A short morning hike after the first snow of the winter season is an invigorating experience. The combination of bright sunlight and brisk crystal clear air certainly does wake the inner spirit. On the flip-side, the first few minutes after stepping out of the warm comfort zone is a blinding icy cold experience that bleaches all recent memories away. This is the dividing line where some decide to turn back before the adventure begins, but all it takes is the thought of accomplishment to overcome hesitation. The first winter hike in freezing temperatures after a long hot summer is guaranteed to shock the bodily system, so it is best to do a leisurely short stroll and just enjoy the interesting views.
There are few better choices for a brisk winter hike than the Mono Basin Scenic Area. This volcanic landscape is so far removed from the norm that it is easy to picture this place being on another planet. The Sierra Nevada mountains tower over this basin that is nestled in the buckled foothill terrain that lies upon a major tectonic fault line zone. The jagged tufa rock spires, blue lake water and snow draped sagebrush landscape create a surreal viewing experience that must be seen in person to be believed. Mono Lake truly is a great spot for a landscape artist, especially after an early winter snow storm.
Panum Crater is a famous Mono Basin geologic attraction and it is a good choice for a short early winter stroll. The trails only run a few hundred yards from the parking area and they are easy to follow even when covered with snow. Early in the day, the roads will likely be covered with the white stuff too, so snow chains or a 4x4 will be needed for the trip. The final stretch to the Panum Crater parking area is a narrow one lane dirt road, but the good thing is there will likely be no other traffic in the icy cold conditions.
Treading upon the fresh early morning snow to the ancient cinder cone on the edge of Mono Lake is also a learning experience. There will be many fresh animal footprint paths to see and figuring out what kind of animal left the tracks is part of the charm. The cinder cone rises high enough above the basin to reveal beautiful panoramic views that literally stretch out forever, so be sure to bring a good camera along for the trek. Panum Crater looks far less ominous up close when draped with snow, just as if it is frozen in time. As far as short invigorating early winter hikes are concerned, it simply does not get any better than this!
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