Mono Lake & Bodie
You take a honeymoon after you are married but before you start your married life. You take a babymoon when you are pregnant but before the baby is born. Clearly it follows to take a puppymoon when you have reserved your puppy but have yet to come into possession of him.
In deciding where to go on our puppymoon, we wanted to choose somewhere within easy driving distance for a weekend getaway, and Mono Lake and Bodie instantly came to mind. We have had an article about these places (just east of Yosemite, almost in Nevada) ripped out of Sunset Magazine and tacked up on a bulletin board in our office. This has been a bucket list destination of ours for a few years now, but our work schedules don't often allow us to take weekends away, or when we have been in Yosemite we haven't had enough time, or the roads were closed due to snow. So now seemed like the perfect time!
The Adventure Begins
Friday we both worked full days but were eager to get on the road to allow more time for exploring on Saturday. I headed straight home from work, threw our bags into Gandy (my lovely Prius, Gandalf the Grey), and started out. After a quick stop by Starbucks on our way out of town to load up on caffeine and carbs, we started the long drive in Friday rush hour traffic through Sacramento and into the forest. We only had one stop to fuel up with both gasoline and sugar to keep us awake (hello, Reese's Fast Break!) and finally rolled into Walker, CA around 11:30 PM. Let me tell you, driving around in the dark forest on narrow, winding mountain roads lined in slush and old snow when all you want to do is sleep is one of the less fun things I've done lately. Naturally we were relieved to arrive at our motel for the evening.
The West Walker Motel is a charming establishment with a very 1940s vibe to it, each room decorated differently and quaintly, and random clutter in the yard including an old fashioned refrigerator. Our bathroom was tiny but the bed was insanely comfortable, and we passed out almost immediately.
SaturdaySaturday morning we were up bright and early after only a few hours of sleep to make it to Bodie when the park opened at 9:00 AM. We spent some time investigating the motel's grounds and saw an exceptionally cute baby bunny hopping around. The next leg of our journey was another hour and change way out into the middle of nowhere, but at least this drive was during daylight hours. We had some spectacular views of the Sierra Nevadas and mentally bookmarked places to return for photo ops on the way home.
The road out to Bodie is skinny and curvy, and the last 3 miles are unpaved and scattered with potholes. Poor Gandy had enough trouble on the well-maintained roads, and this added a layer of challenge but certainly not unmanageable in any way. The roads on Vieques Island and in Tulum were certainly worse. We were the second car in line to enter the park, and arrived a solid 20 minutes early, so we sat there waiting at a ranger booth in front of a large sign that read DO NOT ENTER THE PARK BEFORE 9:00 AM! No ranger mans this booth; once it turns 9:00, they trust you to get an envelope from the box near the window, fill out your information, and return it with a cash payment into a slot. It does not appear they monitor this system carefully...very trusting, these mountain folk.
If you aren't familiar with Bodie, it is a historic ghost town that has been purchased and preserved in a state of "arrested decay" by the Parks Department; this means that the buildings' roofs, windows, and foundations are repaired and stabilized, but not restored. Once a booming mining town in the late 1800s with a population nearing 10,000, the town became deserted after the gold ran out. Two devastating fires, the latest of the two in 1932, destroyed much of the already declining town, and the last mine was closed in 1942.
Today, about 5% of the buildings remain from the town's 1877-1881 heydey, and you can peek in the windows of the establishments to see all kinds of exciting artifacts from the period.
Since we got to Bodie so early we got to explore in relative peace until the crowds of tourists began to spill in around noon. I was amazed at the amount of freedom we had (and ultimately, the lack of supervision). It seemed to be some kind of park ranger training day, and a group was being educated on a small tour around the property, but otherwise we didn't see any authoritative figures and were free to explore at our leisure.
