While managing to remain relatively hidden and “off the beaten track”, Mono Lake (and its Tufa State Natural Reserve) has managed to capture the imagination of photographers from all round the world for many years – those keen to explore beyond the obvious nearby locations such as Yosemite National Park and Death Valley.
My first encounter of this other-worldly destination (above) was very much a “drive-by” on a road trip nearly two decades ago (from memory, these were taken on a Canon IXUS at the time!)
It didn’t seem like much “down there” as we passed through the small town of Lee Vining on our way to Tahoe. A subsequent visit got me down to the water’s edge near the main visitor centre, but it wasn’t until I started researching the area (in the days when wikipedia wasn’t exactly full of information!) that I realised there was a much more exciting location a little further around the lake – The South Tufa Reserve.
With better equipment, and nearly a decade later, I returned to explore the larger and more dramatic formations, such as those below, of the southern point of the shoreline.
Mono Lake itself is a closed lagoon – a 750,000 year old saline soda lake, with extremely high alkaline levels, and spring waters entering from below. These waters hold high levels of materials such as calcite, which bubbled through over thousands of years to form these “towers” on the bottom of the lake.
Over time, with the lake level steadily depleting at its 6,300ft elevation, the towers became visible (and accessible) to humans. Standing at an average of only 56ft of relatively shallow water, more and more formations have become visible over the past few decades as the drying effect has accelerated – great for photography, but so sad to see them exposed and ruined by the harsh weather at the same time.
The view of the Mono Basin is rather dramatic as you approach from the North – with the difference between winter and summer becoming quite obvious when you look at the image above. Be under no illusions, it gets very warm here (in the summer) and also very, very, cold – remember, Mammoth Mountain ski resort is just around the corner!
With such amazing scenery all around, this is true road-trip territory, but my focus while in the area over the years has remained on the South Tufa Reserve.
On approach across a rough dirt track, many people are somewhat put off the idea. While you’d think, given the chemical changes which happen in the lake, there would be no life here – far from it, it’s full to the brim, but much of that life is in the form of flies which live under the surface as birds of all kinds attempt to feed on them.
Many call Mono Lake “colourful” – others “putrid”, I guess I’m somewhere in-between. Light plays a huge part in its appearance, changing the feel of the place from murky green, to warm golden tones, to cold blues; but there’s no denying the natural beauty of these incredible rock formations that tower over us all across the length of the shoreline.
For those wanting even more drama, remember we’re in the Sierra Nevada mountain range here, and weather can be quite extreme at times.
Maybe it’s just me, but I do enjoy watching the excitement in the eyes of my fellow photographers (as the storm forms), turn to concern (as it approaches), and then on to panic (as it hits everyone’s gear). Nothing a little waterproof cover/shield can’t fix, but it does become a game of “landscape photography chicken” as we each weigh up getting the shot vs. staying dry.
Personally, I always tend to go for the “getting the shot” option…
On calmer days, the serenity and isolation of this place when you get to capture it alone is simply mind-blowing. Golden sunrises and sunsets change shape in the sky above as moisture forms over the lake, ensuring no two days will ever look the same on camera.
Be careful with long exposures here, however – when the water is calm and reflecting nicely, you don’t need to use this technique as it will likely make the reflections look washed out and “milky”. When it’s rough (usually due to mountain winds), that creative choice can really help calm things down.
And yes, when surrounded by Tufa in all directions, this truly is a place to make sure you look behind you – especially during the morning and evening golden hours as the mountains light up all around.
From above, as well as from satellite imagery, this really is a strange looking place. Spikey platforms of calcium-formed rocks jut out from the clusters of Tufa towers near the walkways, creating shapes and vignettes unlike anywhere I’ve seen before on Earth.
Get in amongst them, however (note: you are not allowed to climb the Tufa) and you’ll see an entirely different perspective across this, once underwater, ancient bed of rocks.
There’s one particularly special formation that sits to the east of the main South Tufa Reserve, which over the years since I’ve been visiting seems to have become the epicentre for sunrise and sunset photography – “the stack”, as I call it.
(Thanks to René-Daniel Dorn for the aerial shots)
Far enough away from the shore to make it inaccessible to anything other than families of ducks (from what I’ve seen), this stack of tufa is sat perfectly in the still waters that are protected from the mountain breeze coming in from the west.
At sunrise, it delivers serene silhouettes as the light floods the moisture-filled sky with orange and pink glows on a lucky morning.
At sunset, sat in the shadow of the mountains behind the camera, the light evens out to allow for a perfect exposure of ground and sky just after the sun dips below the horizon, capturing the final fading glow of pink reflecting off the clouds to the east.
“The stack”, and its surrounding rock outline, was going to be my focus for what I hoped would be the sunrise I’d been waiting for during all those years.
The sky began to come alive, but so did the tufa directly in front of me – time to change plan. To mix things up a little from the “standard shot”, I decided to set up to one side of the shoreline. My stack of distant rocks would still be in the image, but they were no longer going to be the star of the show – especially not with 151 megapixels of image being captured.
Making use of Rollei’s Pro ND filters, I had enough in front of the lens to slow down the exposure time and soften the clouds along with the slight breeze that was causing ripples across the water. Those sunrise tones in the sky, the reflections on the water – all wow – but even more incredible were the textures in those rocks. These alien-like formations during this explosion of colour just came to life on camera – and with each click, a different reflection, a different sky, and yet another unique image.
And for those interested in the detail in those rocks, here’s a 50% crop (due to retina displays) of the full 151 megapixel Phase One IQ4 file, shot using the Blue Ring 35mm LS lens on XF:
What a truly spectacular morning – and a sunrise I’ll never forget. As always, it’s worth a quick check behind you once you’ve got what you wanted, and this morning would be no exception…
Yes, that’s taken with an iPhone. No, there’s no filter used or added. Yes, the colour in the sky managed to blow out the saturation as I captured a quick panoramic shot!
So what else, while you’re in Mono County?
Well, take a quick 5 minute drive south from Mammoth Lakes and you’ll find yourself at Convict Lake – a quiet bowl of water sat at the base of two snow-capped mountains. For astrophotographers out there, this is a handy spot on a clear night.
For the daytime explorers, head north towards Bridgeport to find the historic gold-rush ghost town of Bodie – an amazing place to visit (bear in mind the dirt access road is closed in winter weather). When people refer to places which are “frozen in time”, this place will give you the true definition of that phrase, as the state parks team have done a fantastic job of preserving this incredible location for all to see.
Finally, my handy travel tip for this place:
Chances are, if you’re visiting Mono Lake and not in the area to ski, you’ll be staying in one of the lesser-known hotels in Mammoth Lakes. I’ve stayed in quite a selection of them now, and they all have their own (cough) “character and charm” that you’ll get used to after a while.
I mean, it’s quite cool to wake up “naturally” through the failing blackout curtains, to look at your 1983 alarm clock radio by the side of your bed, before driving past the bullet-hole-ridden road signs on your way to the lake. Right…?