed and on display for the thousands of tourists who come annually to see its surreal landscape. The Mono Lake Committee explains it all here.
LA has been under orders to help restore Mono Lake to a specific height, but as this report shows, there’s a long way to go.
Besides millions and millions of brine shrimp and the somewhat odd Alkali fly, there’s no life in the lake. Still, those shrimp draw a wide variety of bird species every summer so bring your binoculars.
We would have learned all this on the guided walk, however, after 15 minutes of waiting in the wind and the penetrating sun for our absent leader to appear, we gave up, and headed on our own along the mile-long, well-marked interpretive trail through the tufas. Yes, you can swim here if you want to feel what it is like to float among the salt and bicarbonates (prepare to hose off after. I swam in Utah’s Great Salt Lake once and came out crusty with salt). But really, the water looked a bit gross, and the wind made it unpleasant to be out there longer than an hour.
Luckily, the lake is not the only area attraction. Who can resist a Western ghost town? Bodie State Historic Park looks deceivingly close on the map, but the drive is a good hour from the lake since the last 13 miles are along a secondary road, some of it dirt. A highlight of the drive was coming upon a herd of sheep being, yup, herded by a modern-day shepherd and his dogs.
The thing I love about Bodie is that while most ghost towns boast only of the wild brothels and drunken brawls that dominated the gold rush years, it feels like it was once a real community. There were schools, a bowling alley, a general store, a church and a gym, and they are all still standing. Instead of replacing everything with roped-off, sterile museum pieces, the park has kept the innards of these structures au natural for better or worse. The chalkboard at the school still bears the apparent scrawlings of a past teacher, and a cracked, dusty globe sits in front of a window.
Rangers living on site guard these remnants of history and chase away the likes of the obnoxious drone pilot who was messing with our solitude when we were there (really dude did you think the rangers wouldn’t hear the annoying mosquito-like buzz of your drone in a ghost town?) The other thing that feels authentic about this place, is that the road through it is a real road, albeit, dirt, and vehicles, as well as the occasional dirt bike, pass through to who knows where.
Plan for an hour or two here, especially if you want to see every building. Despite the many visitors, it is a pleasant place to take a stroll and peek into what lies behind the smudged windows. In season, there are ranger-led walks, but we opted for the self-guided pamphlet tour. My husband narrated at each stop.
This is a gorgeous place to take photographs as the light lowers toward evening because it brings out the wood grain patterns on the buildings.
Sunset is a must-see at Mono Lake too. We managed to catch the last moments of daylight there after leaving Bodie. We would have been there sooner, had we bothered to sort out one detail in advance: a place to stay for the night. There’s no WiFi or cell signal at Bodie, but luckily we had packed some (print!) travel books where I found some possible options. (Why I still love travel books will be an upcoming essay topic).
Even on an early October weekend — the shoulder season between summer tourists and winter skiers — many of the limited options were sold out. Remember, the highly-visited Yosemite National Park is just a 30-minute drive away.
With a cell signal at last, I dialed up Tamarack Lodge and Resort. They had a two-bedroom cabin for $400-plus. Ugh. Yes, “resort” can be code for pricey. But it is a lodge too, right? Yes!. There was a room in the lodge with one double bed, but with a shared bath. For $124, how bad can it be sharing a bathroom with four other rooms? Sold!
The lodge is located in a quiet spot a mile or two outside of the commercialized village of Mammoth Lakes, and it is set on twin lakes backdropped by stunning mountains. By the time we pulled in, it was dark, and the temperature had dropped to down jacket weather, and so the warm cozy, log cabin feel of the place was perfect. The people were super friendly. The rambling wooden floors creak and are far from level, adding to the rustic charm of the place. (Bathroom sharing? They were separated by gender. The women’s room had two restrooms, one including a private shower that locks. Only one toilet was backed up by morning)
The restaurant is expensive, and the food does not quite meet up to the cost. But it is rustically elegant, we kicked back with dinner and a bottle of wine after a long day on the road.
The next morning, the free breakfast was generous. We lingered afterwards, taking a walk by the lake along the tree-lined bike path. Soon, we headed out for one final attraction before heading home: The Devils Postpile National Monument. Prepare again for a winding drive, this time, a one laner. Speed Limit under 15 MPH.
It was barely 11 a.m. when we arrived at the park’s tiny parking lot in which vehicles were shoehorned every which way. We managed to fit our Scion into an awkward space. Within minutes, a ranger was shooing other drivers away, and boy, did everyone get grumpy fast. Who wants to white knuckle it all the way back along that hairy road without having seen the main event?
The postpile is an easy walk from the parking lot. This is an unexplained freak of geology. The columns of rock are aligned in stacks and each one is a perfectly shaped hexagon. This ranks in the you-must-see-it-to-believe-it category. So come early, take a stroll to the pile, and don’t skip the side route that goes to the top. Then, hurry out and make room for those drivers waiting for their chance.
Then, do what we did, head to Mono Cone, and do get a cone (Large is too large), and savor some premium soft serve as well as the last sweet moments of your adventure. The reality of Monday awaits.
IF YOU GO: Limited accommodations, gas stations and dining options are available in Lee Vining, Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes. Bring cash for park fees and some roadside cafes. Summers are hot and winters are cold. Pack water, snacks, tire chains, warm clothes, sun block and a hat. Mono Lake is at 6,300 feet, Bodie is at 8,600 feet and the highest point on the drive from the San Francisco Bay Area is Sonora Pass at 9,600 feet. Not all roads are passable in the winter. Check the weather forecast and park schedules before you hit the road. Both Bodie and Postpile close or are inaccessible in bad weather. And, sorry, Mono Cone shuts for the winter in October.
Electric Vehicle Drivers: There are Tesla-only chargers in Mammoth Lakes.