Lee Vining is one of those little towns that dot Hwy. 395 along the Eastern Sierra. It is located about a half hour north of Mammoth, two hours south of Reno.
Nearby Mono Lake, one of California's largest lakes, is saltier than the Great Salt Lake, and the only aquatic life are flies and brine shrimp. Those two animals attract millions of migrating birds as a stopover on their flyway from Canada to South America. The lake is also nesting ground for 90% of California seagulls.
The lake's eerie Tufa towers, formed from hundreds of years of underground mineral springs, exposed themselves in the 1940s when the Los Angeles Dept. of Water & Power diverted all incoming mountain creeks. It would be a dry lakebed if not for the Mono Lake Committee, which successfully challenging LADWP in two decades of court cases. Check out The Committee's Visitor's Center in town and the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitors Center overlooking the lake.
At an elevation of 7,000 feet, Lee Vining is also the eastern terminus of Tioga Pass, the only eastward route out of Yosemite. Several mom-and-pop motels all require reservations or you may be out of luck.
Must Eats: Mono Cone: an all-American hamburger stand, always a line. The Whoa Nelly Deli, inside the Mobil gas station, has been written up in every travel and gourmet restaurant magazine for their incredible menu – try the lobster tacos. Make your own dinner? The bright red Mono Market is a very small but fully stocked grocery store, with international foods, health/vegetarian items and locally grown produce.
Need gas? AAA always quotes Lee Vining as having the highest gas prices in Southern Calif., but go to Shelley Channel's Shell station, always 20 cents a gallon lower than others, still about a buck higher than San Diego prices. $3.95 on 395 is not uncommon.