AN OTHERWORDLY OUTPOST
Elevation: 6,781 feet
WHAT TO DO IN LEE VINING
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Drive out on Highway 120 east to the South Tufa Area for a close-up wander around the lake and those crazy-looking limestone spires. If you want to see volcanos, look at the islands in the lake or turn south and gaze at the Mono-Inyo Craters.
If you’re traveling between Lee Vining and Bishop or anywhere beyond and don’t mind going off the beaten path, get off Highway 395 and take Highway 6 to the east. (From Lee Vining you’ll find it via Highway 120 East and from Bishop there’s a turnoff from 395 right outside town.) Driving this road a bit more removed from the Sierra’s shadow gives an incredible vantage point of the range in long view, not to mention a better glimpse of the White Mountains and their own hugeness.
Take Highway 395 north out of town until it climbs Conway Summit and rounds a bend beside a vista point. Stop there to gawk at Mono Lake and hundreds of bumper stickers. Extra points for finding TerraNovaSierra!
Make the customary tourist stop at the Mobil station for souvenirs and the Whoa Nellie Deli’s gourmet gas station grub. You won’t find lobster taquitos anywhere else nearby.
Yosemite’s Remote East Side Gateway
Lee Vining started as an outpost. Leroy Vining was one of the first settlers in the Mono Basin, and his sawmill here supplied lumber as mining towns around the area expanded. Today, Lee Vining could still be considered an outpost.
As the eastern gateway to Yosemite, many visitors use it as their base camp since lodging inside the park is sparse. Compared to Yosemite’s other entry points, it’s more remote — some 80 miles from the valley, a drive that takes roughly two hours in good conditions. Nonetheless, it’s the closest town to the park’s Tioga Pass entrance, which is the primary route coming from the East.
That also makes Lee Vining a common stopping point for supplies, be it gas, food or souvenirs. A popular destination is the Tioga Gas Mart, which offers these essentials along with gourmet gas station cuisine and live music on an outdoor patio.
The Tioga Timeframe: Shortest Season of All Sierra Passes
But the Tioga Pass has the shortest travel window of all Sierra passes, typically the last to open in late spring or early summer (May or June). Between Lee Vining and the Yosemite entrance, the Tioga Pass climbs more than 3,000 feet to reach an elevation of 9,945 feet, making it California’s highest mountain pass and one of the highest paved roads in the state. Inside the park, the portion of Highway 120 that is known as the Tioga Road extends all the way to Crane Flat. This marks the other end of where the Tioga closes for winter. Clearing the road from here to just west of Lee Vining is a major undertaking. It starts in the middle of April and takes more than a month, sometimes two.
Once the gates close across the Tioga Road for the season, Lee Vining is essentially sealed off from the western part of the state and becomes considerably quieter.
An Ancient Land: The Dana Plateau
Lee Vining is, however, much more than a way station and remarkable in its own right, with the surrounding landscape providing a view into history that traces back millions of years. Besides Yosemite, another attraction to the more immediate west is the Dana Plateau near Mount Dana — the second-highest peak in Yosemite. (The two are connected by a ridge.)
The boulder-strewn Dana Plateau is one of the few areas in the Sierra that escaped carving by glaciers in recent Ice Ages. It’s visible from Highway 395 as a massive, unbroken wall in the Sierra Crest and is accessible via challenging hiking routes starting near the Tioga Road.
Compared to the sculpted terrain surrounding it, this two-mile stretch is relatively level. What’s more incredible is that this now lofty habitat predates the uplift of the Sierra Nevada to a time some 25 million years ago when mastadons prowled this flat, hilly landscape. The rocks have withstood the effects of nature for an unfathomable period of time, with some bearing shallow pits called weatherpans that are symbols of erosion that has gone on for eons.
Mono Lake: An Ancient Sea of Peculiarities
The most well-known Lee Vining attraction is Mono Lake, another remnant of ancient times. Thought to be more than a million years old, the salty desert lake is one of the oldest in North America. It covers more than 60 square miles, but used to be the size of a sea — almost five times larger and 900 feet deep.
