The eastern Sierra; Mono lake, Bodie, Mammoth Lakes region

Lake Mary, above the town of Mammoth Lakes at 9000 feet.

Exciting fall destination: the eastern Sierra; Mono lake, Bodie, Mammoth Lakes region…

We are bound for the Eastern Sierra, after spending several days in Yosemite Park’s Tuolumne Meadows area, then cresting mighty Tioga Pass.

The Standard Mine and Mill stands high on Bodie Bluff above the old town of Bodie.

It’s a steep descent from the pass into Lee Vining, at the intersection of Hwy. 120 and 395. If you haven’t visited Bodie State Historic Park, go north on 395 to find this gem of gold rush history.

W. S. Bodey discovered gold in 1859, though he perished in a blizzard the following November making a supply run to nearby Monoville (near present-day Mono City). The town languished until the 1876, when the Standard Company discovered a profitable gold-bearing deposit and transformed the area into a boomtown, reaching a population of about 7,000 people and over 2,000 buildings. Despite over 65 saloons on Main Street, the gold played out by the late-1800s and the town faded away (but not before producing about $34 million in gold).

Old homesteads parallel Hwy. 395 headed to Mammoth Lakes.

Bodie’s Main Street features the old post office, the IOOF Hall, Miner’s Hall with adjacent morgue, Boone Store and Warehouse, the old firehouse and Wheaton and Hollis Hotel (the hotel lobby, complete with bar and pool table, gives the impression that gold prospectors left just minutes earlier)!

Walk down Green Street to the red-brick hydroelectric building. In 1882 a hydroelectric plant was built on Green Creek above Bridgeport, developing 3500 volts. Electricity was run 13 miles over power poles set in a straight-line – at the time the belief was that electricity could not be made to turn a corner! This engineering feat spread throughout the world, and soon similar power plants became a worldwide standard. After a walking tour of Bodie, we returned to Hwy. 395 and headed south.

Tufa towers appear as a "ghost ship" along edge of Mono Lake.

Just south, Mono Lake, at 760,000 years old, is one of the oldest lakes in North America. With no outlet and fed by six major streams emptying minerals into the lake for eons, evaporation has resulted in lake water 2.5 times saltier than the ocean and extremely buoyant. While fish can’t live in the alkaline waters, it’s flush with life – millions of brine shrimp and alkali flies feed thousands of migratory birds. Touring the shoreline tufa tower gardens is an experience you will long remember.

Tufa tower formations are the result of springs rising up from the lake floor and depositing minerals as they grow upwards. Once 30, 40 or 50 feet under the lake’s surface, evaporating lake waters reveal these stark, alien creations over the past 95 years, as LA water interests siphoned off tributary streamflow, causing the lake surface to drop by 65 feet. Tour the South Tufa Reserve, five miles east of Hwy. 395 on Hwy. 120; a one mile easy hike takes you through the most intriguing topography.

After our stop at Mono Lake, we continued south on Hwy. 395, paralleling the towering Sierra peaks to our west. We exited on Highway 203 to the resort town of Mammoth Lakes, home to the huge Mammoth Mountain ski resort, one of the largest in the west and a Mecca for hikers and mountain bikers. We drove through the town, and climbed to Lake Mary Campground at almost 9,000 feet. With spectacular scenery, it’s one of six lakes in the Lake Mary Loop, all featuring picturesque campgrounds.

Sun sets over Mono Lake and the lofty Eastern Sierra.

Mammoth Lakes’ jagged peaks, broad valleys and churning waterfalls make for an all-inspiring experience, particularly in the late summer/fall when crowds dwindle. Popular hiking or biking options, in addition to those in the Lake Mary area, include Tamarack Lakes Trail beginning at Rock Creek Lake Trailhead, an almost 10 mile round-trip hike with gorgeous views of rugged peaks surrounding Little Lakes Valley. Additional options include the Mountain View Trail, and Mammoth Rock Trail, which passes below the iconic Mammoth Rock, a huge limestone and marble outcrop.

After setting up our camp site, we returned to Mammoth Lakes and found our way to Mammoth Brewing Company, adjacent to the Eatery, a must stop, with craft brews and some marvelous pub food. The town features a variety of motels, additional restaurant options, retailers and sporting-goods stores, catering to the adventurous, outdoors crowd.

The next day we followed Hwy. 203 to Devils Postpiles National Monument. A short 1/2 mile follows a pristine stretch of the Upper Middle Fork San Joaquin River, then to the postpiles. About 80,000 years ago, basalt lava flowed and as it cooled and contracted it split into the symmetrical vertical, hexagonal columns that constitute the postpiles. Further down river is Rainbow Falls, which drops 100 feet over a volcanic cliff.

How to get there: From Stockton, take I-5 or Hwy. 99 south, go east on Hwy. 120 through Yosemite Park to connect to Hwy. 395, south to Hwy. 203 to Mammoth Lakes, about 200 miles and five hours from Stockton.

For more information: Bodie State Historic Park, 760.647.6445;; Mono Basin Visitor Center, 760.873.2408;; Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce: 760.934.6717;; Devils Postpile National Monument, 760.934.2289,

Follow Tim at or contact him at Happy travels in the west!

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