Mono Lake is one of California’s most prominent photographic icons. Countless photographers travel to this remote area to photograph the alien landscape, courtesy of Los Angeles’ unquenchable thirst for California’s precious water resources. Avoiding the dry death of Owens Lake, Mono Lake levels are rising again, thanks to the tireless efforts of conservationists.
Tufa, the dramatic rock spires protruding from the seabed, stand testament to the value of the water resource and the ecologic systems depending on it. Yet, in its unnatural state, the lake is most beautiful. Photographers appreciate the unusual formations, reflections, and colors.
Easily accessible, Mono Lake is a treasure that everyone can own. Showing up is all it takes to take good photographs. If you are willing to stay after dark and bring your own light source, you can create bizarre yet gorgeous masterpieces.
How to get there
Mono Lake is located east of Yosemite National Park, in a basin between the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the White Mountains, and the Excelsior Mountains. The nearest city is Lee Vining, located at the T-intersection of Tioga Pass (Highway 120) and Highway 395. The nearest larger city is Mammoth Lakes, which is also your best bet for an overnight stay in the area.
You can reach the South Tufa area via a short dirt road from Highway 120, east of Highway 395. Drive 4.7 miles south from the Tioga Pass intersection, then turn east on Highway 120 (following the brown South Tufa sign). The dirt road turns left after another 4.7 miles (brown South Tufa sign with binoculars). Link on Google Street View.
South Tufa Parking:
How to photograph Mono Lake South Tufa
You can find good photography spots all around Mono Lake, but the Tufa formations that everyone associates with the lake are at the Mono Lake South Tufa State Natural Reserve, a Federal fee area at the south of the lake. A small fee gets you past the booth to a beach where you will find the famous Tufa. All the pictures on this page are from this area. I recommend focusing your efforts on this place.
I took the picture above about 20 minutes after sunrise. Arriving in the dark night, on an empty parking lot in a remote area, we hopped out of the car, paid the fee and started the walk down the beach. It was pitch black when we suddenly heard the howls of coyotes surrounding us. At first, the howls were far away, but soon they started to close in. Grabbing my flashlight in one hand and holding on to Dani with the other, we tried to orient ourselves to find the beach, hoping to fend off potential predators with sturdy tripods.
A few years ago, there was only a trampled path to the shore, but now it is a wooden boardwalk, making it hard to get lost and easier for photographers to find their way. This area of California is still one of the most remote, making Mono Lake and its fantastic Tufa a great place for star trail photographers, provided you do not mind to share it with the wildlife.
I recommend arriving early for your sunset session or staying one or two hours after sunset and painting the rocks with light. I created the picture above with this technique as well as the picture at the start of the article.
I “painted” the rocks with a strong flashlight, while I had my camera on a tripod, set to a long exposure time. This illuminates the rock, or the parts you chose to paint over, and gives very eerie effects that work extremely well with this subject. I prefer to have a little more light in the sky (very first picture), but the darker one looks spookier. Once more, we had to walk back in the dark while memories of our encounter with the coyotes haunted us. It seems coyotes prefer the morning hours though.
The light is good for at least 1.5 hours after sunrise and nearly 2 hours prior to sunset. Since the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada are immediately west of Mono Lake, you can expect the sun to disappear behind the mountains about one hour prior to the official sunset time. Make sure you arrive early and do not leave too soon. If you are so lucky to have clouds, you should stick around at least until 30 minutes after the official sunset time to ensure that you get color in the clouds.
Creating attractive photographs is not difficult. Pay attention to your composition and make sure you keep clutter out of your frame. Stones, bushes, and other subjects can either enhance or destroy your picture. Sweep your viewfinder and pay attention to every detail. Many small things distract from a perfectly good photograph. Sometimes it pays off to change your position slightly to keep unwanted pieces out of your frame. Simple pictures are often more beautiful. Take multiple pictures and use horizontal and vertical formats.
In the image above, I had the good sense to emphasize the symmetry of subject and reflection, but I did not notice how the reflection connects to the stone in the foreground. Fortunately, I soon realized it and took another, very similar photograph, leaving the same distance between reflection and frame border that the subject enjoys from the top frame border.
Foreground elements do have their purpose though. As the lake level rises, it reclaims area previously overgrown. The high salinity turns the bushes white, adding to the strange nature of this place.
Mono Lake is a landscape photographer’s dream come true. Simply open your mind to the possibilities and let your style of photography and your experience take over.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
This area gets a lot of snow in winter, and since you will not be able to cross the Sierra Nevada, you will find it very difficult to get here. Spring is a good time. I hope that you will have more luck than I did on all my visits and encounter some clouds for your sunset / sunrise pictures. Summer and fall can be good too.
Sunset and sunrise are clearly best. Plan to arrive early, since you have to drive and walk about 0.4 miles and since the Sierra Nevada blocks direct sunlight about one hour prior to the official sunset time. I recommend scouting the location the day before your sunrise shot to find promising locations.
Although you can snap a few pictures in one hour, I do not recommend it. It takes a considerable investment of time to get here, which is why you should at least stay a while to make the most of your trip.
- Normal Zoom Lens
- Tripod and Cable release
- High powered flashlight
- Snacks and water
- Solid footwear, hiking shoes or boots
- Layers (hot days, cold nights)
The entrance fee for adults over 16 is $3. It is free for children. You need to pay at the start of the walking path. Bring exact change if you come for sunset or sunrise, since the station is not always manned, but you still need to pay at the drop box.
The rising water levels make it more and more difficult to get close to a good position, especially at the east side of the beach, where I took the Nautilus picture. You should avoid climbing on the Tufa, to preserve the formations for future generations. The stones are sharp and you can easily hurt yourself.
Mono Lake is popular. This means that you will find a lot of competition. Do not let that intimidate you or distract you from your own compositions. Avoid the temptation to check what the other people are doing! A big camera does not make a professional photographer.
- Bodie Ghost Town
- Chemung Mine and Masonic Town
- Mono Craters
- Mammoth Lakes
- Devils Postpile National Monument and Rainbow Falls
- Mammoth Consolidated Mine
- Tioga Pass
- Tuolumne Meadows
- Mono Craters
- Carson Pass and Monitor Pass
- Crowley Hot Springs
- June Lake Scenic Loop
- Convict Lake
- Crowley Lake
- McGee Canyon
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