“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds. This solemn, silent, sail-less sea—this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque. It is an unpretending expanse of grayish water, about a hundred miles in circumference, with two islands in its centre, mere upheavals of rent and scorched and blistered lava, snowed over with gray banks and drifts of pumice-stone and ashes, the winding sheet of the dead volcano, whose vast crater the lake has seized upon and occupied.” – Mark Twain – Roughing It, 1872
Because of the time period, I can overlook his geographical estimations. But with all due respect to the great Mark Twain, I’ll have to disagree with his scenic assessment of Mono Lake. The sea blue-green surface of this high desert lake rests at approximately 6,383 ft above sea level, with nearby Sierra peaks like Yosemite’s 13,057 ft Mount Dana towering over 6,000 ft above the shoreline. Whether you’re viewing the basin from the highway above at Conway Summit or looking up at the Sierras from lake level, it’s the stark contrast between the desert sea and bordering snow-capped mountains that give this area its jaw-dropping beauty. And while the hypersalinity (more than twice as salty as the ocean) and high alkalinity of the lake is not a suitable habitat for fish, it still supports a unique wildlife food chain. A high population of single-celled planktonic algae feed an estimated 4–6 trillion brine shrimp. The brine shrimp and shoreline alkali flies feed nearly 2,000,000 waterbirds, including 35 species of shorebirds, that use Mono Lake to rest and eat for at least part of the year. I didn’t see any critters during my ride along the lake, but there were animal tracks all over the dunes indicating a busy nocturnal environment for the local mammals. There was also evidence of wild horses along route as well. Hardly a place you can call lifeless. But solemn, silent, lonely? Mr. Twain, I will agree with you on these points, but not in a negative light. These are the very qualities that drew me to the lake. An escape from the noise, information, and sensory overload that dominates modern life.
The idea for this trip was seeded in my memory last year when I saw the Bike Habitat post a photo from a ride at Mono Lake. Now that we have enough daylight to make the journey there and back (about a 4 hour drive round trip from Carson City), it was time to plan my own trip to the lake. Searching the internet I found information for the Mono Lake Fat 40 on the Fat Bike Mammoth website. This site describes a 41 mile (not 100 miles as Mark Twain suggests) route that circumnavigates Mono Lake, using a combination of dirt and paved roads. Initially I tried to talk myself into this endeavor, but later settled for an “exploration of the east shore” route, a decision I was ultimately grateful for. My abbreviated Fat 40 ride still took 6 hours over 28 miles.
After a two hour drive to Mono Lake, I stopped in Lee Vining and picked up a map at the Mono Lake Committee Information Center and Bookstore. It’s a great resource for local books and maps, and one of the only places open in Lee Vining this time of year it seemed. I went with The Mono Lake Map from Tom Harrison Maps. These maps are great for those adventuring on foot or bike, as they have details on trails, topography, and include a coordinate grid (both in lat/long and UTM) for easily finding your location using a GPS. The lady at the store first handed me the free paper tourist map, but I said it wouldn’t do, as I needed detail on the other side of the lake. She replied that east shore wasn’t really accessible. Perfect, I thought. That’s what I wanted to hear. When I told her I’d be on a mountain bike, we both agreed on the other map, and smiling, she wished me a good ride.
I left Lee Vinging north on HWY 395, then took State Route 167 around the north side of the lake, keeping an eye out for Forest Road 3N05. If you don’t have a 4-wheel drive, you’ll want to park just off the pavement before heading down 3N05. I drove south on 3N05, then east on 3N06 which cuts a narrow path through dense brush. I kept driving until I found a spot wide enough to pull off the road and park. You’ll want to use your best judgement when driving these dirt roads, as deep drifting sand periodically covers the road. It’s not a good place to get stuck.
I brought my fat bike for this sandy ride, a mountain bike equipped with low pressure, high flotation 4-inch wide tires. I was excited to finally get my ride underway. I continued along road 3N06 as it meandered around the dunes and past alkali ponds. The dunes are pretty tall in places, and I didn’t even get a glimpse of Mono Lake for a little over five miles. The soft rolling terrain was fun to ride, even relaxing, feeling the fat tires float over the sand. This is definitely fat bike country. A regular mountain bike would not be as fun for most of this ride.
