by Jeffrey Ferraro
Many of us would love to be able to strap on a pack and disappear for a few days into the California backcountry at the drop of a hat, but it’s hard to find time. That’s why Californians along the eastern Sierra are so lucky to have the Mono Lake area. It is ripe with hikes that are long enough for you to break a sweat and clear your head, but not so long that you’ll need time off from work.
When you need a wilderness escape, even for a few hours, check out these great hikes.
Distance: 1.5 miles
The best hikes always have an interesting destination, and nothing is more compelling than wandering through a stretch of land that seems to be from another planet. A short mile and a half hike on manicured trails from the newly added parking lot and restrooms brings you to tall, odd, calcium carbonate formations called tufa towers that resemble wax castle ruins melting in the sun. They make such a striking impression that they’ve been inspiration for many writers, as well as a filming location for the 1973 Clint Eastwood classic, High Plains Drifter.
From the South Tufa parking lot the hike will take two to three hours, depending, of course, on how much exploring and photography you undertake once you’re there. To reach the trail head, take California Highway 120 east toward South Tufa, a left on 395 North, then drive about a mile before turning right into Mono Lake Tufa Reserve.
Bodie State Historic Park
Distance: 1.5 miles
You’ll want to have a camera ready when you hike around in Bodie State Historic Park. It is an authentic, 19th century California gold rush ghost mining town – yes, just like the ones you see in the movies. The town that once was home to ten thousand residents lured into the wilderness by the promise of gold now sits in a state of “arrested decay”, meaning it’s been preserved since the last residents left fifty years ago, but there have been no restorations. The result is both eerie and beautiful: over 100 buildings forgotten by time, many of which still contain belongings of its former inhabitants.
Bodie is a popular tourist destination because of its accessibility, with a parking lot only a few hundred yards away. However, the park’s size is deceptive – large enough for two or three hours of exploration – so it is important that you bring both water and comfortable shoes. There are also numerous hiking trails surrounding the town, including one leading to Bodie Bluff to the north of town.
Lundy Canyon Trail
Distance: 3 miles
If you’re going to see all that the Lundy Canyon Trail has to offer, you’ll have to work for it. The three-mile trail is steep, rugged, and sometimes unstable. The trail passes by one wonder after another: towering cliffs, beaver ponds, wildflower-filled fields, picturesque waterfalls, ruins, and ultimately the fabled Twenty Lakes Basin. In short, the Lundy Canyon trail has everything a day hike should: outstanding views and physical challenges that allow you to push yourself, even though it’s “only” a day hike.
To get to Lundy Canyon, travel north on Highway 395 North from Lee Vining and turn left on Lundy Lake Road. Stay straight on this road until reaching a resort on Mill Creek. At this point, the paved road ends and the next mile and a half will be on a dirt road (don’t worry, it’s well kept) that ends at the trailhead.
Lee Vining Creek Trail
Distance: 1.5 – 2.5 miles
The Lee Vining Creek Trail begins east of the Lakeview Lodge in Lee Vining, snaking its way north toward the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center. While most visitor centers are nothing to write home about, this building provides a breathtaking vantage point overlooking the lake while also serving as a small but informative museum for the area. Many folks also eat their lunch at the Lodge before continuing their hike.
From the visitor center, you have the option of taking the Lake Trail down to the water where you can explore tufa formations, or you can continue for less than a mile down Mattly Ave. which passes by the Mono Basin Historical Schoolhouse Museum before heading back to town.
Reach the lodge by following Highway 108 east and then turning right onto US-395 south. Stay straight for 42 miles to arrive at the lodge. It has a green roof and red sign.
Lots to See
The Mono Lake area of California is a proverbial playground for outdoor enthusiasts, with limitless trails for hiking and biking, cliffs to climb, and wildlife to snap pictures of. While these day-hikes above are fantastic, they’re only the beginning of what the area has to offer. Mono Lake is surrounded by dormant volcanoes and magma-created craters just begging for someone like you to explore them.
Note: Due to the remote locations and highly variable conditions of hikes in the Mono Lake area, be sure to check the US Forestry Service website for things like road closings, inclement weather, and trails made impassable by rock slides.
Jeffrey Ferraro is a travel enthusiast and expert. He is the Director of Marketing of Diamond Tours, the leading provider of charter group bus tours in the US and Canada, which include tours of major cities, bus trips to shows and casinos. Jeffrey loves uncovering lesser known travel destinations and sharing them with his customers.