This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure for more information.(Last Updated On: March 21, 2022)
When you hear the term “Sierra Nevada Mountains”, you think of Yosemite National Park but there’s more to Sierra, especially on the eastern side. With more visitors discovering the natural beauty of the Eastern Sierra, that makes now the perfect opportunity to share some awesome free things to do in Lee Vining, California, and the surrounding area.
Just 17 minutes away from Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Entrance, Lee Vining is a small town with a big heart. But even though it’s considered the gateway of Yosemite National Park, there are lots of things to explore past Yosemite — from amazing views of the Sierra Nevada mountains and lakes to interesting historical sites.
Where are the best places to go in Lee Vining if you only have a few hours to visit? Or if you only have a week to explore, where should you go? Here’s a list of 13 free things to do in Lee Vining (and the surrounding area)!
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure for more information.
Where to Stay in Lee Vining, California
If you’re wondering what hotels in Lee Vining are worth booking, here’s a map. Scan around and see where to stay during your trip!
As you can see, there are so many free things to do in Lee Vining, California that could keep you in this town for at least a week or more!
Visit the Mono Basin History Museum
Whether you’re driving to Lee Vining via Hwy 120 or Hwy 395, you’ll need to take a quick stop at the Mono Basin History Museum. Located within walking distance of many restaurants and shops, this little gem offers free admission (but if you wish to, you can donate, shop at their online or gift store).
Owned by the Mono Basin Historical Society, this museum is open in the summer season from Memorial Day weekend to early October. Its business hours are from Thursday through Monday and from 10 am to 4 pm. However, they also offer outdoor exhibits that are always available to the public.
Outside of the museum, check out the farming and mining equipment neatly laid out. Farming equipment includes tractors and plows that were once a significant part of the Mono Basin farmhouses. Mining equipment is from the Log Cabin Mine in the early 1900s.
Definitely stop at the highly popular Upside Down house inspired by a children’s storybook, “Upside Down Land”. Inside the museum, explore the many cultural artifacts and displays about the history of the Mono Basin. The Mono Basin History Museum is located at 129 Mattly Ave, Lee Vining, CA 93541.
Discover Limestone Towers at the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve is a scenic reserve that preserves Mono Lake’s spire-like formations made out of limestone. One of the oldest lakes in the country, Mono Lake has a huge concentration of sodium and carbonates – also making it one of the deadliest lakes.
However, there are certain birds and other wildlife that exist in this salty environment. Those formations that you see on the lake were created when freshwater springs interacted with Mono Lake.
Take a hike towards Mono Lake or drive around this massive ecological reserve and discover these unique salt formations that date back millions of years. A heads up, since the lake is so salty, this carries a pungent smell that gets stronger as you walk toward the lake. The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve is right off of Hwy 395.
Catch Amazing Views at the Mono Lake Vista Point
The Mono Lake Vista Point is a road stop on Hwy 395, just 9.5 miles north of Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. You can see the Mono City, the valley, Mono Lake, and the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in the background.
The panoramic view from this point is beautiful, especially during sunrise.
Drive Through the Scenic Tioga Pass Road
While there’s an entrance fee to visit Yosemite National Park, you can still drive on Tioga Pass Road until the Tioga Pass Entrance for free! Driving on Tioga Pass road is one of the best road trips you can take in California! This road is open from May to October and is usually closed otherwise during the winter season.
From Lee Vining, you can drive as far as 12.7 miles on Tioga Pass road until you reach the Tioga Pass Entrance station. But those 12+ miles have many lake attractions to see and things to do!
Stop at Tioga Lake Outlook
On Tioga Pass road, you’ll find a couple of alpine lakes and Tioga Lake is one of them. There are multiple picnic tables so take some time to take in the views of the lake with its surrounding mountain peaks.
If you can, stop by during late spring to see the partially melted snow peaks with Tioga Lake below.
Draw in the Sights at Tioga Pass Road Valley View
Tioga Pass road is considered a California Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and you’ll know why when you stop at this valley view. Tioga Pass inclines as high as 9945 feet and it’s the highest automobile pass in California.
Definitely check out the steep views and the unique landscape here.
Look Out at the Ellery Lake Lookout
If you’re looking for a small uncrowded lake, stop by at Ellery Lake. The water is crystal clear and the air feels fresh. If you’re here around late spring, you might see some ice on the lake.
Because this lake isn’t busy, you’ll have a place to yourself to swim or kayak. This hidden gem is also great for boating and fishing.
Explore Downtown Bridgeport
Just a 25-minute drive north of Lee Vining, Bridgeport is a cute town with gorgeous mountain scenery. While Bridgeport is known for its outdoor recreation (especially in the winter), visit its downtown for its historic charm and architecture.
Stop by at the Mono County Courthouse/Superior Court located on Main Street and gaze upon its Italianate architecture. This courthouse was built in 1881 and is the second oldest courthouse in California that is still in use. And just a minute of a walk away is the historic Mono County Jail that was in use from 1883 to 1964.
Bathe in the Travertine Hot Springs
After you’ve had your fill of exploring Bridgeport’s historic downtown, the Travertine Hot Springs is a great place to relax. These springs are located just outside of downtown Bridgeport. Here you’ll find several geothermal mineral springs that are accessible right from the parking lot.
You can also hike further and explore more natural pools. The colors of these springs are incredible and need to be seen in person to experience them. If you’ve ever wanted to take a hot bath surrounded by mountains in the distance, come here.
Hike Around the Bridgeport Reservoir
The Bridgeport Reservoir is a man-made reservoir that is perfect if you want to go trout fishing or boating. It’s famous for its brown and rainbow trout. It is 3,125 acres wide and has RV and tent camping options at the Bridgeport Reservoir Marina & Campground if you wish to stay over.
You might also see locals kayaking, sailing, or water skiing here. But otherwise, it’s a soothing place to hike around the reservoir. Lookout further to see the mountain peaks in Yosemite National Park.
Cross California’s State Border to Nevada
When you’re on the eastern side of California, it might be tempting to cross the state to Nevada. From Lee Vining, take US-395 then CA-167 to the state border in under 30 minutes.
Or if you’re in Bridgeport, it’s only 15 minutes to take CA-182 to get to the border. When driving on CA-182, you’ll see a change in scenery; drier and landscapes that remind you of the Grand Canyon. Make sure to take photos with the California and Nevada signs!
Explore Lundy Lake and Beyond
One of the most visited and photographed lakes in the state, Lundy Lake is a great place for a family outing. Another uncrowded lake that’s perfect for fishing and camping.
But what’s great about Lundy Lake is its close proximity to Lundy Canyon. Lundy Canyon has hikes that lead to waterfalls, wilderness, and vistas. Lundy Lake is just 15 minutes away from downtown Lee Vining.
Drive Around the June Lake Loop
Looking for the best spot for fall foliage? Drive through the June Lake Loop during the fall season for leaf-peeping. Plus the area isn’t too crowded. Pullover at the turnouts to take in the scenery. It’ll take an hour or so to finish the loop drive.
On your drive, stop at the June Lake Overlook for a gorgeous panoramic view, then at the June Lake beach to relax. If you’re looking for a smaller and less busy lake in the June Lake Loop area, try Gull Lake. Gull Lake is a great place to go fishing with beautiful pine trees all around.
Nestled at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lee Vining makes it a scenic destination to visit year-round! Whether you’re here in the summer to swim at the lakes or in the winter to admire the snowy Sierra peaks, you can count on having the best time in Lee Vining.
This post was contributed by Rasika from Bae Area and Beyond, including all images!