Traveling in the East Sierras or Yosemite National Park? Don’t leave out Lee Vining! This small town has a big personality and prime location, making it a hit with anyone passing through. Surrounded by the most gorgeous views of California, you will find the photo ops sensational here–so bring your camera and tripod to capture the sunrise or sunset!
Lee Vining is…
- Just 10 minutes away from South Tufa. Because tufas are awesome. What’s a tufa, you may ask? Well, it’s calcite formations, sticking up out of Mono Lake, which is a saltwater lake. This sunrise photo is among my most favorite from my trip.
- Near Tioga Pass of Yosemite National Park. Tioga Pass features the most impressive and secluded views that Yosemite has to offer, from Gaylor Lakes to the Cathedral Peaks. Unfortunately, Tioga Pass is also at a very high altitude. At 6,000 feet, Lee Vining is the perfect resting place for acclimating travelers. Stop here first, then tackle the ridge trek to Gaylor Lakes that is affectionately known to hikers as “cardiac hill.”
- On the drive to and from South Tufa, you will most likely pass a road that leads to the trailhead for Panum Crater, one of many tiny volcanoes slowly rising from the sand. In fact, these volcanoes make up the youngest mountain range in the world! You’ll have to hold on to your hat when hiking to the top of Panum Crater for two reasons: One, it’s kinda windy up there. Two, it could blow at any time.
- Gluten-free-friendly and has fantastic food options. Go to Epic Cafe to enjoy a relaxing glass of wine, gluten-free philly cheesesteak panini, and delicious desserts, out of doors. Try a fresh smoothie and cup of espresso at Latte Da Cafe for breakfast the next morning. And don’t forget a gluten-free raisin scone or two to go! (Note: That scone was the best gluten-free thing I have ever tasted. Not even kidding.)
- Great views of the lake from your hotel. I was pleasantly surprised to find the perfect viewpoint from my own room at the Yosemite Gateway Motel. I highly recommend this place, by the way, for its affordability, clean and quality rooms, and convenient self-checkout.
- Teeming with friendly people. It’s a small town, and I observed during my breakfast at Latte Da that everyone knows everyone. In some towns, this can result in some weirdness, but not with Lee Vining. Everyone I spoke with was cheerful and conversational. At one souvenir shop, I had a long conversation with one guy who was happy to show me a map to South Tufa and even explain why the tufas are there. (According to him, all saltwater lakes have them. The tufas weren’t visible until Mono Lake began to be drained.)
- Walking-friendly. Yes, you can walk from the bar home. Don’t worry about the high altitude that could cause you to have lower alcohol tolerance. If you’re eating and staying in the small town of Lee Vining, chances are that the restaurant and hotel are at most 5 minutes walking distance away from each other. So go ahead and have that beer.
- Obviously a way to get away from the craziness of Yosemite. The park is famous. Too famous. There are too many people camping or hotel-ing inside the park for you to make last-minute reservations, and after all, it’s nice to have a little space to yourself. Take a break from roughing it and treat yourself to a hotel stay in Lee Vining. It’s quite affordable, convenient, and yet still feels rewarding.