Mono Lake is a unique environment, with concentrations of salts and other minerals that make it inhospitable to most species. Yet, the brine shrimp and flies the lake supports attract great flocks of migratory birds, making the lake one of the west's great theaters for birdwatching. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power fought for decades with environmentalists before reaching a legal agreement to keep enough fresh water flowing into the lake to support sensitive areas and secure a relatively normal lake depth. As you drive south on 395, you will see a culvert crossing marked "South Rush Creek Ditch," which feeds the lake. It may not look like much, but the water flowing in that culvert was the focal point in one of the great battles of environmental law.
Overall, Lee Vining is a rather joyless pitstop, and not a particularly convenient one for the average PCT hiker. It has several places to buy "Indian" trinkets, mocassins, rugs, jewelry, etc. (I have to suspect the Europeans doing the grand RV tour of national parks are the ones keeping the schlock shoppes in business.) Depending on whether you are able to snag a hard-to-come-by tent cabin or dinner spot from the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, you may be better off up the hill, skipping the substantial hitch into town.
The Best Western Lakeview Lodge (30 Main St., 760 647-6543) is a clean, solid choice for an older motel. It is not cheap. But nothing in Lee Vining is a particularly good value. The term "lake view" is ... relative. Use your imagination. Murphey's Motel (51493 Hwy. 395 760) 647-6316) is an updated operation that may offer better value. Also consider the funky-but-clean El Mono Motel (Third St. at Hwy. 395, 760 647-6310), which sports its own latte shop.
Also noted, just outside the Yosemite Park entrance station at Tioga Pass, is the Tioga Pass Resort (209 372-4471). It offers attractive, very expensive cabins and motel rooms. The food in the tiny diner could charitably be called retro comfort fare. The large deck in front of the restaurant is prime people-watching territory on summer afternoons.
When it comes to road food, the greatest open secret in the East Sierra is down Lee Vining Canyon at the 395/120 intersection overlooking Mono Lake: the Tioga Gas Mart (22 Vista Point Rd., 760 647-1088). Yes you're reading that right: The gas station contains a restaurant, the Whoa Nellie Deli far superior to anything in Lee Vining proper. How many gas station mini-marts can claim favorable reviews by the New York Times foodies? Seriously, over the years we've seen weddings held on the front lawn because the view and the food are so nice.
The large menu ranges from pizza, deli sandwiches and barbecue to daily dinner specials such as herb encrusted tenderloin glazed with apricot brandy. Burgers are mediocre at best. The big plates are the better values. There is a decent selection of microbrews, cocktails and espresso drinks. There's also a small grocery store with an organic food section. In the morning, the big egg sandwich, on an absolutely heavenly croissant, is the perfect call. The gigantic omelettes would be appropriate only if you were intending to nap the morning away. If you're tempted to take one of the deli sandwiches for lunch on the trail, think twice. They're a glorious mess and you won't appreciate the added attention from your ursine neighbors that night in camp.
As of April 2012, it appears that the Tioga Baking Company/Wise Guys Pizza is in fact dead. Too bad. Because for nearly three years they provided the reliable backup to the Whoa Nellie.