Mono Lake is unusual for several reasons, the most obvious being its appearance. It’s surrounded by tufas — misshapen limestone towers that form when fresh water from underground springs find their way to the alkaline lake. Tufas continue to grow until the lake recedes and they become part of the shoreline. At that point, they cease to gain height. Some are more than 30 feet tall. Tufas are visible all around the lake, but the best place to see them is the South Tufa Area on Mono Lake’s southern shore.
The tufas look like something from another planet. Even NASA has agreed, seeing resemblance between Mono Lake’s tufas and a meteorite discovered in Antarctica that was eventually determined to have come from Mars. NASA also thought they had discovered an alien life form at Mono Lake — bacteria distinct from all others on earth. The idea has since been refuted, but Mono Lake is still being studied by scientists.
Salty Water that Cleans Clothes, But No Fish
Mono Lake’s salty water stems from the lake being a closed basin. The fresh water streams that feed it have no other outlet because of the surrounding mountains. Instead, the water evaporates and becomes salty and dense with minerals. That density makes it very easy to float if you were to swim. The water’s composition has also been found to be very cleansing; settlers used it to wash clothes without any need for soap. Mark Twain also wrote of doing so in Roughing It.
Though there aren’t fish — they couldn’t survive in its alkaline makeup — Mono Lake is very important for a few other animals. Along the shore, you’re likely to see a carpet of insects. They’re alkaline flies and used to be a food source for the Indians. They’re drawn to the algae, as are brine shrimp. The two in turn attract birds. Scores of migratory bird species visit Mono Lake. Among them are seagulls, which come from the coast in the spring to nest. The majority of California’s gulls are born at Mono Lake.
Another Chapter in the Water Wars: “Save Mono Lake”
Like Owens Lake to the south, Mono Lake was also embroiled in the Water Wars, but with a different end result. After the city of Los Angeles started to divert water from Owens Lake in 1913 to quench the needs of its growing population, it then sought out additional land and water rights in the Eastern Sierra to expand the aqueduct further and carry more water south. In 1941, four streams feeding Mono Lake started being routed through the aqueduct as a result of the Mono Basin Project.
By the late 1970s, Mono Lake’s surface area shrank more than 30%, the water volume was reduced by half and its ecosystem had been drastically compromised as the water retreated and the shoreline grew. Conservation activism arose, with “Save Mono Lake” stickers appearing on vehicles. And so awareness of the environmental considerations grew. (Years later, there would be a song about efforts to protect Mono Lake — “No Mo Mono.”)
In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that the lake’s natural resources must be protected as decisions were made about the water. A decade later in 1994, limits were set for water diversion so that the lake level would remain at 6,380 feet above sea level.
Lee Vining’s Volcanoes: Mono Lake’s Islands & the Mono-Inyo Craters
Like Mammoth Lakes to the south, Lee Vining also has a visible volcanic legacy. The two islands in Mono Lake were formed by volcanic spewing, and the one called Paoha is where the most recent Sierra-area eruption took place. It wasn’t all that long ago in geological time, possibly as recently as 1850.
More obvious are the Mono-Inyo Craters. This 18-mile chain of volcanoes between Mono Lake and the Long Valley Caldera is possibly the youngest mountain range in North America, and it has a distinctly volcanic look. There are at least 30 lava flows, domes and craters here, and the last eruption was some 600 years ago.
Winter in Lee Vining
Though Lee Vining has a deserted feel in winter after Yosemite visitors stop coming through, it does have some unique winter draws.
Lee Vining Canyon is known worldwide to ice climbers who come to conquer the frozen waterfalls. Mountaineer — and Patagonia founder — Yvon Chouinard is considered a pioneer in ice climbing because he created a new type of ice axe that proved to be a game-changer, opening the door for the pursuit to become more popular. He was one of the first to ice climb in Lee Vining Canyon, and it is here where he tested his ideas for new tools.
Winter is also when a phenomenon known as Pogonip Fog makes appearances over Mono Lake. Composed of ice crystals, it’s essentially a frozen fog. Very dense, it is a rather rare occurrence during very cold weather in mountain valleys. As the ice crystals eventually settle, the fog leaves behind a cold crystal coating on surfaces in its wake.
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