Mono Lake and Mammoth Lakes


The next day after our second tour of Yosemite, it was time to leave the Evergreen Lodge and head to The Village Lodge in Mammoth Lakes.  To get there, we used the Tioga Pass (the seasonal road [CA 120] through Yosemite) and then turned right onto Scenic Byway US Route 395 South.

When planning the trip, I didn't think much about the roads we would need to take; they looked pretty unimpressive on a map.  (Most highways around here aren't very scenic.)  So, I was a little surprised when both these highways, CA 120 and US 395, felt like they were taking us back in time to the American Frontier or the Wild West.  There were snow covered mountains, snow-melt lakes, dusty prairies, abandoned mining shacks, tall pine trees, and rolling tumbleweeds.  We were in awe during the two and a half hour trip to Mammoth Lakes, and come to find out, this area is used a lot in Hollywood films.  We even saw a set for a new Netflix series.  (Unfortunately, we didn't find out what they were filming.)

The Village Lodge at Mammoth Lakes is this cool, upscale resort area, frequented by skiers during the winter and tourists/adventure seekers in the summer.  There was a Yoga Festival going on during the few days that we stayed at the lodge, but there were plenty of people there to do some extreme rock climbing or mountain biking.  My original thought was to use these few days for some resting by the pool side, but with 50 to 70 degree weather, it was hardly warm enough to enjoy the outdoor pool.  (I think we used it once.)

We changed gears and decided to use our few days to go sightseeing.  Each morning, we started our day with a crepe from the Side Door Cafe and Wine Bar in the Village.  Then we ventured out to see the Mammoth Lakes Basin (in Mammoth) and Mono Lake (in Lee Vining).  To see the Mammoth Lakes (namely Lake Mary, Lake George, Lake Mamie, the Twin Lakes, and Horseshoe Lake) we took the Town Trolley.  We had the trolley drop us off at the Horseshoe Lake where we walked around, took some pictures, and even dared to go in for a dip.

It was a 50 degree day at the Lakes Basin.  My husband, as usual, did not dress for the weather...
The striking uniqueness of this lake is that it's surrounded by 120 acres of dead trees.  The trees are thought to have died from high levels of naturally occurring CO2 from a gas reservoir reservoir under Mammoth Mountain.

The water was so clean!!

The next day, we traveled US 395 North to Lee Vining (right outside of Yosemite) to see Mono Lake, also known as the Mono Basin National Forest.  We had passed by the lake on our ride to Mammoth Lakes and knew we wanted to go back.  Besides being told it was an area we'd want to visit, we also saw for ourselves its majestic beauty.

The lake is strangely located between the Sierra Nevada Range and volcanic formations on three sides.  It's unique because 1) it's one of the oldest lakes in North America, estimated to be at least 760,000 years old, 2) it has no outlet, which means "for thousands of years, streams have carried minerals into the lake and evaporation has removed fresh water from it, making its salinity content over twice that of the ocean," 3) no fish live in the lake, but "the high desert environment harbors a thriving ecosystem of plant and animal species--some found nowhere else in the world," and 4) some of its strange beauty comes from the tufa tower formations, which are made of limestone; these towers were made "when fresh water springs containing calcium bubbled up to meet the carbonate-rich lake water" from Mono Lake.  (All information is from our Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area visitor sheet written by the U.S. Forest Service and the United States Department of Agriculture.)

Learning about the Lake at the Visitor Center was extraordinary, but seeing it for ourselves was awe inspiring.  The pictures speak for themselves...

The Mono Basin National Forest Visitor Center

Our visit to Mono Lake ended with a trip to the Whoa Nelli Deli in Lee Vining.  Everyone told us their fish tacos were superb, and while I'm not a fish taco person, I can say their burger was outstanding.  The restaurant is part of a Mobile gas station, which made us second guess its rave reviews, but I changed my mind once we went inside.  For one, the place had a great gift shop, and second, they played live music outside, so we could sit and enjoy the music, enjoy the food, and enjoy the view of Mono Lake.

