The Eastern Sierras straddle the border between Nevada and California and are home to craggy peaks, pine and aspen forests, and beautiful alpine and desert lakes. One of the most famous of these lakes is Mono Lake, which is about a two-hour drive south of Lake Tahoe.
Mono Lake tufa at sunset — Photo courtesy of jkirkhart35
Mono Lake is an ancient lake (over 1 million years old) that covers about 65 square miles of California high desert. Salts and minerals from the nearby mountains have washed into the lake over the years and since Mono has no outlet, when the water evaporates from the lake, it leaves these minerals behind to create strange and alien-like tufa towers and formations. The lake is more than two times saltier than the ocean and very alkaline. Because of this, there are no fish in the lake, but it does have a large migratory bird population.
Mono Lake is coming close to dying. In 1941, the city of Los Angeles diverted the lake's tributary streams 350 miles south as a water source for the growing southern metropolis. Since then, Mono has dropped 40 feet and much of the wildlife in the area has disappeared.
Mono Lake and fall aspen trees — Photo courtesy of jkirkhart35
The Mono Lake Visitor Center is a round, open pavilion with drop-dead views of the lake and the shoreline. The center has interactive displays on the geology, ecology and human history of the area and rangers are available all day for questions and tours. Free walks led by area naturalists are scheduled regularly as well as sunset tours of the famous South Tufa. Canoe and kayak tours are also available. You may bring your own kayak or canoe on Mono and you can walk along its edge. Swimming is not encouraged because of the alkalinity in the water and the delicate ecosystem.
Just north of Mono Lake is the ghost town of Bodie. It is considered one of the largest and most well-preserved ghost towns in California and is located at the end of a bumpy 13-mile dirt road just off Highway 395. In 1859, when gold was discovered in the area, the town grew from about 20 miners to over 10,000 people in about 30 years. At the time, the town boasted 65 saloons.
The ghost town of Bodie still has some well-preserved homes from the 1880s — Photo courtesy of Jim Bahn
The current town still has over 100 buildings (full of furniture and other items), mining equipment, the cemetery and part of a railroad spread out over several miles; be prepared for some walking. When visiting the ghost town, also be prepared to run into a lot of tourists. Bodie is hugely popular with visitors all over the world and parking can be a problem. Get there early to find a parking spot.
Both Mono Lake and Bodie are located about 15 miles east of Yosemite National Park near the small town of Lee Vining.