There's a schoolhouse with books and papers piled on old desks. A general store is packed with goods for sale and a mannequin in the window. A Shell gas station lies across from a shop displaying antique skis and snowshoes, with a pool table set up for a game. There is a barber shop complete with a shoe shining station next door to a saloon outfitted with a slot machine and roulette table. You can view a Catholic church, a funeral parlor, an athletic club, hotels, the large mill, decaying cars and old wagons, a fire house, just about everything you could ever think of. One of the buildings has been turned into a museum that features all sorts of additional artifacts and modern souvenirs for purchase. A short walk up the hill leads you to a cemetery that is still in use today. You can't even imagine how much there is to see here, and this blog certainly doesn't do it any justice. You can easily spend hours exploring, and that's exactly what we did...and we still didn't even see everything!
This trip was somewhat meant as a photography trip, so Todd and I spent a solid 5-6 hours snapping away to our hearts' content, pressed up against the glass on our tiptoes, or crouching in the grass to get the best angle. Since Todd is an urban exploration photographer, this was right up his alley, and though I normally photograph models and actors, I had a great time trying my hand at some abandoned photography. My shots aren't as good as Todd's, of course, but I think I got a few good ones! Why don't you judge for yourself? All following photos were taken by me.
My recommendations for a visit to Bodie:
- Wear sunscreen! Even though it was only 60 degrees and windy, that sun is fierce. I was wearing a hoodie and capri yoga pants, and got a nasty burn on my calves without even realizing it!
- Bug spray was also useful. I recommend a backpack for carrying such items with you since the journey back to the car is a long one.
- Buy one of the guide booklets. You can get one for $2 at a stand near the drinking fountains (also on the honor system...don't be a jerk! Put the $2 in the box!). Most of the buildings have numbers posted in front of them and corresponding descriptions in the guide, which is super helpful. The map is also useful to make sure you hit all of the buildings you want to see, and there are some interesting historic photos and facts as well.
- Bring cash in small bills to pay for entry and things like the guide booklet.
- There are no services except for bathrooms and drinking fountains, so bring some snacks or a lunch, since there is literally nothing nearby.
- The bathrooms are well maintained, but there is no soap or paper towels/hand dryer! Bring some hand sanitizer.
- You will get dirty! Wear comfortable shoes you don't mind getting filthy.
- The crowd was biggest between 11:00-2:00. If you come early and/or stay later, you will have some amazing opportunities for photos without tons of strangers in your shots.
- If you are taking photos, press your lens directly up against the glass to minimize glare from the dirty windows.
Mid-afternoon we headed back on the road to our next destination, Lee Vining, which is a tiny town of about 300 people right on the edge of Mono Lake. We found our lodgings at the Lake View Motel, which was far nicer than we had anticipated. The lobby is cozy and welcoming and modern, with local products for sale and a friendly staff. Our room had a fabulously comfortable king sized bed dressed in royal purple bedding (which I decided was an accidental homage to Prince) and those fancy keys you just touch to the door to unlock it.
We got settled in and went next door to the market to buy some burritos and were met with delightful small town hospitality and graciousness. After so much early morning adventuring, we needed a nap and planned to hit sunset at the most scenic area of the lake, the South Tufa Natural Reserve. Since the sun sets around 8:00pm, we decided to grab some dinner first, and I was craving a cheeseburger (as usual), so we found some reviews online and headed out to a restaurant just outside the downtown stretch. Reviewed as the best restaurant in the area, The Mono Inn's website boasted of spectacular lake views, outdoor dining, and some vague historic connections to Ansel Adams and Mark Twain (I believe Ansel Adams' granddaughter owned the place and it remains in the family, but I couldn't quite make out the relationship to Mark Twain other than he wrote about the lake in one of his books). The white table linens and wine menus suggested I didn't do my research--this was clearly not the place for a cheeseburger. But who am I to turn down some fine dining?! Severely under-dressed in my filthy exploring clothes, we proceeded to order prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and pork chops with all the trimmings, and cheers'ed to a successful day. After topping it off with some homemade apple pie with crust that tasted like a snickerdoodle and gobs of vanilla ice cream, we set out for our sunset adventure.
