Mono Pass: Totally Beautiful!

Views over the Little Lakes Basin to beautiful peaks on the Mono Pass Trail, Inyo National Forest, California

Views over the Little Lakes Basin to beautiful peaks

There are two Mono Passes in California, and they happen to be only about 40 miles apart.  I’m sure the one on the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park is very nice, but I’m also sure it can’t compare with the Mono Pass, 40 miles south, below Mt. Starr and accessed from the Mosquito Flat Trailhead.

Mono Pass Trail – Quick Stats

Round Trip Length: 7+ miles Trail Type: Out & back Elevation Change: 1,809ft. Fees: None


 

 

Mt. Morgan from high on the slopes of Mt. Starr along the Mono Pass Trail, Inyo National Forest, California

Mt. Morgan from high on the slopes of Mt. Starr

The en route views are out-of-this-world spectacular of lakes and mountain peaks – I couldn’t decide if I was in Alaska / Northern Canada, the Canadian Rockies, the Maroon Bells, or the Sierras – and the views from the Pass are little less epic, especially when the peaks are still snow-covered.  Then again, if the peaks have snow, the pass might, too, since it’s just over 12,000ft. above sea level.  But it’s worth the risk of possible snow; it is one of the most beautiful views I have seen in all my travels.

Snowy descent from Mono Pass, Inyo National Forest, California

Snowy descent from Mono Pass

The trail begins at Mosquito Flats (aptly named – watching people get out of their cars, stretch, walk away a dozen paces, and then dash back to their vehicles slapping themselves was delightfully guilty entertainment!) south of Mammoth Lakes and north of Bishop, off of US-395.  I’ve heard that this is the Sierras’ highest trailhead, which is good, because you’ll be hiking all the way up to 12,000ft.!

Views of Mt. Abbot (?) from above Mono Pass in Inyo National Forest, California

Views of Mt. Abbot (?) from above Mono Pass

Hike up past the restrooms (don’t cross the bridge) and follow the wide trail upward along the stream.  It was rushing pretty well when we hiked in early July after a season with 200% snowpack, and those fishing looked to be having a good time (they knew what they were doing and sprayed each other down with bug spray before they were half out of their pickup!)

The stream along the lower part of the Mono Pass Trail / Little Lakes Basin Trail in Inyo National Forest, California

The stream along the lower part of the trail

Enter the John Muir Wilderness at mile 0.25; at 0.5 miles you’ll come to the first trail junction.  Turn right toward Mono Pass and Ruby Lake, away from the Little Lakes Basin and Morgan Pass (which I suspect would also be very, very nice).

An early hint of what's to come on the Mono Pass Trail, Inyo National Park, California

An early hint of what’s to come!

After this the views, which have been increasing steadily, become really epic.  The Little Lakes Basin is below you, so there are lots of alpine lakes and tarns, while above the peaks in front of and surrounding Mt. Mills, Mt. Abbot, and Mt. Dade look like something out of a postcard.  It is so totally, completely, outstandingly, amazingly, breath-takingly beautiful!

Overlooking the Little Lakes Basin. I think (!) (L-R) the ponds are Heart Lake and Box Lake, while the peaks are an arm of Mt. Morgan, UN12744, and three unnamed peaks. Inyo National Forest, California

Overlooking the Little Lakes Basin. I think (!) (L-R) the ponds are Heart Lake and Box Lake, while the peaks are an arm of Mt. Morgan, UN12744, and three unnamed peaks.

While researching trails in the Sierras, I had read three separate bloggers claiming Mono Pass as the most beautiful view they had ever seen.  While it might not be the most beautiful thing I’ve seen, it is definitely one of the most beautiful, up there with views from Sahale Arm and of the Cirque of Towers!

Rudberg's Penstemon flowers along the Mono Pass Trail, Inyo National Forest, California

Rudberg’s Penstemon flowers along the trail

Keep hiking upward.  A number of very nice viewpoints would make a great turn-around place for a shorter hike (3.5 mile RT or less).

Reflections in a small tarn along the Mono Pass Trail in Inyo National Forest, California

Reflections in a small tarn along the trail

The trail finally turns its back on the view just before the junction for the trail to Ruby Lake.  It wouldn’t be a long detour (likely less than a mile RT) if you decide you want to visit it; we didn’t, in part because it was totally iced over and therefore was much more slightly from above.

Ascending the slopes of Mt. Starr. It didn't seem worth finding the trail, since we knew where it ended up (or hoped we did!) and the slope was so snowy, it would have been impossible to find, anyway. Mono Pass Trail in Inyo National Forest, California

Ascending the slopes of Mt. Starr. It didn’t seem worth finding the trail, since we knew where it ended up (or hoped we did!) and the slope was so snowy, it would have been impossible to find, anyway.

