Mono Lake & Red Rocks
Mono Lake is another one of those amazing places that shows you how much variety there is in California nature. Located just 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park, it was formed almost a million years ago, is a hotspot for migratory birds, and is slowly getting shallower and shallower. I’ve wanted to visit this incredible place ever since spying out some amazing photos from a friend at the Mono Lake Tufa Reserve. The tufas are limestone towers that have been formed by carbonate minerals in the water and they make one side of the lake look almost like an alien landscape. When Jeanne and I first decided to do as many weekend trips as possible this was one of the first locations I suggested, but we didn’t make it up there till late March. Clearly we weren’t thinking very much when we thought how great it would be to camp… it was so cold when we got there at 2 am that none of us wanted to get out and set up the tent that we just ended up sleeping in the car!
Thankfully there were only four of us so we were moderately comfortable… sometimes I really love being short. But we did have a much quicker start in the morning because of it and a great view of this lake we had parked next to without even noticing.
Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
If you go to Mono Lake and only have a short time this is where you should visit. The loop around the reserve is only about a mile, but it winds down to the lake and through all the tufas. When the water is calm you everything reflects perfectly in its surface, but the slight breeze ruined the effect for us. We went down there early enough in the off-season (Yosemite wasn’t opening up for another couple weeks) that there wasn’t anyone else there and we ended up straying off the designated walking path on accident because we were so interested in the structures. They would have been really fun to climb, but we had to refrain from even touching them because of how delicate they are. We spent a good part of the morning here taking photos and then decided we should go for a hike in the forest and come back before sunset.
It was slightly disappointing when we didn’t have the place to ourselves in the evening again, but it was hard to blame people for wanting to enjoy the spectacular sunset over the lake. We got back a bit sooner than we thought from our hike and walked a bit further down to Navy Beach on a whim. Not having done any research we didn’t have any idea what was down there, except possibly some more tufas. The water was much calmer on this side of the lake and there wasn’t a single ripple in the blue green water, meaning you could see the world upside down perfectly. On our way back to the main reserve to get ready to watch the sunset we also stumbled on the other incredible limestone formations that were out of the water. They looked like a series of miniature sets from Lord of the Rings, with little columns, caves, and bridges.
Sunset was, of course, spectacular even though it got really cold and windy. We very cleverly invented vegetable soup tacos with our remaining food inventory while we waited. I must thank my friends for staying, bundled up underneath the blankets while I waited for the sky to fill with stars. Technically you aren’t supposed to be down there after dark, but you have to break the rules sometimes. Totally worth it!
Snow Hike At (Almost) Yosemite
In between the early morning Tufa Reserve exploration and the sunset watching we attempted to find a suitable hike in the area. For some reason none of the locals could really tell us and as it was off-season the visitor center in Lee Vining, the so-called portal to Yosemite, wasn’t even open. We had to make due with our own advice so we decide to drive as close as we could get to the park and then just walk into the forest. If you’re wondering, that’s not actually a good idea, especially in a place that was still full of snow and is pone to rock slides. We thought better of our inclinations and instead drove a bit down the service road until we found a camping area. It was conveniently close to a waterfall and we had the chance to wander around the surrounding forest. Even with plenty of snow still on the ground, it got quite warm walking around and we could walk around in T-shirts the whole time. Not surprising given many skiers/snowboarders at the nearby Mammoth Mountain spend days on the slope in tank tops. Oh, the wonders of California.
After going back to Mono Lake and watching the stars we decided we may as well kill some of the driving distance back so we spent the evening in Bishop. It made getting local coffee in the morning really easy. If you’re ever there check out the Looney Bean — delicious and you can get your coffee with hemp milk!
Red Rocks State Park
On our way home we were looking for really any hike we could go on and we ended up at Red Rocks Canyon State Park (after driving right past it and having to turn around). The red canyon was once home to one of CA many Native American tribes, the Kawaiisu, who left some petroglyphs on the rocks. If we were there for more than a day, camping and horseback riding would have been great. Not this time. However, we did have the chance to see the place covered in yellow, purple, and white wildflowers. I’ve been dying to go to Death Valley (no pun intended) to see some wildflower blooms and we just haven’t had the time so I was glad that I could catch them here.
Finally, I believe that I could beat Stephen Colbert in Lord of the Rings trivia.