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Mono Lake, California

Vibrant colors and reflections are captured in this photo of the Navy Beach tufa at Mono Lake, California

On Location – Mono Lake, California

Mono Lake is an interesting and unique place and well worth a visit. It is located on the east side of the Sierras, near the town of Lee Vining, California. In the 1940’s, in an effort to meet its growing demands for water, the City of Los Angeles began drawing water from Mono Lake. They drew out more water than the lake could replenish causing the rapid fall of water levels and exposing the tufa that was normally under the surface of the water. Due to conservation efforts that began in 1978, the water levels of the lake are beginning to rise again, slowly repairing the environmental damage caused by the rapid drainage.

Mono Lake – Getting the Shots

In order to be in a good location by sunrise, I left camp about  1 ½ hours before sunrise. I allowed extra time because I had not had an opportunity to scout out my morning spot in advance, not a good way to start off a photo day. On the map, I saw a road that circled around Mono Lake on the south side. I saw 2 areas, South Beach Tufa Viewing Area and the Navy Beach Tufa Viewing Area, so that’s the direction I headed.

Early morning reflections of Tufa at Mono Lake, California

Early Morning Reflections at Mono Lake

As we passed the South Beach Area, it was still pretty dark and hard to see but there was enough light to see silhouettes of tufa along the shore of the lake. But the distance between the road and the lake was rather far and I would have to hike it through thick brush so we decided to keep moving to the Navy Beach location.

As we approached, I could see that just by pure luck, we made the right decision. The concentration of tufa was much thicker. We found a place to pull over and I began my hike to the beach. At first, the hiking was easy through widely spaced bushes, but then, as I approached the shoreline, the type of bush changed and became very closely packed together, so close in fact, that it was very hard to pass through the last 20 feet to the open shoreline. I later learned that bush was called Seepwood, a type of Greasewood. I believe its sole purpose is to tease photographers and keep them away from their subjects!

As I finally reached the beach, I could see a line of tufa perfectly stretched out in a line, just waiting to have their picture taken. I swear I could almost hear them saying, “Cheese”!

The pre-sunrise color in the sky was really getting amazing and reflecting nicely in the water. I quickly set up my tripod and camera, firing off several shots as quickly as possible. I was extremely pleased with what I was seeing and the intensity of the color.

The intense reds of the sunrise only lasted for a few minutes changing color to a soft blue tone. I needed to explore the tufa in more detail. I folded up my tripod and continued to hike closer to the tufa. Each tufa was so unique; there were many interesting formations and angles to shoot from. I could see the possibilities were endless. My only restriction was the fading sunrise light.

As I hiked around, I walked past a large pool of water. It was much too big to be considered a puddle but way too small to be a pond. I believe it was most likely snowmelt. There were dried grasses & reeds growing around the edge of the pool. As I walked past, I noticed reflections of the tufa and clouds in its surface. I thought it would make for some interesting images. When you shoot in a popular location, it can be a real challenge to capture unique images that are not duplicates of the photography of others. I thought reflections in the pool might be just the ticket for a unique shot.

As the sun finally rose and the magical morning sunrise light began to fade, it was time to hike back to the truck. I was not looking forward to crossing through those greasewood bushes a second time and decided to hike a different route more up the hillside. As I got up there, I could see that there was a parking lot and established trails if we had only stayed on the road a little longer, we would have seen it. Oh well… this is what happens when you don’t scout. But on the other hand, I would not have seen the view of the lined up tufa. I only saw that because of the direction I walked in. Let’s just call it a happy accident!

Where to Camp at Mono Lake

Camping in March is a difficult thing in the Mono Lake area. After arriving, we spent most of the day looking for a place to camp. Several campgrounds were listed on our map but all of them were closed for the winter season, not even allowing dry camping. Not being local, we did not know of any out of the way places to go. Unfortunately, we wasted a great deal of time searching for a spot. We finally settled on a pull over on a dirt road on the north side of the lake.

If you are dry camping and don’t require hookups, there are actually several places to get off the main road, both on the north & south sides of the lake. On the south side, there are some nice places, but be sure to check the road before driving out too far. We came to a stream crossing the road, we easily crossed it in our pickup but would not have been able to get by with our trailer on, so just a word of caution.

During the summer months, all campgrounds, both locally owned and privately owned would be open, giving you plentiful choices. One campground that I really liked the look of was called Oh Ridge, closer to June Lake.

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