And above it you will soon be.  The trail almost immediately begins switchbacking up the steep (very steep) hillside of Mt. Starr.  However, this also happened to be the snowline.  So instead of switchbacking, we went pretty much straight up.  I don’t recommend the route we took particularly; it was where we ended up.  One of my group members found a much better way down, closer to Ruby Lake and with less snow.

Views while descending - those are the cliffs of Mt. Starr. Mono Pass Trail in Inyo National Forest, California

Views while descending – those are the cliffs of Mt. Starr

At last, high above Ruby Lake, the trail makes its way along the ridgeline (the mountain directly across the valley, very bulky on the other side of the Little Lakes Basin, is Mt. Morgan, FYI).  We found the trail again and followed it over to a very nice viewpoint over Ruby Lake and the unnamed, but breathtakingly beautiful, peaks surrounding the lake.

Ruby Lake & surrounding peaks from above. The peak in the center right is Mt. Abbot (?). Mono Pass Trail in Inyo National Forest, California

Ruby Lake & surrounding peaks from above. The peak in the center right is Mt. Abbot (?)

Now the trail really does turn its back on the view as it ascends between Mt. Star (right / east) and an unnamed ridgeline (left / west) 0.75 miles or so to the pass.  Looking back, the unnamed-but-breathtakingly-beautiful-peaks are still visible.

Close up of UN13268 from the trail up to Mono Pass, Inyo National Forest, California

Close up of UN13268 from the trail up to Mono Pass

We lost the trail again on the way up to the pass, so while the topo maps show the trail going up the western side of the pass, we definitely followed footprints up the eastern side (joking that mountain goats had worn hiking boots to turn unwary hikers off the proper course).  It wasn’t anywhere near as hard as climbing the non-switchbacks up Mt. Starr.

200% snowpack last winter made Mono Pass very snowy, even in early July! Inyo National Forest, California

200% snowpack last winter made Mono Pass very snowy, even in early July!

We arrived at the high point of Mono Pass at about mile 4.1 on my GPS, though with the snow, it’s hard to say if that’s accurate.

Frozen Summit Lake from Mono Pass, with UN11768 beyond, Inyo National Forest, California

Frozen Summit Lake from Mono Pass, with UN11768 beyond

Right about the time we arrived at 12,000ft., thunder began to rumble over the mountains behind us.  Oh, great.  It’s the highest we’ve been on the entire trip, and here comes a thunderstorm.

My cave. It's cold in there, FYI. Above Mono Pass in Inyo National Forest, California

My cave. It’s cold in there, FYI.

One of my group members found a large section of rocks and boulders that weren’t covered in snow.  We hunkered down under some of them and waited out the storm, eating Oreos and cheesesticks, taking pictures of the storm, watching the hail and snow fall, and thinking how very much it reminded us all of Elijah in the cave…

Watching the storm pass over Mt. Abbot from my cave above Mono Pass, Inyo National Forest, California

Watching the storm pass over Mt. Abbot from my cave

By the time the skies began to clear close to an hour later, we were ready to go.  So instead of climbing Mt. Starr, or the unnamed ridge to the west, or even going down to Summit Lake, which is just over the crest of Mono Pass (it was frozen, anyway), we headed back down.

Our weatherman checks current conditions above Mono Pass in Inyo National Forest, California

Our weatherman checks current conditions

Overall we hiked almost exactly 8 miles.  I’ve read elsewhere it’s only 7 miles RT to Mono Pass.  Either is close enough for me; the views make it worth hiking!

Descending from Mono Pass, Inyo National Forest, California

Descending from Mono Pass

Round Trip Trail Length: 7+ miles, depending on snow conditions, how far you go, etc.

Net Elevation Change: 1,809ft. (10,214ft. at the trailhead to 12,023ft. in Mono Pass)

Facilities: Restrooms.  A very nice picnic area can be found at the SnoPark a couple miles below the trailhead, and there is also campgrounds along the road.

Afternoon views over the Little Lakes Basin along the Mono Pass Trail in Inyo National Forest, California

Afternoon views over the Little Lakes Basin

Fees: None

Trail Notes: The view is one of the best I have ever seen in the 48 contiguous US states and several Canadian provinces.  You can shorten the trail to 3.5 miles or less by only hiking up to see the views over the Little Lakes Basin, or to about 6.5 miles by only going up to the viewpoint over Ruby Lake.  I don’t recommend hiking the trail when snowcovered, but the snow on the peaks is beautiful!  Make sure you bring bug spray – the mosquitos are horrible in the parking area, gradually thinning the higher you go.

