My first stop on my long road trip was Mono Lake, which I had been wanting to go for a while. It turned out that this desert salt buildup lake was truly a wonderland for photographers.

Back in late June through early July, I did this year’s fourth photography road trip. The first two trips were quite short, only for a couple of nights each – the Joshua Tree NP trip and the Death Valley NP trip. The third trip – the Yosemite NP trip, was also short, but I combined it with the West Coast adventure.

While looking for a long trip to take on, an opportunity of backpacking in Banff NP, Canada, presented itself, and I jumped on it. I decided to drive to Banff, and meanwhile I would make a few stops along the way.

Not really knowing what to shoot other than those must-sees that I got myself familiar with, based on the research I did online, I hit the road with one goal in mind. I’ll take as many photos as I could. And the following is a glimpse of the trip that I made through several sets of photos that I produced.

First up, Mono Lake.

MONO LAKE – WONDERLAND FOR PHOTOGS

I’d seen so many photos taken here, mostly at sunset, or with the backdrop of the snow capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada. So, when it came down to creating an itinerary, Mono Lake had to be in.

After driving 5 1/2 hours, I arrived at the South Tufa area. I followed the boardwalk to find the short sandy trail along the lake where it has been most photographed. You can find more information about the area here.

THE SKY WAS BURNING

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Battleship at Mono Lake stood its ground as the sky was still burning and the smoke snaked across over the lake.

When I arrived at the lake, there was a fire that broke out on the westside of the 395. It was mostly contained by the nightfall, but I learned next day that the road remained closed.

All the out-of-this-world rock formations were quite mind-boggling. They were created in all heights and shapes. Some were as tall as a two-story house.

And most distinctively they were part of this salt lake’s character. This was its past and also its present.

The sun slowly started setting, and because it was such a clear day, it would’ve been a bit bland without much going on in the sky. However, thanks to the smoke blowing east from the aforementioned unfortunate fire, framing the lake with the streak of vapor in the crazy pallet of colors in the sky made a night and day difference.

MILKY WAY OVER BATTLESHIP

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The Milky Way rose over the calm Mono Lake. Battleship stood down for the night, ready for the next day.

The night fell at the lake.

It was time to stargaze our galaxy.

Since I was in the South Tufa area, rather than in the north shore of the lake, I couldn’t frame the galactic center in. Of course, if I were on the other side of the lake, I would’ve not been able to have the Battleship in my photos. It would’ve been too far. So, this was rather a compromise from where I was, but in the end I was very glad that I stayed put.

DANCING STARS OVER MONO LAKE

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The stars danced around Polaris over the calm lake as the moon started rising.

One of the astrophotography shots that I always take is star trails. I tend to frame the shots with Polaris, aka the North Star, in the center, so that it remains as a focal point of the shot.

And I also think that having the North Star in the center of the frame provides a sense of balance, especially when the foreground objects come in different sizes.

I walked down farther east along the lake and soon found a spot where I was still able to frame in the shore rocks and the Battleship together. The reflection of the Battleship naturally became an important element to add another layer of texture.

Although the light pollution from Lee Vining was not subtle, what I was more worried about the duration of darkness without the Moon. The Moon was supposed to rise at 11ish that night.

And it did. It was definitely time to return to my car.

BOARDWALK TO THE MILKY WAY

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As the moon rose higher, the Milky Way slowly faded into the night sky. The moonlit boardwalk was the only way to reach the Milky Way.

While walking back on the boardwalk to the car, I saw the Milky Way slowly fading into the oblivion as the Moon was rising higher and higher. Earth’s natural satellite literally brightened up the entire world.

Or at least this part of the world.

It was so bright that I didn’t even have to expose the shots too long.

The moment reminded me of the night in Death Valley National Park where I was trying to capture the Milky Way on the boardwalk in Salt Creek. This is the night and day difference having the Moon in the sky makes!


WAITING FOR SUNRISE

It was early. But I couldn't miss out on the sunrise. Another sunrise promises a new day.
It was early. But I couldn’t miss out on the sunrise. Another sunrise promises a new day.

When I woke up, it was still early. But not a whole lot of time to waste. I grabbed my camera and the tripod and hastily strolled down to the shore again.

No one was around. Awesome. I always love that part of the journey.

The sun was yet below the horizon, transitioning from the Golden Hour (not Magic Hour for sunset) to the Blue Hour.

I like the Blue Hour a lot because it is one of those truly calm moments where one can unperturbedly reflect on the past or look forward to what’s in store.

The gentle ripples created by the birds at the lake was the only thing that undulated such tranquility.

SUNRISE AT MONO LAKE

The sun rose at Mono Lake. It was so calm and surreal. One of the largest desert lakes you can visit, and here I was appreciating the drastic temperature change as soon as the sun rose over the mountains.
The sun rose at Mono Lake. It was so calm and surreal. One of the largest desert lakes you can visit, and here I was appreciating the drastic temperature change as soon as the sun rose over the mountains.

Within 15 minutes or so, the sun rose. As it is always the case, it is truly amazing to see just that.

Another sunrise often promises a new day.

The shallow lake wasn’t fully awake yet. However, such tranquility soon will dissipate into the bottom of another hot day in the Mono Basin. As chilly as it was while waiting for the sun, it didn’t take long to feel the warmth of the sun.

MORNING HAS ARRIVED

The sun rose at Mono Lake, and it was a bright morning with clear sky. Another beauitiful morning settled in at the lake.
The sun rose at Mono Lake, and it was a bright morning with clear sky. Another beautiful morning settled in at the lake.

As the sun rose higher, as the Moon did the night before, the shadows were getting short, and everything started coming into its colorful view. More details come into view, and that is what I was trying to capture before losing the sunrise aura.

Once it’s gone, it’s daylight, and it means it’s time to pack up and leave.

CODA

I know that I’ve just scratched the surface. There are so many parts of the lake I should visit. I also can’t wait to go back in winter when the snow capped mountains dominate the scenery.

After a recent trip in Arizona, I made a detour by making a stop at June Lake Loop, and while taking the 120 West to get there, I saw Mono Lake in different light again. Especially, the mountains in the background loomed very prominently, which would be perfect for the winter.

Just can’t wait to go back there again.

Have you been to Mono Lake? What is your favorite season to visit the lake? What other areas of the lake did you pay a visit? Have you been to either Paoha Island or Negit Island

Thanks for reading.

8 COMMENTS

    • Thank you so much! Yes! I couldn’t agree more that it is a magical place! I took a short road trip to the Easter Sierra and enjoyed the early fall foliage (I hope I go back there soon before it all disappears). While I was driving home on the 395, part of me really wanted to stop by the lake again, but I didn’t have time. Oh well, if I go back for the late fall foliage, I may. We will see! It’s getting chilly at night though! LOL 🙂 Hope you go back in Spring!

      • It’s a magical area. I really enjoy driving the 395, I do it as often as I can. I am planning on a road trip this spring/summer. I’ve only seen the outskirts of Yosemite, and I need to explore more 🙂 Did you go by Bodi as well? It’s one of my favorite places to experiment with different settings/new lenses etc.

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