When Mono Lake finally came into view, I was surprised out how far away it was. I had imagined riding nearly along the lakeshore for most of the ride. Between me and the lake was a fence, and many yards of brush, marshland, and deep shoreline sand. Not what I had expected, but not disappointing.
Eventually I joined Forest Service road 1N54, an intersection easily found on my map. I marked these crossroads on the GPS, so I wouldn’t miss my turnoff on the way back. Just south of the crossroads was an access road out towards the lake. I explored it a short ways, but it was better suited for foot travel once it fizzled out. I returned to the main road and continued south.
The next section was fairly easy riding with not much to do besides pedal and enjoy the view. Easy miles. I still hadn’t seen another person or animal at this point. With all the wild horse sign on the road, I expected to see the herd at any time, but they never showed. For a brief moment, the extreme silence and sameness of the road had me thinking of turning around to explore somewhere else. It wasn’t long, though, before the terrain started to rise above the lake basin to form a long cliff, and soon I found the remains of an old cabin.
The old cabin is missing a wall and nearly all the roof, with most of the debris still scattered about. The remaining walls are buttressed with large timbers to keep what’s left intact. Time is definitely not on its side. There is an interesting account of a Louis Sammann residing in a “rude cabin” near the eastern shore in the 1880s, and not far from the cabin is Sammann’s Spring. It’s possible this was his cabin.
After leaving the cabin, the road started getting more interesting, with short climbs and descents above the cliffs. I still had no plan where I’d turn around, but I was starting to get tired and wanted to save enough energy to get back. Sammann’s Spring was not far off and close to the road, so it seemed like a good destination.
When I arrived at the location of Sammann’s Spring on my GPS, the brush was really tall and thick, presumably from the extra ground water in the area. I couldn’t find a suitable path through the brush, and not wanting to get all scratched up, decided to halt my search for the spring. Instead, I headed back north to explore a side road that appeared to head towards the lake and some tufa formations.
At the end of the road, I hopped off the bike and explored the tufa. Mono Lake’s calcium-carbonate tufa formations were formed by the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. These unique formations are surrounded by a wet marsh in this area. I started to hike down a path through the reeds with the intention of visiting the shoreline, but then a voice in my head reminded me that it was probably time to start heading back. There were still 14 miles to ride, and I definitely wanted to make it back before the sun went behind the mountains.
There was a lot less exploring and sight seeing on the way back. I stopped often for food and water, glad that I had mounted the extra bottles on my bike for the ride. With the towering Sierras always to the west, it’s easy to tell direction while in the basin. But since the area is so big, I imagined my vehicle as just another unseen speck far off in the distance behind some random sand dune. Even with few roads and my own tracks to follow back, I was thankful for my GPS to help me keep track of where I was out in the desert expanse.
When I reached the dunes again I was near the end of my ride. The allure to get back to the vehicle and and on the road was strong, but I just had to see if the dunes were rideable on the fat bike. I veered off the road and climbed up onto the dunes, surprised at how well the tires floated on top of the sand. Climbing easily to the top, I was rewarded with a view across the lake with the setting sun lighting up the snowy mountains. A whole playground of terrain was available here, but I was really out of time. I reluctantly made just a few fun runs through the dunes, then headed back to the road. Next time I return, I’ll be sure to save more time for this area.
I was happy to make it back to the vehicle and change into some dry warm clothes, and even happier that I was able to get turned around without getting stuck in the sand! I gathered up the rest of my food and water and made the two hour drive back to Carson City feeling tired but content.
- More photos of this ride here on Flickr.
- Fat Bike Mammoth. A good resource for rides in this area as well as a GPS file of the route around the lake on request.
- Looking for more fun things to do at Mono Lake? Hike up to the Black Point Fissures on the northwest side of the lake.
- During the summer, visit the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center near Lee Vining.
- The Mono Lake Map from Tom Harrison Maps
- The Mono Lake Committee Information Center and Bookstore in Lee Vining is a good year-round resource for books, maps, information, and even water.
- There is cell phone service periodically along the east side of the lake, but because of the remoteness, it’s best to carry a repair kit, extra food and water, and warm clothes for changing weather conditions. I didn’t see another person my entire ride, so you can’t count on a passerby to help you out.