If you’re a photographer and you live in California, you’ve probably been to Mono Lake at least once. Mono Lake seems to be a required stop for all amateur photographers at least once. The reasons are obvious if you’ve been, with the quiet beauty of the eastern Sierras in the background, the unusual formations called Tufa Towers, and the opportunity for large vistas. All of the possibilities that are apparent at Mono Lake are coupled with its proximity to Yosemite National Park just over Tioga Pass, and Bodie State Park (the famous 19th century ghost town) just north and slightly east on Highway 395, make this stop a must see, especially if you’re visiting other attractions in the area.
Mono Lake has had a rocky history. It seems that much of the watershed that feeds Mono Lake is also a major source of water for Los Angeles. Or at least it used to be several years ago. As Los Angeles began to draw water, the levels at Mono Lake steadily dropped and as is usually the case, delicate environmental systems became stressed. In this case, though, it seems that reasonable heads finally prevailed and agreements were reached, or at least dictated by the courts that allowed the City of Los Angeles to continue drawing water at some level, but required that the lake be maintained at a certain level.
All the politics and environmental issues aside, Mono Lake has always been a special place for us to visit. Being originally Californians, and specifically northern Californians, we’ve paid many visits to Mono Lake on our way to other destinations on the eastern side of the Sierras. We wouldn’t normally make a special trip to the eastern side just to visit Mono Lake, but we rarely drive past it without stopping. The Tufa Towers don’t change much, but the light is always different and the shot is never the same.
We recommend the winter months if you have it in you to move around the lake in that kind of cold weather. The days are short and the sun is low compared to the summer months, giving interesting contrast and shadows to the tufa towers. If not the winter, then other times either early in the morning or late in the day. Actually, early in the morning would be best because the sun will be to your back for most shots because of the location of the tufa towers and where you need to be to view them. Plus, in the afternoon, the sun goes behind the Sierras before it really gets low since the lake is right up against the side of the mountains.
Whether you’re a photographer, or just interested in unusual geologic formations, Mono Lake is worth a stop if you’re in the area for any reason.