Mono Lake at night

January 10, 2017


Mark Twain described Mono Lake at best:

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.

The lake is like it comes from a different world with various sizes and shapes of rock formations called “tufa”. The greatest concentration of these towers is located at the South Tufa grove just off of Hwy 120 East, at the south end of Mono Lake.

mono lake

Mono Lake at sunset

We came here in the Summer at 7pm after checking at our hotel and having some dinner.  In the Summer, day was longer and the sun usually sets at about 8-9pm so we arrived when there was still sunlight to go around exploring the area in South Tufa.

After the rain, the sky was pretty clear and there were some clouds that created dramatic sky and nice colors on the lake:

We kept walking to the right of the entrance and found lots of photographers taking photos of the lake at sunset! After the light went down, we noticed that there were 2 owls on the tufa which was about 40-50 ft away from us. The light was really dim and I took 400mm with the 2x extension out to take pictures of the owl but it was pretty blurry with handheld 400mm.

owl on tufa

At golden hour, I used Rokinon 14mm with manual focus to take the pictures of the lake at sunset and got this picture below. As the light was dim, I used the live view to manually focus into the tufa in the middle of the lake.


After the light went out, most people left the lake and only a few groups of photographers stayed to take photographs of the night sky. We couldn’t locate where the North Star was (city kids’ problems) and pointed to the wrong direction due to the mobile phone errors and we couldn’t find the milky way in our photos 🙁 We saw some weird looking “cloud” on the sky and wished it just went away. After an hour, we realized the weird fainted “cloud” was actually the milky way! It was right on top of the lake the whole time!

I took some pictures and got some interesting shooting stars in my pictures:

mono lake

Shooting star over the lake

Milky way over the tufa

Thanks to some photographers with big flashes, we could hijack some light on the tufa to get these pictures.

After 10pm, we couldn’t stay any longer as it got pretty cold. We remembered that we were on the right of the entrance so we walked back. However, we nearly got lost among the tufa as it was really dark! Even with our headlamp, we couldn’t locate the way back. Luckily, there were lots of photographers along the lake shore and they showed us the way out! Phew!


  • Parking area is pretty large so even in the holiday, we could find plenty of parking. Be sure to know where the parking is at night though since it is really dark to find the way back.
  • Bring a compass and a flashlight or a lantern if you want to stay at night. It is really dark and you can easily stumble over some rocks here. Don’t depend much on your phone’s compass as it is not reliable. We got lost here after depending too much on it and nearly wandered into the water!
  • Bring some red light instead of bright white light as some astrophotographers will be there and it’s hard for them to watch stars if you have too bright white light. Red lights will help you adjust your eyes better in the dark.
  • Bring some warm clothes as it can be really cold here even in the Summer! It was freezing in July 4th weekend here!
  • I saw a couple swimming in the lake and I was surprised that it was allowed! According to the official website, the lake’s salty water is denser than ocean water, and provides a buoyant swim. “Old timers claim that a soak in the lake will cure almost anything” (I don’t think it’s true though). Keep the water out of your eyes or any cuts, as it will sting according to this website.


Alex is a Software Engineer at Google, an educator and an amateur photographer living in the beautiful Orange County

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