Coyotes and Contrails at Mono Lake


With access to many desirable locations in Death Valley still restricted because of the impact of the recent wet weather there, Sam and I decided to take a little side trip out of the valley and over to CA 395 and the Eastern Sierra. The sights and sounds from our day were quite something, and here is a brief synopsis.

As we climbed from Stovepipe Wells and then down into the Panamint Valley we were treated to two “Top Gun” fighter jets that circled the valley at an altitude of about 200 feet before screaming over our heads and away. We saw wide expanses of Joshua Trees in the high desert before starting the descent into the Owen’s Valley where we were greeted by the immense and powerful Eastern Sierra and Mount Whitney. We followed the impressive Sierra along 395 and climbed to over 8,000 feet on our way toward Mono Lake near the town of Lee Vining. We saw snow that was feet deep all along the way, but the temperatures were warm and comfortable. And then there was Mono Lake…

Mono Lake is an ancient salt lake covering 70 square miles that lies in the shadow of some of the major Eastern Sierra peaks. It is renowned for several reasons including the migratory bird population that visits each year, the beautiful landscape it offers photographers, and probably most famously, the limestone “tufas” that are scattered along the shoreline.

We arrived at the head of the road that leads to the lake and were immediately in awe of what we saw. We were excited to drive the last mile or so on the unpaved road, only to find that the snow had not been plowed. After a little debate, we both decided that it would be foolish to try to take the rental car down the road, but since we had driven a considerable distance to get here, we were determined not to be denied and decided to park and hike our way in.

Not another person was seen or heard as we wandered around the “south tufa” part of the shoreline in search of compositional possibilities for when the “good” light came later. As the afternoon wore on and the sun started to get lower in the sky, we were both startled by what we quickly realized were coyotes howling somewhere in the immediate area. Admittedly spooked a little, we decided to be “brave” and stick it out in hopes that the skies would cooperate and give us some nice light on this amazing landscape. A little nervous for a while, we stuck together and soon went back to focusing on trying to capture the beauty of this unique lake.

Maybe we have been spoiled by the good light and spectacular clouds from the last couple of days in Death Valley, but although nice, the evening at Mono Lake didn’t really produce as we had hoped. We did get some nice warm light early in the afternoon, and the deep blue/pink palette after the sun went down was certainly nice. Also, we couldn’t help be disappointed by the amount of high altitude commercial airplanes that constantly flew overhead, leaving behind unsightly and non-photogenic contrails that made composing pleasing images challenging. Included in this post are a couple that I made before we scurried back up the hill through the snow in the quickly waning light – scanning right and left for the coyotes all the while – toward the warmth and comfort of the car.

7 thoughts on “Coyotes and Contrails at Mono Lake

  1. Ben Horne

    Those coyotes can really cause a stir. Almost every night while I was camped at Stovepipe wells, they would cross through the campground near my tent making all sorts of noises ranging from howls to the sound of an animal in distress and pain. I got use to it, but it certainly is startling when you do not expect it.

    It sure is great that you have internet access during your trip.

    • David Patterson

      Being from the east coast and in-town, we don’t get too many wild animals crossing our path, so when we heard the coyotes it kind of freaked us a little, especially since we still had to hike out in the near dark.

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