On the rocky scarp of Mt. Star, looking down toward Mono Pass in Inyo National Forest, California

On the rocky scarp of Mt. Star, looking down toward Mono Pass

Trail ★★★☆☆

Road ★★★★☆

Signs ★★★★★

Scenery ★★★★★

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Views from Mono Pass, Inyo National Forest, California

Views from Mono Pass

Key GPS Coordinates

Trailhead: 37.4351250°N, -118.7470611°W (37°26’6.45″N, -118°44’49.42″W / 37°26.10750’N, -118°44.82367’W) (10,214ft.) (0.0; ended 8.00)

Enter John Muir Wilderness: 37.4320639°N, -118.7491528°W (37°25’55.43″N, -118°44’56.95″W / 37°25.92383’N, -118°44.94917’W) (10,273ft.) (0.25)

Views along the Mono Pass Trail, Inyo National Forest, California

Views along the trail

Mono Pass / Morgan Pass Junction: 37.4290806°N, -118.7509833°W (37°25’44.69″N, -118°45’3.54″W / 37°25.74483’N, -118°45.05900’W) (10,411ft.) (0.51)

Viewpoint #1: 37.4266722°N, -118.7534500°W (37°25’36.02″N, -118°45’12.42″W / 37°25.60033’N, -118°45.20700’W) (10,554ft.) (0.89)

Viewpoint #2 / Waterfall: 37.4206028°N, -118.7603083°W (37°25’14.17″N, -118°45’37.11″W / 37°25.23617’N, -118°45.61850’W) (10,966ft.) (1.88)

Mt. Morgan; below is where the Ruby Lake Trail splits off from the Mono Pass Trail, Inyo National Forest, California

Mt. Morgan; below is where the Ruby Lake Trail splits off

Ruby Lake Trail Junction: 37.4186028°N, -118.7643944°W (37°25’6.97″N, -118°45’51.82″W / 37°25.11617’N, -118°45.86367’W) (11,034ft.) (2.28)

Regain Trail high above Ruby Lake: 37.4194861°N, -118.7695278°W (37°25’10.15″N, -118°46’10.30″W / 37°25.16917’N, -118°46.17167’W) (11,599ft.) (3.1)

Mono Pass: 37.4252167°N, -118.7727750°W (37°25’30.78″N, -118°46’21.99″W / 37°25.51300’N, -118°46.36650’W) (12,023ft.) (Arrived 4.1, left 4.3)

Looking back at Mono Pass in Inyo National Forest, California

Looking back at Mono Pass

Viewpoint #3 (overlooking Ruby Lake; mileage is coming from Mono Pass): 37.4185806°N, -118.7727167°W (37°25’6.89″N, -118°46’21.78″W / 37°25.11483’N, -118°46.36300’W) (11,744ft.) (5.0)

Regain trail: 37.4186750°N, -118.7656167°W (37°25’7.23″N, -118°45’56.22″W / 37°25.12050’N, -118°45.93700’W) (11,144ft.) (5.8)

Mono Pass Trail, Inyo National Forest, California

Back on solid, non-snowy ground!

The gpx file for Linkins Lake can be downloaded – please note that this and the GPS Coordinates are for reference only and should not be used as a sole resource when hiking this trail.

File size: 206.6 KB Downloaded 0 times

(Note: I do my best to ensure that all downloads, the webpage, etc. are virus-free and accurate; however, I cannot be held responsible for any damage that might result, including but not limited to loss of data, damages to hardware, harm to users, from use of files, information, etc. from this website.  Thanks!)

Hiking down out of Mono Pass in Inyo National Forest, California

Hiking down out of Mono Pass

Getting to the Mosquito Flat Trailhead/Mono Pass Trailhead

From Bishop, CA, drive north on US-395N for 21 miles.  Turn left onto Rock Creek Road, following signs for Tom’s Place, Crowley Lake Drive, and Rock Creek Lake.  Follow the road uphill 10.5 miles to its end at the Mosquito Flats Trailhead.

Snowy, but so beautiful along the Mono Pass Trail, Inyo National Forest, California

Snowy, but so beautiful!

From Lee Vining (where the Tioga Pass Road meets US-395), travel south on US-395S 40 miles, almost 15 miles south of the exit for Mammoth Lakes and Little Devils Tower.  Turn right on Rock Creek Road, following signs for Tom’s Place, Crowley Lake Drive, and Rock Creek Lake.  Follow the road uphill 10.5 miles to its end at the Mosquito Flats Trailhead.

Zoom map out to browse nearby hikes & places of interest

 

Visual trail map & elevation profile for my trek to Mono Pass and back. Inyo National Forest, California

Visual trail map & elevation profile for my trek to Mono Pass and back. Note where the trails split, the right trail is closer to reality than the left, which we took to a less-snowy slope and bushwacked down.

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