Exploring Hwy 395: Mono Lake in California

Visiting Mono Lake near Mammoth, California was an adventure on our roadtrip up Highway 395 in late March. Just 1-hour from Bishop, CA, this lake is 65-square miles long and has 3x the salinity of the ocean, which began forming 750,000 years ago. Powerful winds, 32°F weather, combined with approximately 6,380 ft of elevation made for extreme conditions for us “city slickers” from Los Angeles. Without a doubt, the hike from the parking lot down to the greenish-blue water, made it worth it. Keep reading to learn about travel tips for this area. 

My brother Sean staring at the lake

With snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake, we knew it would be cold and windy but we didn’t expect to be it to be so “rough.” We saw a family at the end of the boardwalk and one of the children yelled, “Where did you bring us dad? I can’t feel my hands or my face! It’s too cold and too windy! Let’s get a move on, guys.” The boy was probably 8 or 9 years old. The boy’s sister was screaming and wanting to go back to the car. We totally felt the same way as the wind was bone-chilling cold.

Photo by Steven Buena

On the way back up the trail, combined with high winds and altitude, there was a section of the boardwalk where it was hard to breathe. So, take your time as the elevation can be tough for those used to sea-level. I logged my outdoor walk from the water to the car and it was 0.39 MI with 281 feet of elevation gain. 

However, the walk down the boardwalk to the water made for amazing views and there were opportunities to stop to read about the area, as pictured below.

Travel Tips for Visiting Mono Lake in California

1. Timing is Key: Plan your visit to Mono Lake during the spring or fall for more comfortable weather conditions and fewer crowds. Summer can be hot, and winter brings snow, so be prepared accordingly. We learned the hard way but it was worth it. See my video at the bottom of this post to see how strong the winds were.

2. Explore Diverse Attractions: While Mono Lake is the main draw, don't miss out on nearby attractions like the tufa towers at South Tufa Reserve, scenic overlooks along Highway 395, and nearby natural hot springs for a relaxing soak or check out the Hot Creek Geological Site. Make sure to visit June Lake, Twin Lakes, and Convict Lake nearby. Convict Lake was our favorite and we back two days in a row! Note that during late March, Twin Lakes froze so there wasn’t much to see but a blanket of snow. The drive up was also sketchy with bad visibility, snow covered roads, and pellets of snow that hit you in the face.

3. Stay Informed: Before your trip, check weather forecasts and road conditions, especially during winter months. Some areas may require four-wheel drive or tire chains during snowy conditions. We specifically rented a car with all wheel drive and luckily, the salesperson recommended the Audi Q3 as he was in Mammoth the week before.

4. Protect Yourself from the Sun: The high elevation and reflective surface of the lake can amplify UV rays. Wear sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses to protect yourself from sunburn.

5. Bring Water and Snacks: While there are facilities nearby, it's always wise to carry water and snacks, especially if you plan on exploring the area for an extended period.

6. Respect Wildlife: Mono Lake is a vital habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. Observe animals from a distance and avoid disturbing nesting areas or sensitive ecosystems.

7. Photography Tips: Capture the stunning landscape of Mono Lake during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset for the best lighting. Experiment with different angles to showcase the unique tufa formations and vast expanse of the lake.

8. Learn About the Ecosystem: Visit the Mono Lake Visitor Center to learn about the lake's ecology, conservation efforts, and the importance of preserving this unique environment.

9. Stay Overnight: Consider camping at one of the nearby campgrounds or booking accommodations in Lee Vining or Mammoth Lakes for a longer stay. Camping allows you to experience the serene beauty of the area under the starry night sky.

10. Leave No Trace: Help preserve the natural beauty of Mono Lake by practicing Leave No Trace principles. Pack out all trash, stay on designated trails, and respect the fragile ecosystem during your visit.

The view of the lake behind us.

Photo by Steven Buena

Photo by Steven Buena

Photo by Steven Buena

Photo by Steven Buena

Did You Know…

Mono Lake, located in Eastern California, has a crucial yet fragile ecosystem facing environmental challenges. Spanning over 65 square miles, this saline lake serves as a habitat for millions of migratory birds and supports a unique ecosystem. However, its delicate balance is threatened by human activities and climate change.

Mono lake in the distance

One of the significant issues plaguing Mono Lake is the diversion of water from its tributary streams by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). This diversion has caused a drastic drop in the lake's water level, leading to the exposure of its alkaline lakebed and the formation of hazardous alkali dust storms. These disturbances endanger the breeding grounds for various bird species and disrupt the lake's ecological equilibrium.

Snowy mountains surrounding Mono Lake

Efforts to mitigate these challenges have been ongoing. Legal battles and conservation initiatives have aimed to restore the lake's water levels and protect its fragile ecosystem. The Mono Lake Committee, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Mono Lake, has played a pivotal role in advocacy and restoration efforts.

Green blue water next to snow capped mountain tops

Mono Lake continues to face an uncertain future. Climate change exacerbates the lake's water scarcity issues, with rising temperatures contributing to increased evaporation rates. Additionally, the demand for water in California's growing urban centers presents a persistent challenge to maintaining a sustainable water balance for Mono Lake. I’m hoping with the recent storms we had, this is less of an issue. Even Death Valley National Park has a lake after the recent rain. 

Stakeholders continue to navigate the complexities of preserving Mono Lake's ecosystem.

Overall, this visit was great and the views were amazing. We were shocked at the white caps on the water as it resembled an ocean with strong currents. Make sure to check the weather beforehand as you don’t want to experience the strong winds that we did. I nearly had a panic attack when I couldn’t breathe due to the strong winds and high elevation!

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