There are few places in California—and maybe on the planet—that can make you think you might just be on Mars. This is one of them. At this high-desert preserve, on the eastern side of the towering Sierra, ghostlike tufa towers trim the edges of a one-million-year-old lake, the salty remnant of an ancient inland sea. Over a million sea birds feed on the surface and swirl overhead—AN incredible show of life in this seemingly desolate setting.
Get yourself oriented with a visit to the excellent interpretive center, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains). Inside, exhibits shed light on the natural and human history of the Mono Basin, including major environmental challenges caused by water diversions that almost killed the lake. (Huge efforts by the local Mono Lake Committee, with a gift-filled shop in Lee Vining, have successfully saved it.) Wraparound decks offer expansive views of the dramatic setting—Sierra peaks to the west, chaparral-dotted desert to the east, and views of the lake and its tiny Wizard Island, an important nesting site for Western gulls and other sea birds. Bird walks are offered at 8 a.m. Fridays and Sundays, mid-May through Labor Day. The Visitor Center is closed Dec-Mar.
Trails lace the area; you can explore rehabilitated Lee Vining Creek riparian habitat and the region’s cinder cones, blanketed with with obsidian and pumice, or walk in the South Tufa Area, with close-up views of the lake-trimming calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs flowing into the ultra-alkaline lake water that’s 2½ times as salty as the ocean. Naturalists lead free tufa walks at the South Tufa Area three times daily from late June through Labor Day. Guided paddles are also offered through Caldera Kayaks.
Snow-covered peaks in winter, gushing waterfalls in spring, wildflower meadows and glistening lakes in summer, vibrant colours in fall—this is a land of dramatic and wild beauty. World-class mountain resorts circling turquoise-blue Lake Tahoe, and at Mammoth Lakes cater to all, with scenic ski trails in winter and trails and vistas in summer.
Yosemite Valley…is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and gold and wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” --photographer Ansel Adams
Yosemite National Park, a World Heritage Site, is here, roughly 3½ hours east of San Francisco. Whether you hike a mountain, ski the steeps, or lounge in a hot tub beneath a canopy of stars, you’ll find your perfect getaway.
Granite monoliths, waterfalls, alpine meadows—it’s no secret that Yosemite delivery some seriously big wow moments. But what is a secret is the bounty of awesome things you can see and do on your...