Mono Lake is located just east of the Sierra Nevada Range by the small town of Lee Vining, California, the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park. Seeing it is a uniquely Western experience and summer is the time to see it.
The lake is one of the most unusual bodies of water you will ever see. Not only is it one of the oldest lakes in North America, it has no outlets and has such a high concentration of mineral salts, fish cannot live there. The lake is full of brine shrimp, though, by the trillions, making many a tasty meal for resident and migratory birds, and unparalleled opportunities for those who like bird watching.
The lake covers about 65 square miles and is about 2 ½ times as salty as the ocean and 80 times as alkaline. Its rare ecosystem is a result of freshwater streams that empty into the lake, carrying minerals. When the water evaporates it leaves the minerals behind. When calcium-rich freshwater springs pour into the lake below the surface their waters mix with the carbonate-saturated and alkaline lake water, depositing calcium carbonate in the form of a soft limestone called “tufa.” This limestone is what you see now in the curious columns rising from the lake. While they were all formed underwater, many tufa formations extend above the surface, because the water level of the lake has dropped over the years.
More than 80 species of migratory birds come in large numbers to the lake including California gull, osprey, western snowy plovers, eared grebes and Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes. Look for 80,000 to 100,000 phalaropes in July and August. More than 1 million eared grebes stop in during fall migration from August through October. Nesting on the lake’s islands are California gulls, one of the largest concentrations in California. About 100 endangered western snowy plovers nest on the alkali flats of the lake’s eastern shore.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve was established in 1982 to protect the tufa formations and the sensitive bird habitat for the 1 or 2 million birds that make their way here every year. The Mono Lake Scenic Area Visitor Center is just a few minutes’ drive north of Lee Vining. It offers wonderful views of the lake and excellent informative displays on how the tufa is formed as well as the natural and human history of Mono Basin.
The reserve also has a few good hiking trails, including the best one, to visit the tufa towers – the one-mile self-guided nature trail located at South Tufa.
Kayaking is an excellent way to see and explore the lake. Since this is an important breeding ground for birds there are temporary closures each year. From April 1 to August 1 all access within 1 mile of the lake’s islands are restricted due to nesting California gulls. From April 1 to Sept. 1 you need to stay at least 200 yards away from the tufa towers on the lake to protect nesting ospreys. The easiest place to launch a canoe or kayak is from Navy Beach on the south shore, as its parking area is closest to the shoreline.
Swimming is allowed and is quite an experience. The water is extremely buoyant, and you will get very salty so be sure to take along some fresh water to rinse off.
The reserve is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. For more information, call 760-647-6331 or visit www.parks.ca.gov
The website notes that while there are campgrounds and dispersed camping opportunities nearby, they are generally first come, first served. Lee Vining has a few motels but reservations are very necessary; they reach capacity quickly. Bring clothing suitable for an alpine summer at more than 6,000 feet elevation. Summer daytime temperatures are typically in the low 80s but drop to the low 50s at night.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.”
From Boulder City, take Interstate 11 north until merges with U.S. Highway 95. Travel north for about 155 miles and then continue on Nevada State Route 266 west, Nevada State Route 264 north and U.S. Highway 6 west for 86 miles. Take California State Route 120 west for 64 miles to Mono County.