Lee Vining is the gateway to the historic Mono Lake and is nestled at the base of the enchanting Sierra Nevadas. This serene vacation launch pad is right below Tioga Pass, and it's the ideal location for adventure and thrill seekers with their sights on Yosemite National Park or the Mono Basin, hot springs and hiking, ghost town vibes and mining tales of golden days past.
Lee Vining is 300 miles of an arcing route east from San Francisco. Take I-80 E toward Bay Bridge/Oakland and continue onto I-580 W/I-80 E for about 80 miles. Keep left at the fork to continue on I-80BL E/US-50 E/Capital City Fwy and follow signs for Interstate 80 Business/Sacramento/South Lake Tahoe. Five miles later continue on US-50 E/El Dorado Fwy. This part of the drive will take you through a gorgeous stretch of El Dorado National Forest.
Find a scenic overlook here if you need to stop and stretch your legs. Near the eastern edge of the forest, you’ll turn right onto CA-89 S and 11 miles later, left onto CA-88 E/CA-89 S. There are a few turns in quick succession coming up. You’ll enter Nevada and continue on NV-88 N for a few miles before making a right onto NV-756 E/Centerville Ln. Continue straight on Dresslerville Rd for just under 1.5 miles and then continue onto Riverview Dr before making a right onto US-395 S/US-395 N. That's your run all the way down past Topaz Lake. When you reach Mono Lake, you're in the neighborhood.
The Yosemite Gateway Motel is a value option and it doesn’t have much curb appeal, but you know what they say – location, location, location. Just wait until you step onto one of the furnished terraces in the back and take in the stunning views of Mono Lake. Mono Lake Tufa Reserve is a mere five-minute drive and you’re only 12 miles from the East Entrance of Yosemite. The rooms are small but clean and every single one has lake views. Free Wi-Fi and daily housekeeping.
The Lake View Lodge in Lee Vining features spacious rooms in a tranquil setting just 13 miles from the East Entrance to Yosemite National Park. All rooms are outfitted with a microwave, refrigerator, coffee machine, satellite TV, and free toiletries – but you won’t be spending much time in your room! The lodge is just a few minutes from Mono Lake, which is visible from the lovely garden on the property. The only downside is that there’s no internet access, but unplugging for a weekend could be just what the doctor ordered.
The view as you approach the Double Eagle Resort & Spa is absolutely breathtaking. It’s located on June Lake, nestled in old-growth pines with Mammoth Mountain rising majestically in the background. The resort features a lovely indoor pool, spa facilities, a fitness center, and a full-service bar and restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some of the boutique-style rooms have a fireplace or balcony and there are two-bedroom cottages on the property with fully-equipped kitchens. One of the most highly-rated accommodations in the area.
The name sure is a mouthful, but this tiny café located in the El Mono Motel is a local treasure. The friendly proprietor has turned this cozy spot into a community gathering place, but passers through are kindly welcomed. It’s clean and quirky with amazing gardens and plenty of hidden nooks to sip your morning brew. The baked goods are fresh, the sandwiches are filling, and the menu is loaded with vegan and vegetarian-friendly choices. Open 7 am – 8 pm daily.
The Mono Inn is a romantic steakhouse that’s open for dinner only Friday through Sunday. It’s one of the few fine dining options in the area and features a typical American chophouse menu done right, with generous portions, fresh ingredients, and steaks cooked to perfection. The incredible views from the Gallery Room overlooking Mono Lake are most stunning at sunset, so reserve your table early. Attire is casual despite the upscale ambiance.
Mono Cone, just steps from the Mono Basin Historical Society, is a great place to bring the kids for lunch, an early dinner, or just a treat to spoil their appetites. The menu features mouthwatering burgers, fries, and run-of-the-mill fried foods, but people really come for the ice cream. Check out unique concoctions like Oreo peanut butter ice cream or the buttermilk blackberry shake. Open from 11 am – 6 pm daily. Mono Cone is cash-only but there’s an ATM on the premises.
If a slow cruise is your style or you just want a break from the heat of summer, there are few drives that rival this one. Tioga Road cuts and curls through breath-taking Yosemite National Park. Get out and hike or rope up to climb some of the most storied rock walls in the sport. Or just capture photos from your window and as you pass through, jaw-dropped and in love. There is no wrong in a place that feels so right.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve near Lee Vining lays out the outdoor life in spades. Rent kayaks or take canoe tours in summer. Join naturalist-led walk-and-talk sessions, like the one-hour walking tour of the world-famous South Tufa grove, in which you will learn about Mono Lake's million-year old ecosystem. Of course, you can venture on your own hike, too, or wet a line and breath easy while the sun sets in pink.
June Mountain in nearby June Lake is prime adventure, especially in winter, when the skis and snowboards come out of the closet and carry whoops and smiles racing through the pow. There are lessons for kids and adults, terrain parks to slay and backcountry tours to tackle. In summer, take a hike and maybe play wedding crasher. The views are awesome and the slopes turn lush green.
Load 'em up and saddle up for a gorgeous horseback mountain ride, a taste of the cowboy life without the true-grit troubles. Frontier Pack Train in nearby June Lake has you covered, with all the know-how and hand-holding you might need. The crew is friendly and the experiences amazing.
The Travertine Hot Springs in Bridgeport are an area favorite. If you love a hot soak, this is a must-do. The views can't be beat. You can drive to the first pools and, with a short hike, reach deeper into thermal bliss with the jagged Sawtooth Ridge stretched in front of you. Find the springs off Jack Sawyer Rd., east of town.