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Mono Lake to Mammoth & Yosemite



Mono lake, landscape photography

Mono Lake- Getting there: Do rise early and take a camera (and tripod!). There is a pull-out just before the parking lot to the south tufa where no payment is required, and no one else seems to be… take the small trail to the edge.

Mono Lake is one of oldest lakes in existence, known in part for its bird life, evidenced by the nests on top of some tufa. Watching the gulls chase after the ground-dwelling, mass-moving sand bugs yesterday was entertainment itself. But  today, it is 5:15 AM and all is still and not another soul in sight. I am mesmerized by the sounds of the birds in the water and on the tufa, flying overhead, skimming the water, disrupting the beautiful reflections on the lake as they swim towards shore.  As I sit, the sun comes up over the glacier-cut hills and sets the Sierras and lake alight. It was a moment I will likely never forget.

After an early morning shoot, I make my way to Mammoth to see if it is as charming in summer as I have heard it is in winter (mind you, the “scenic loop” from Mono to Mammoth is not all that scenic…mostly trees).


With an empty stomach, I give The Stove a shot; it is a free-standing building (not, in other words, in a shopping strip), with a bierhaus feel: wooden benches, dishes and pans displayed on walls, hand painted chickens, rusty western accoutrements. It is a basic, but good. Breakfast served all day- and full by 8:00 AM.

Today seemed the perfect day for a hike, and I couldn’t have picked a better day for it. Or a better hike. The trail to Crystal Lake starts with dusty, switchbacks through the trees, but within moments, each new turn reveals another stunning view of the lake from remarkable heights. Go early and you will see nary another soul. While it is a relatively steep hike, you will see all types making their way up… from grandmothers in plaid shirts, hiking boots and walking poles, to 20-somethings in short shorts, on their cell phones carrying their dachshunds. Crystal Lake is a short hike easily done in the morning and clearly a favorite of fishermen of all shapes and sizes. You will be rewarded with crystal waters (surprise!), with woodpeckers & a view of some stunning portions of the Mammoth range.

Mammoth Crest
view from crystal lake trail mammoth
view from crystal lake trail mammoth

However, if you have the time and energy, or have to choose between the two available routes up this mountain, my vote is for the Mammoth Crest. The top half of the hike is steep, but you are rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views of the 14ers, the lakes and the Mammoth ski area. For geology buffs, underfoot, on the top half of the crest, is maroon lava rock that sounds as if you are walking on crushed glass. The only negative feeling I have about this whole area in general is the inability to overlook the number of campers and campgrounds and people massed together (and the smoker making his way up the trail. Yes, really).


After soaking my feet in the cold lake water, I head to Roberto’s Cantina and Café a few blocks away from the city center (a nice respit from “the Village”). I couldn’t help imagining how much more inviting the village must look in winter, with snow covering the green, and the colors of the buildings popping, inviting you in for a hot toddy. En route, I notice the golf course seems more verdant than most, which makes me take notice. And the bike trail system seems to go on and on and on; it was remarkable how many people were out on bikes, running, walking dogs. But Roberto’s clearly has the formula for keeping locals and visitors alike happy. I sat next to two different couples who had been coming since the 60’s. Rarely do you see a Mexican menu with homemade menudo, not to mention duck burritos and quesadillas. It is a friendly service, dogs apparently welcome, homey (though a tiny interior) and patio seating quietly tucked behind a wall of flowers kind of place. Seems to me to be a must-stop off-peak or on-!

Tamarack Lodge seemed to be the reservation to get. It is situated out of town, on a lake, near a waterfall, with access to bike paths and hiking trails. And it was a nice experience (“nice” is the word my choir teacher used to use when she was satisfied though unimpressed). But I had been expecting more, given the image portrayed online. That said, it was perfectly suited for the area- bikes and canoes for rent, staff knowledgeable about the area, cute rooms with soft, bearprint bed covers. I enjoyed spending time in the common room downstairs, studying the old photos of the place, laughing to myself about the old cross country skis hanging on the wall with bindings I used to have as a girl, and listening to visitors talk as they sat for a few minutes nursing a beer or fruit-infused martini (apparently a specialty). I will admit to a restless night, however: the smoke from the burning area fires made for red eyes and runny nose (though this was an unusal experience), and the creaky floor gave me reason to ask for a top floor room next time. Plus, while I had a “private bath”, it was so close to my neighbors that I could hear them breathe and they, doubtless, could hear, well, everything that made noise in my bathroom. I laughed out loud at the thought of “male” noises that would likely have sent them packing.

On my way out of town the next morning, I stopped at Schat’s Bakery since almost every source mentioned it. I can’t understand why it doesn’t get higher billing. The stone building, punctuated by German-style paintings inside, holds a treasure trove of goodies. The first thing I saw when I walked in were the chocolate turtles the size of my fist. The next were the sheets of nut brittle and the table piled high with pull-apart bread…then the jams, and the cheeses, and the croissants sitting on racks, beckoning. All of this before I see the wall of thigh-sized loaves of bread. I succumbed to the glazed, raisin-topped, cinnamon brioche and a nut roll for my, well, second breakfast. There is a back room to sit and eat your goodies if you are so inclined, or a front area to bask in the sun (though it looks out onto the parking lot).

drive to mammoth

I took the southerly route home through Yosemite… the frustration of getting stuck behind trailer after trailer distracted me from the beauty of the scenery. It was maddening. But on a friend’s advice, I decided to do an easy walk on the western most end of Tuolumne Meadows to see the river. If you park at the lot at the Eastern end of the meadows, a well-worn trail will take you along the outskirts of the meadow to the river and back without much difficulty. The river is one cascade after another of enormous stone slabs of granite and resulting swimming holes of deep green water. Clothing was clearly optional as I hiked along listening to squeals of delight from the bathers. Another option is to climb the dome itself (an absolutely enormous, but gentle looking white rock), which is easily done from the Eastern side. There is also an unmarked trail there, just around the bend at the 10:00 position, which meanders through the pines for a more direct route to the river. Views from on top of the dome are moving, (as they are on return through the meadow portion of the trail).


After reading so much about Groveland, I was excited to get a room in town at one of the cute B & Bs on short notice. Once I arrived to check in, however, I was driven a mile or two out of town to be shown a room in an ordinary looking home near the golf course. Since my intent was to stay in and experience the town, I decided to move on and make my night a homecoming. {I did get to venture into the Mountain Sage Café, covered with Wisteria and full of some interesting photographs. It is as hippie-esque as hippie hangouts get; it looked as though you could spend all day there.} The drive on Hwy 120 home was more than unremarkable: it was quite unenjoyable. It was clearly the workaday route to getting to Yosemite and nothing like my trip into the area. I took it as a sign that it was a good decision to skip town, though I do regret not being able to swing open the doors of that old time Groveland saloon- just like in the movies.

road to mammoth, holman photo
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