Mono Lake, located at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park is a treasure in its own right. The salty, highly-alkaline water creates tufa formations that rise from the lake like craggy stalagmites, creating stunning views at sunrise and sunset. The Sierra Nevada Mountains form a majestic backdrop to the low-lying basin. The area is a mecca for birdwatchers. An estimated two-million water birds call the Mono Lake Basin home for at least part of the year, including 35 species of shorebirds. Guests to Mono Lake may come and go, but the captivating beauty will stay with you for years to come.
Mono Lake is about 300 miles from San Francisco. The drive through Vacaville past Sac is a bit boring, but the haunting beauty of Mono Lake is worth the initial monotony. 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 glorious 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. Follow US-395 S for 86 miles until you reach Picnic Shortcut Road at Mono Lake.
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 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 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.
This modern visitor center, opened in 1992, has interactive displays in two galleries that teach guests about the history, ecology, and geology of the Mono Basin. Enjoy the 20-minute film, Of Ice and Fire: A Portrait of the Mono Basin, or pick the brains of the Park Ranger docents who are happy to satisfy curious minds. This is so much more than a typical visitor center. Spend an hour or so here soaking up knowledge and your visit to Mono Lake will be much more enriching and enjoyable.
Tioga Road, which winds into the Sierra Nevada mountains, is only open from May through October, though it’s not unusual for a late-spring storm to push that date back. Summer is the best time to visit, when this eastern-most gateway to Yosemite National Park is lined with wildflowers and teeming with fauna like eagles, elk, deer, and marmot. There are plenty of opportunities to stop along the way for photographs or to enjoy a picnic lunch. This truly is a spectacular trip with some of the prettiest scenery in the country if you’re lucky enough to visit in-season.
Mono Lake is over one-million years old. Over time, salt and mineral runoff from the high Sierra springs have left the water incredibly alkaline and 2 ½ times as salty as the ocean. The interaction of this alkaline water and freshwater springs have formed “tufas”, knotty calcium-carbonate formations that rise from Mono Lake to create amazing views. They’re hauntingly beautiful at sunrise and sunset, but the indescribable beauty of the tufa formations should not be missed no matter the time of day. There are guided tours or well-marked hiking trails for those who want to explore on their own.
This small white clapboard building, located just across the street from Mono Cone, houses a variety of artifacts ranging from the artwork of native Paiute Indians to vintage farm tools. The grounds feature displays of old mining equipment that tell the story of the early development of the region as a mining town. There’s also the infamous upside-down house. Yes, it’s actually an upside-down house that you must see to believe. Take advantage of the knowledgeable docents – they really know their history, but they’ll also share tips on the best local spots for visitors.
This casual operation is a one-man show run by Tom, the owner, from a tiny building adjacent to the parking lot across from the Tioga Lodge. He rents kayaks by the hour and recommends that renters start early before the winds die down in mid-afternoon. Rentals are suggested for visitors in reasonably good physical condition, as you will have to drag the kayak to the entry point and back, as well as paddle along the way. Head down toward the tufa formations and enjoy an amazing view that those visiting by land will envy. Bird-watching opportunities are a given and your photos will be the talk of social media. Cash and cards accepted.