Mono Lake has extremely high levels of salt, which accumulates because there is no outlet for the lake except for evaporation, and which also makes the lake alkaline. What makes this lake extra photogenic are the tufa formations, or columns of limestone that form underwater where springs come into the lake, and are then exposed as the level of the lake drops over time. An informational sign referred to them as "petrified springs."
That night I witnessed probably the most breathtaking sunset I've ever seen, and combined with the tufa skyline and the snow-capped Sierras in the distance, Todd and I were both able to capture some pretty remarkable photos. And hey! I learned how to properly shoot a sunset, tripod and all. Let's celebrate the small victories.
Sunday was one of those days where everything seems to go wrong. We headed to a nearby coffee-shop-slash-organic-bakery (one of two places to get coffee in town) for breakfast, and were vastly disappointed with our fare. Nevertheless, we took it to the Visitor Center perched on top of the hill and ate on a bench overlooking the lake. Our plan was to get some ideas of what to do during the day from the Center and embark on some impromptu adventures.
The Visitor Center itself is glorious. Half of it is curated into interactive displays on the lake's history, geology, and ecology, and there is a theater that regularly plays informative videos.
On the opposite side, you will find a gift shop and an art gallery featuring an exhibit of photographs of the lake from the past century, including some by Ansel Adams. After spending some time looking around, we decided to speak with a representative at the information desk to ask for his advice on activities nearby. This was our conversation:
Us: "Hello! We wanted to know if you could make some recommendations on what we could do or see today."
Him: "You should go to the South Tufa Reserve."
Us: "Yes, we did that yesterday. We were wondering what else there is to do."
Him: "How would you feel about driving to a ghost town?"
Us: "Bodie? Yes, we also went there yesterday. What else? "
Him: "Then you've already done everything."
I don't think this man should go into sales! For the record, there is plenty more to do and see in the area, though perhaps not as exciting as what we had already done. I had seen numerous other suggestions and was hoping he could help us narrow it down. He proceeded to
unhelpfully kindly give us 2 maps, one out to the Japanese internment camp Manzanar (2 hours away) and one to Yosemite Valley (also hours away on a closed road) "for our next visit." Pressing him further, he also gave us instructions to the Panum Crater (a volcanic cone) near the South Tufa Reserve, which included a skinny dirt road.
Us: "We have a Prius, and we heard you need four wheel drive for those roads."
Him: "Naw, you will be fine. Just go slow. It's no worse than the one out to South Tufa."
We left the Center feeling less than enthusiastic, but determined to find an adventure. Fortunately, there was a much more helpful visitor's map posted outside that highlighted areas of interest around the lake (homeboy could have pointed us to this map and would have been more helpful than he was). So we headed off to the old Marina area where they used to have a boathouse and even hold old school bathing beauty contests (like Miss America!) back in the day, but now is just a parking lot and some paths that lead down to the muddy, salt stained shoreline. We scrambled around the water front trying to get decent pictures of some less impressive tufa formations, our shoes sinking and sticking the whole way.
Poor little guy!
On our way back, we ran into a boardwalk that didn't quite lead to the water which apparently connected to some hiking trails that led up to the Visitor Center way up on the top of the hill. I have no idea why we didn't see this boardwalk until we were leaving.
Ok, so now what? Todd had heard of an abandoned mine just a few miles out of town, so we decided to go check it out. But when we got to the road, it was so narrow and full of potholes, poor Gandy would have never made it out alive, so we abandoned that mission.
What next? Let's stop at the souvenir store across from our motel to check out the tchotchkes! But wait...it is closed for renovation and won't open "until summer." Great.
Alright, let's go visit the museum in the old schoolhouse! I hear there is a famous upside down house there! Dang it...the museum is "closed until spring." Isn't it spring?! What is happening?
