Lee Vining, California Information
Location: California's Southeastern Sierra
On Highway 395, 0.7 miles north of the junction CA 120/Tioga Pass Road, 26 miles north of Mammoth Lakes, CA, 140 miles south of Reno, NV, 334 miles northwest of Las Vegas, NV, 330 miles north of Los Angeles and 300 miles east of San Francisco.
Lee Vining is a nice little town overlooking scenic Mono Lake and located just north of the Tioga Pass Road, the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. The town is a great base camp for hikers interested in exploring Yosemite trails departing from the Tioga Pass Road and around Tuolumne Meadows. Nearby Inyo and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests are crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of trails providing access to the Hoover, Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness areas and the backcountry of Yosemite.
The town got its start in 1922 when Chris Mattly purchased land known locally as Poverty Flats. Over the next few years Mattly subdivide the land into lots that became the town of Lee Vining, named after Leroy Vining, an early prospector who established a sawmill along a nearby creek in 1857. Today the town is supported by a steady stream of tourist traveling along Highway 395, bound for Yosemite and the southeastern sierras.
To the east of town lies Mono Lake, a vast inland sea nestled between the 13,000-ft. peaks of the high sierras to the west, the ancient volcanic Bodie Hills to the north and rolling oceans of sagebrush to the east. The ancient saline lake, covering 70-square miles, supports a unique ecosystem that is home to trillons of brine shrimp and a large population of gulls. Each year millions of migratory birds visit the lake.
Several roads lead to sections of the lakes shore where you can see the weird and wonderful limestone formations called tufa towers rising above the lake and swim in the salty water. Be sure to drop in at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, located just to the north of town off Highway 395, to see the exhibits and learn about the lake’s ecosystem.
During the summer, spring and fall the U.S. Forest Service, Mono Lake Committee and the Mono Lake State Natural Reserve lead nature walks and offer other interpretive programs. You can also join a canoe or kayaking tour of the lake during the summer or take out your own boat. Be sure to drop by the visitor center to learn about many submerged objects in the lake and restriction regarding visiting the lake’s islands, which are closed from April 1 to August 1 in order to protect nesting birds.
In the evening it is nice to take a short stroll around the town’s back streets or along the lake shore to enjoy the beautiful sunsets. Kids will have fun visiting the Upside-Down House, created by Nellie Bly O’Bryan and located next to Hess Park, one block east of Highway 395. In the same location is the Old Schoolhouse Museum, which includes area artifacts, farming and mining equipment, books, maps, and photographs chronically the cultural history of the Mono Basin.
While in town be sure to drop by the Mono Lake Committee’s Information Center and Bookstore, at 3rd Street on Highway 395. The Center provides tons of information on the lake and Mono Basin and offers a good selection of reading materials and maps. The friendly staff is always happy to answer questions, help visitors plan outings, and provide Chamber of Commerce information.
Yosemite National Park is the popular day trip from Lee Vining. To reach the park, drive south on Highway 395 for 0.7 miles and turn right (west) on the Tioga Pass Road / Highway 120. Highway 120 travels over Tioga Pass and through the park, passing Tuolumne Meadows 18 miles past the intersection. The one way trip to the Yosemite Valley takes about two hours.
For a shorter trip enjoy the beautiful lakes and scenery around Tioga Pass (9,945-ft.). Along the 12.5 miles drive to the summit you will travel by Ellery and Tioga Lakes, set amid gorgeous alpine scenery, and pass the access road to Saddlebag Lake. Saddlebag Lake is certainly worth a side trip. The lake is surrounded by dramatic peaks and ridges. During the summer a ferry transport hikers and backpackers to the lake’s northwestern shore and the start of the 20 Lakes Basin hike. The concessionaire at the lake rents boats and manages the launch facilities. All three lakes offer opportunities for fishing and include National Forest campgrounds.
To the north of town is Lundy Lake. The long, narrow lake, popular with fishermen, is cradled beneath rugged peaks in an elongated cirque. A lodge along the lake shore offers boat rentals and basic visitor services. A steep trail climbs up the canyon past several cascading waterfalls to Lake Helen in the 20 Lakes Basin. To reach the lake drive north from Lee Vining for 6.7 miles and turn left (west) on the Lundy Road. Follow the road for 3.5 miles to the lake.
Virginia Lakes is another popular fishing spot. The main lake is set beneath the multi-hued slopes of Black Mountain (11,797-ft.) and massive Dunderberg Peak (12,374-ft.). On nice summer days the lake is dotted with fishermen bobbing about in float tubes. A scenic hike up Virginia Lakes hike travels up the valley visiting five more lakes framed by rugged peaks. Access the area by driving north of Highway 395 for 12 miles and then turn left (west) on the Virginia Lake Road. Follow the road for 6 miles to the lake.