The Whoa Nellie Deli
Outside sitting area of the restaurant.
When planning our trip to Yosemite, I never gave much thought to the Mammoth Lakes area.  It was supposed to be the part of our trip for rest and relaxation, but I soon discovered that this side of California is just as beautiful as the West Coast.  Filled with majestic beauty and a unique history, there were still many more places for us to see.  For example, there is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest or the Brodie State Historic Park (which is an old ghost town of a mining village from 1877 to 1888).  I want to come back!

Yosemite High Country


When I first called the Evergreen Lodge to book our tours, I asked the guide for advice.  I was about to book two Yosemite Valley Tours, which were essentially the same thing.  The voice at the end of the phone said, "If I were you, I would take your second tour into the High Country."

"The High Country?" I repeated.

"Yes!" the guide, Ryan, answered. He continued, "When I first came to Yosemite, I thought I would love it because of the Valley, but I fell in love with the High Country instead. You have to see it if you truly want to experience everything Yosemite has to offer.  Also, you're coming at a good time of year.  The Tioga Road is closed during the winter, but it usually opens sometime in late May or early June.  You should be able to see the High Country without a problem."

A part of me was still a little skeptical about seeing "the High Country" as it wasn't the popular part of the park with the Merced River, the Giant Sequoias, or the famous mountain views.  Still, I let him book us to visit this "less traveled part of the park."  It was a wise decision.  Like Ryan (the guide), I fell in love with the High Country too!

We met our tour guides (one originally from Alaska and the other from Hawaii) bright and early on Thurs. morning.  To our surprise, only our family booked the trip.  So, we had TWO tour guides--one an expert and one a novice in training--to provide us with a full day's worth of sightseeing in the mountains along the Tioga Road.  We learned so much about the park and had interesting conversations about Native Americans, conservation, trees, insects, plants, and animals.  The pictures that follow show the full-day trip we took through the Sierra Mountains to the East side of Yosemite before turning around and driving two hours back to our camp.  (Yosemite is about the size of the state of Rhode Island.)

This first stop was called Lukens Lake.  It was a leisurely mile and half hike from the road with beautiful views of Sequois and wild flowers.  The lake was clean and pristine, feeling untouched by man.

The next stop was Olmsted Point.  Here we came "face to face with massive glacial rocks left behind by 4,000 foot deep glaciers."  The majestic view of granite slopes and rocks were carved millions of years ago by these glaciers. 
This was my favorite view in Yosemite.

The view from Olmsted Point looks as if the mountains are covered in snow,
but instead, we are looking at the color of the granite rock.

The next stop was Tenaya Lake (which is at an elevation of 8,150 feet). 
The lake is fed 100% by snow melt, so it's cold but pristine.

Tenaya Lake is a popular destination for boating, swimming, and getting married.
Here we walked to an elevation of 10,000 feet, so we could get a glimpse of Tuolumne Meadows below. 
Tuolomne Meadows is surrounded by even higher granite domes and peaks.

The Tuolumne River.  (One side has snow covered mountains and the other side is desert.)  This is the "end" of the park.

I LOVED this place.  On the inside, it is nothing more than a simple convenience store with a few souvenirs, but it is one of the few stops along the Pacific Crest Trail.  We soon noticed that the place was a rest stop for real-deal hikers, ones that had been hiking for days, weeks, or even months. (You could tell, without being rude, because they smelled as if they hadn't showered in a while.)  The movie, Wild, is a biography of a woman that hiked 1,100 miles of the 2,663 mile long Pacific Crest Trail.
The High Country became my favorite part of our Yosemite trip. If I was younger, back to the days when I didn't have a career or a family, I would be interested in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, least I could say I got a tiny glimpse of the experience.  There is just something special and enchanting about hiking through these groves, valleys, and forests.  Unlike the "woods" in Connecticut, which are filled with 70 to 100 year-old trees (because the entire state was deforested and turned into farmland), these forests are thousands upon thousands of years old.  I truly felt like I was living back in history and that was magical!