Mono Lake Day Trip, Autumn Colors

Anybody remember that span of a couple of weeks when the US Federal Government was shut down?  Headlines, talking heads accusing and blaming one another, politics as usual, venom, etc. etc.  Ring a bell?
The positive spin on things after planning out a day trip to shoot at Mono Lake?  That’s right, there was no $20.00 fee to drive through Yosemite National Park!  Slightly less important but no less awesome was the suspicion (that would soon prove correct) that there’d be very little tourist traffic on the highway since the Yosemite valley was closed to traffic.
I loaded up and checked all of my gear the night before.  Since I shoot with two little dinky Fuji cameras – the excellent X100 and the fantastic XE-1 – loading my gear took about 4 minutes.  ‘All’ of the gear with the exception of my tripod fit into a medium sized Timbuk2 messenger bag.  I made good use of the remaining hours of the night before the drive finalizing the route and creating conservative estimates of drive time from Oakland to the South Tufa Grove parking lot.
Rather than take Highway 120 both ways (the road that goes across the Sierra through Yosemite National Park and down Tioga Pass pretty much directly to Mono Lake), I chose to drive east on Highway 108 and then take US395 south through Bridgeport to the lake.  Glad I did, it made for a beautiful trip up through the foothills and into the mountains, then up and over Sonora Pass.   There was snow.  There were golden- and red-leafed Aspens.  I even spotted a few Bristlecone Pines on the peaks high above the highway.  I stopped frequently to gawk at all of the beauty around me and really enjoyed the flow of the day.  The journey was indeed the destination.  Almost.
aspen sonora pass valley
So, there I was, stopped on the side of Highway 395 between Bridgeport and the Bodie turnoff, looking west out over a panorama of beautiful Aspen shimmering in their multi-hued glory.  Snow was blowing off of the peaks in the distance behind them.  The photographs I took don’t do the scene justice.
fall colors 
A half-dozen white vans, each with a number on the back door, rolled up and stopped in the same area where I was parked.  6 or 7 tourists/photographers piled out of each van, most setting up their tripods to jockeying for position along the highway.  Bear in mind that the stretch where I was parked was on a straight line of road that was perhaps half a mile long.  Even so, there were many sidelong looks between these folks as they all snapped away at the same things as their neighbor.  At that point, I saw the handwriting on the wall – these folks were headed to shoot the sunset at Mono Lake.  And there were a LOT of them. At that moment I began to rethink my languid, stop-every-few minutes pace.
Maybe it’s the city boy in me.  Perhaps I’m slightly OCD (it’s this).  Maybe it’s the punctuality hammered into me by my Dad and by one of my first bosses.  Whatever it was, I suddenly felt that little pang of anxiety that told me I was going to be late unless I got my ass in gear.  I hate being late.  Late, in this instance, means arriving at the location I drove half a day to shoot after a great number of people.  I’m sure they were fine people, but I didn’t want to be last to the party and looking for a ‘this is good enough’ location.
I jumped in the car to get where I was going and choose a spot.
After about 6 hours in the car, I had seen almost enough of the Sierra and the high desert country and was ready for a glimpse of Mono Lake.  I was soon rewarded as, on a descent that rounds a hillside on a downhill, I got my first glance of the lake and the surrounding country.  The place looked like it belonged on another planet.  Upthrust rock formations in the near distance broke the drab green of the brush.  The deep blue of the lake stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding desert.  And even at this distance I could see Tufa formations along the north and west shores of the lake.  This was going to be fun.
first look 
So, with the posse of inbound photographers hot on my heels…okay, not really, but it makes for a good storytelling device…I found and parked in the South Tufa parking lot after only a couple more stops:
The first:
The second:
Afternoon was leaking into the golden hour that golden hue that we all love so well and that mob of photographers was no doubt closing in, so it was time to get down to the shore.  I packed up my gear (i.e. slung my little messenger bag over my shoulder and grabbed the tripod) and strode past the pay station where you’re supposed to pay the $3.00 parking fee.  That’s right, I did NOT pay my $3.00 parking fee.  The government was shut down, so I guess they were out of luck.  No $3.00 for you.
I’d never seen the Tufa in person before, but have wanted to make this trip for several years now.  These limestone formations stand out as such otherworldly features that it is difficult not to stare at them as you’re walking along.  At this point I noticed the effect of the altitude on my lungs.  I was a bit out of breath despite the fact that I was walking along at my usual clip on level ground.
Along the shore of the South Tufa Grove I chatted with a Ranger who was there keeping an eye on the people passing through.  He said it was pretty quiet and lightly travelled, his eyes were busy flicking from one person to the next as they walked up and down the beach behind me.  Eventually he excused himself to retrieve a signpost someone had thoughtfully deposited on the rock:
No idea why it was up there to begin with.  Perhaps it belonged to the Ranger and, being a man of duty, he would never dream of abandoning…his…post.
I found a nice spot and set up to shoot the sunset.  I spoke with a guy who was out there shooting infrared film on a Hasselblad, took a photo of some Spaniards and chatted with them in Spanish for a few minutes, then the posse showed up in force.
There were perhaps 35 or 40 of them.  Prior to their arrival there were perhaps 5 or 6 people spaced along the shore facing east and the vibe was very mellow and calm.  These guys descended in a scurrying wave and the area immediately became a weird human circus.  People climbed on the Tufa (there are signs everywhere that say ‘KEEP OFF’ in both pictograms and verbiage), they shouldered and barked at one another and one latecomer even started to set up right in front of my camera.  I politely informed him that that wasn’t going to work and he grunted and mumbled something that might have been an apology as he moved off.

The weird scene developing all around me felt like a red carpet press event where the photographers were all competing for that one shot of a starlet and would step on, kick or gouge their neighbor to get it.  This was serious business, apparently.
Of course, in this case the starlet was immobile rock with light bouncing off of it.  I sat still and tried to ignore them.  I got several snooty looks from the Canon and Nikon users in this crowd with my little bitty cameras.  Then again, I chuckled inwardly at a couple of the guys wearing their photographers’ vests, so I suppose it evened out.
So, with the press corps in place, the sun finally started doing its thing, bathing the rocks in golden light, then painting everything in a azure glow as moonlight supplanted the sun’s rays in illuminating the tufa and the surface of the lake.
 sunset into bluecloudscape     sunset
Within ten minutes of the sunset, the mob departed in a cacaphony of clanking carbon fiber tripods, ripping velcro and zipping zippers.  Once again it was just me and perhaps a half dozen photographers out to shoot the evening.
by moonlight
It was absolutely worth the drive there.  And the drive back through Yosemite via Tioga Pass in absolute pitch darkness and no other cars on the road.  I did see a coyote come bounding up out of the rocks west of the park entrance.  He regarded me with a disdainful look on his face as I drove past.  Not sure what I did to deserve that.  I wish I’d had the camera out, but it was full dark by this time and I was antsy to get home.
I still need to see Bodie.  And another sunset or two here would be fantastic.  And if I can catch those two dilapidated houses on 395 in just the right light, it might make for a great print.  And…

2 thoughts on “Mono Lake Day Trip, Autumn Colors”

  1. Gorgeous work as always. Of course a trip like this would get your creativity flowing.

    I didn’t know it cost $20 to drive through Yosemite National Park. I better remenber that if my wife and I make it down there.

    1. Hey man! Thanks for the comment and for the compliment.

      It does. The fee is good for 3 days, if I recall correctly, but it’s basically an admission fee as most travelers are just there for the day to drive through the valley or are passing through.

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