Eighteen miles to the north of Lee Vining is the turnoff to the Bodie State Historic Park. Bodie, a former gold and silver mining camp thrived from 1877 to 1888. At its height the town supported a population of 10,000 people and boasted numerous saloons, gambling halls and bordellos. When the boom went bust the residents left. In 1962 California designated Bodie as a National Historic Site and a State Historic Park, preserving the remaining dwellings in a state of "arrested decay.”
Many consider the site to be the largest unrestored ghost town in the west. Today tourist can walk the streets of the former mining camp, peaking in the windows of the old weathered buildings to see the merchandise and furniture left by the former inhabitants. To visit this old ghost town drive 18.4 miles north of Lee Vining on Highway 395 N and turn right (east) on the Bodie Road (CA 270 E). Follow the Bodie Road east for 10 miles to the end of the pavement and continue 3 miles further on a dirt road to Bodie. The last 3 miles can at times be rough.
A full day can be spent exploring to the south of Lee Vining. The first option is the scenic 14 mile June Lake Loop, which passes four pretty lakes, June, Gull, Silver and Grant, framed by rugged peaks. The lakes offer good fishing and boating options. To reach the start of the loop drive 11 miles south of Lee Vining on Highway 395 and turn right (southwest) on the June Lake Loop Road (CA 158 S).
The next stop to the south is Mammoth Lakes, where there is quite a bit to see and do. The Lakes Basin, located 3 miles south of town, is a great place to fish, canoe and kayak, picnic or just laze the day away beside one of the many lakes. A visit to Devil’s Postpile National Monument and Rainbow Falls is another great option. The Monument preserves a unique geological formation formed less than 100,000 years ago when cooling lava flows cracked into multi-sided vertical basalt columns. An easy 0.4 mile interpretive trail leads to the formation. Another short trail climbs to the top of the formation. While in the area you can also take an easy 5 miles round trip hike to Rainbow Falls, a 101-ft. waterfall on the San Joaquin River.
More interesting geology is located just south of Mammoth Lakes at the Hot Creek Geological site. Here bubbling hot springs, fumaroles and geysers create colorful formation along the creek. Be sure to check out the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery on the way back from the geological site. Getting to Mammoth Lakes is easy. Drive south on Highway 395 for 25 miles and take the exit marked for Mammoth Lakes / CA 203. Take a look at the hikingwalking.com Mammoth Lake Base Camp page for a list of all the recommended attraction along with driving directions.
Food, Lodging and Services
Lee Vining offers a handful of basic motels. A few small resorts with cabins and/or RV hookups and campsites are located by Lundy, Virginia and Tioga Lakes. There are also a number of U.S. National Forest Service campgrounds near the Lee Vining area and around the June Lake Loop.
Food choices are limited to a few restaurants and the Mono Market, a little grocery store in the center of town. For a caffeine fix and internet connection drop by Latte Da Coffee Cafe on Highway 395 at 3rd Street (located in the El Mono Motel). There is also a laundromat and service stations along the main drag.
For more information on area facilities and services visit the Mono Lake Committee’s Information Center and Bookstore, at 3rd Street on Highway 395. The Center provides Chamber of Commerce information.
Best Lee Vining Hikes
Distance: 7.8 - 13.4 miles (Round Trip)
The jagged spires of the Minarets and two 14er's, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, form the dramatic backdrop for Ediza Lake, one of the most stunning lakes in the Ritter Range. This hike visits this alpine jewel, passing beautiful Shadow Lake and a series of pretty waterfalls on Shadow Creek along the way.
Distance: 4.9 - 9.1 miles (Loop)
The loop around the 20 Lakes Basin travels through breathtaking alpine scenery, visiting nine stunning lakes surrounded by dramatic peaks and ridges. The glorious scenery and relative ease of the trail make this a very popular hike.
Distance: 5.8 - 11.8 miles (Round Trip)
Multi-hued peaks form the backdrop of the Hoover Lakes, a pair of alpine jewels ringed by meadows and talus slopes. Along the way the trail traverses lovely meadows, climbs beside rushing streams and visits pretty Green Lake and beautiful East Lake.
Distance: 3.2 - 10.0 miles (Round Trip)
This great little hike visits five beautiful lakes framed by rugged peaks and then climbs to a scenic pass with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Extend the hike with a visit to Summit Lake cradled in a saddle along the Pacific Crest.