“I want to shoot Mono Lake at sunrise.”
“No, you don’t.”
“What do you mean? Of course, I do!”
“I don’t think you really want to. It’s going to be below freezing in the morning.”
“Yes, I do want to. I really do.”
“It’s 5:00! Time to get up!”
“Uh-uh.” Burrow deeper under covers.
“You said you wanted to shoot the sunrise. We have to leave here in 15 minutes if we’re going to get there in time.”
“Changed my mind.”
“No, you didn’t. Come on. Your coffee’s ready.”
He was right. I really did want to go. And so we drove 15 miles from our campground at June Lake to Mono Lake in the dark, traipsed down to the shoreline in the freezing cold and waited for the sun to rise.
There were at least twenty other hardy souls on the shore—apparently some kind of photography workshop. Each person had a tripod, expensive camera, and a bag full of enormous lenses. They were fiddling with their settings, discussing exposures and apertures and depth of field. I had my camera in one hand (set on automatic exposure) and my coffee mug in the other. These are the moments when I think I really should get around to reading my camera manual.
We waited. And waited. Finally, the sun rose—but it never got that exciting. I think we got better photos a couple of days previously at sunset, which in my opinion happens to be a much more respectable time of day.
However, I did overhear one of the photography instructors mention that he was going to walk through the tufas to the other side of the lake to capture the sun’s reflected glow on the mountains and water. Out of curiosity, I followed. Now that was worth getting out of bed for. The alpenglow on the mountains, reflected on the lake, was sublime.
Why Mono Lake Is So Unique
Mono Lake is a unique, otherworldly place. It’s a large lake, at 65 miles square, and ancient, at over a million years old. Because it has no outlet, it’s almost three times as salty as the ocean.
What makes Mono Lake so unusual are the rock formations that emerge from the water—knobby limestone spires called “tufas” that are formed by the interaction of carbonate-rich alkaline lake water and calcium-rich freshwater springs. The conditions are perfect for tiny brine shrimp and alkali flies, both of which provide nutritious snacks for millions of migratory birds. In fact, Mono Lake is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world and provides critical nesting habitat for tens of thousands of water birds.
It’s magical to see the towers silhouetted against the sky when the sun is rising or sinking. The sky turns various shades of pink, purple, and orange, and the tufas turn to gold at the magic hour just after sunrise or just before sunset. The best concentration of tufa towers is at the South Tufa grove, about 10 miles south of the visitor center, where a stroll through a tufa forest leads to a picturesque view of tufa islands just offshore.
Tufa grows underwater, and the only reason these towers are visible is because of the unquenchable thirst of Los Angeles, which began diverting water from the lake in 1941. In less than 40 years, half the volume of water disappeared, and Mono Lake was dying. Thanks to tenacious citizens who recognized the value of the lake, the area was declared Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area and mandates were established to control how much water can be siphoned off. Since 1994, the lake has recovered to about two-thirds of its original level.
We had planned to kayak the lake during our stay in the area. Alas, the weather didn’t cooperate—it was either too rainy or too cold, so we’ll save that adventure for another time. For now, we’re happy that we experienced both sunrise and sunset at lovely Mono Lake.