We rediscovered Lee Vining, a friendly little burg at the Yosemite turnoff (California 120) to Tioga Pass, in late spring when my husband, Paul, and I were looking for a flat-ish, snow-free hike. A helpful forest service ranger suggested the Lee Vining Creek Trail, which leads to mysterious Mono Lake. We took it from there, finding grand views, volcanic craters and, later, hands-on birding, geology and arborglyph outings run by the Mono Lake Committee.
The tab: $126, excluding taxes and fees, for a room at Lake View Lodge in Lee Vining; $100 for food; $165 for two-day arborglyph seminar; and zilch for outdoor fun.
The Lake View Lodge is within walking distance of everything in small-town Lee Vining. My low-frills room had a minimal lake view, but sunrise/sunset from the grounds was stunning. The lodge also offers multibedroom private cabins with full kitchens and creekside rooms across the street. Fellow travelers on the arborglyph tour raved about Mono Vista RV Park.
Word of mouth sent us to the Epic Cafe on a ridge overlooking Mono Lake. The cafe is a welcome change from the standard burger/ brewery common in mountain towns. For an early dinner, I enjoyed a turkey chipotle panini, potato dill soup and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Did I mention that friends adored the homemade carrot cake? And for lunch another day, fish tacos with mango salsa from Whoa Nellie Deli. This spot, tucked behind the gas station at the Yosemite turnoff, serves up friendly fare. I shared a picnic table with French visitors who were reveling in our national parks.
Who knew? Lee Vining is the starting point of an amazing guided arborglyphs tour. The Basque sheepherders who toiled here from the 1850s onward left lonely musings carved into the region’s aspen trees. Some were in English, others in Euskara (the Basque language) or Spanish. To view these almost-overgrown messages and art today, our small group tramped through prickly underbrush and tried to imagine the hard, solitary lives the sheepherders led. The rest of the arborglyph weekend seminar featured storytelling, just-baked sheepherder bread, red wine and a bota bag competition. For other self-guided hikes in the area, the Panum Crater path took us along a pumice and obsidian trail to the top of the young (only 700 years old) rhyolitic lava dome.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Lee Vining is more than a pit stop before Tioga Road and beloved Tenaya Lake. There’s the wheelchair-accessible path to the Mono Lake shore at South Tufa, where we encountered a few swimmers and snorkelers exploring the otherworldly formations. It’s kayak-able too, as I found on a challenging paddle.
Lakeview Lodge, 51285 Highway 395, Lee Vining; (760) 647-6543. Limited wheelchair accessibility.
Epic Cafe, 349 Lee Vining Ave., Lee Vining; (760) 965-6282. Closed Sundays. Wheelchair accessible.
Whoa Nellie Deli, 22 Vista Point Drive, Lee Vining; (760) 647-1088. Wheelchair accessible.
Mono Lake Committee, 51365 Highway 395, Lee Vining; (760) 647-6595. Arborglyphs and Aspen Natural History field seminar, Oct. 5 and 6. $197 per person.