I had never known that such a beautiful lake exists in California until our last trip on Labor Day weekend. Our trip started from the Yosemite National Park, and after we stayed for two nights at the Mammoth Lakes visiting the Devils Postpile National Monument, we drove down to Mono Lake. Mono Lake is known for its tufa towers, very cool rock formations sticking out of the water. It was interesting to learn more about them, where they came from and what was so special about this lake.
AN ANCIENT LAKE
Mono Lake is a saline water lake in California, close to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mammoth Lakes. Since we were visiting Mammoth Lakes we thought it would be fun to visit Mono Lake as well. The drive from Mammoth Lakes to Mono Lake was less than half an hour. This lake is one of the oldest lakes in the United States. It is actually ancient, over 1 million years old.
Since the water has no outlet from the lake, high amount of salts are stored in it. So basically you could float on the water just like in the Dead Sea in Israel. Because of the salt the water also stays alkaline. This salty water is home for millions of brine shrimp, which then attracts many migratory birds that eat them. Brine shrimp is an endemic species, but due to the alkaline water, no native fish live in this lake, and attempts to introduce fish to Mono Lake have failed. When you approach the waterline, you might see a big amount of flies like we did. They are called alkali flies, and are an important source of food for the birds living or migrating through Mono Lake.
Because of the salty water, the lake never freezes over even though snow covers the surroundings of it.
WHAT ARE THE TUFA TOWERS OF MONO LAKE?
Most people visiting Mono Lake want to see its rock formations, the so called tufa towers. These limestone towers are born when springs at the bottom of the lake containing calcium, bubble up to the surface of the lake. The calcium and carbonate that is in the water combine, and limestone is formed around the spring. The spring keeps running in the middle, and the tower keeps growing around it until it reaches the air.
In 1941 Los Angeles County started using the water from the Owens River which flows to Mono Lake. The level of the lake started to decrease rapidly and the nature around the lake started to suffer. When the lake level was only half of what it used to be, the quality of air got notably worse. Mono Lake tufa towers become more visible and stopped growing. Luckily a committee that was founded in 1978 has been quite successful in the protection of the lake and its nature, and the level of the lake should not get any lower.
MONO LAKE TUFA STATE NATURAL RESERVE (SOUTH TUFA)
Many people visit Mono Lake after driving through Yosemite National Park or when visiting Mammoth Lakes. The closest town to Mono Lake is Lee Vining, which is tiny and practically on the beach. Only 222 lived there in 2010. They did however, have a couple of nice restaurants where you can eat if you didn’t bring a picnic.
The most popular place to visit is the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, also known as South Tufa, which offers the best views for the tufa towers. It was established in 1981 to preserve the towers and the animals living by the lake. There is a small fee that is collected at the beginning of the trail. We were there on a busy day when there was a ranger guiding people, but it seemed like they normally have a lockbox where they ask you to leave $3 per adult. So I would recommend bringing exact change. Also, if you have the America the Beautiful pass, which is the annual pass for national parks, you can use that. Just leave it on your car windshield while visiting. South Tufa Interpretive Trail starts from the parking lot and takes you to see the most beautiful tufas of the lake. The trail is 1 mile long and along it there are signs that tell you all about the lake and its animals.
The lake is so beautiful! You can see the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains reflected in the water, and the tufa towers. This must be a dream destination for many photographers, but just remember: climbing to the rock formations is prohibited by law!
Other places you can visit at Mono Lake are County Park or Navy Beach, both of which can be reached by US Highway 395. If you are bringing a canoe or kayak, Navy Beach is probably the place for you. Navy Beach is actually very close to South Tufa.
Unfortunately, when we drove down from Mammoth Lakes to Mono Lake, the altitude sickness hit our oldest daughter. Like I told you earlier, we experienced some symptoms on this trip. When we were about to start the trail she started feeling sick and vomiting. So I went alone while the others waited in the car, and I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the lake. When I got back our daughter was already feeling better and did a short walk to see the tufas with my husband. So gladly everyone was OK, and the ranger recognised the symptoms right away. In that sense, I would love to return to Mono Lake someday and spend more time there since it was absolutely beautiful!