Fine, let's go out to that crater the dude gave us directions to. HA! He thought we could drive on this dirt road in a Prius? This is certainly not the same as the one to the Tufa Reserve! Has he ever been out here? There is a sign posted on the turnoff that says "Road not suitable for low riding vehicles. Four wheel drive recommended." That guy was useless!
Ok, well let's see if we can go take photos of those tufa formations out to the left of where we went before. That might be different. Nope. Can't get over there at all. Awesome.
All of this is happening with us driving back and forth, back and forth, across considerable distances. All our plans were foiled! So after taking a few daytime photos, we decided to go get cheeseburgers (from a place that for sure sold them) and regroup for the evening. And what luck...Todd ate half of my hamburger before we discovered he had the wrong one. Sigh. Not my day.
That evening we decided to take a short drive out to Lundy Lake to try and get a new perspective on what looked like it was going to be another lovely sunset. First we stopped to have salads for dinner at a well-reviewed cafe located inside the Mobil gas station. The Whoa Nellie Deli is actually quite good, so don't let the location discourage you! They also have a decent souvenir shop, and it's located right at the beginning of Tioga Pass, which would take you to Yosemite Valley, which was, of course, closed.
Lundy Lake is quite pretty, lined with delightful trees that I'm sure are spectacular in the fall, and set against a backdrop of snowy mountains. But oh my stars, was it COLD. Even in a hoodie under a winter jacket with my hood tied tightly around my face and gloves, the windchill was too much for me. I opted to watch the sunset from the car while Todd braved the freezing temperatures, and I only snuck out to snap some photos of a group of deer who came down to the lake to drink. And the sunset wasn't even that great. Poo.
You ain't artsier than me
So Sunday wasn't as successful as it could have been, but we were still able to see the area and had an overall good time.
Monday morning we decided to head back early so we could make plentiful stops on the way and hit some of the photo locations we had scouted on our way in. Breakfast was much more successful at the other coffee shop (better food variety, better coffee options), and we headed out of town.
Our first stop was the nearby town of Bridgeport, home to the famous Mono County Court House. Photo op!
Every so often during the drive, one of us would say, "Hey! This looks like a good spot for some adventuring! Pull over!" And we would run around taking some scenic pictures, then jump back in and head on our way.
Caught this fisherman in action just south of Tahoe
We stopped in Placerville for lunch, which is one of my very favorite towns. If you haven't been to Placerville, it's located on the way to Tahoe from Sacramento, and the downtown is adorably historic.
I wanted to go check out the historic Cary House Hotel (I had lobbied to stay here on Friday night, but it wasn't close enough to our final destination) which is supposed to be haunted and has had all kinds of famous people stay there dating back to 1857. The lobby is stunning, decorated with period pieces and antiques, and the young man at reception was very polite and let us poke around as much as we pleased.
After admiring the shops and establishments that lined the street, we stopped at the Old Town Grill to make up for my 2 ruined attempts at cheeseburgers, and I must say I was extremely impressed. The food was AMAZING, and the staff was probably the most friendly and attentive I have ever encountered. We ate in the back patio, pleased to be back in high 70s temps after the cold mountain air.
The rest of the journey home was occupied with rounds of trivia from an app Todd found on his phone, which certainly made the trip pass faster and I highly recommend for future road trippers.
My recommendations for going to Mono Lake:
- You can really do all of the cool stuff at Mono Lake in one day. Plan it as a stop-over trip on your way to other things.
- Bring a range of outfits. It gets really cold at night, and decently warm during the day. Layers!
- Go in the summer if you have a choice. Most things are closed, even in mid May when we went. I'm assuming things will open around Memorial Day Weekend, or at least in June.
- If you go in the summer, try swimming in the lake! You should float like crazy...let me know how it goes!
- Bug spray!
- A Subaru or SUV would be a great idea and would open up your exploring possibilities.
- Mono Cone and Mono Cup Coffee are great choices for food in Lee Vining.
- Be prepared for a lot of wind.
- Take photos at sunrise and sunset for the best shots.
For more photos from our adventures, visit my Facebook album.