I recently joined a bus tour of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, an area I’ve long neglected simply because of the rather large desert out there! Casting doubts aside, I felt it was time to be adventurous and see just what was on the eastern side of California’s massive mountain range. I’m happy to
report that I was pleasantly surprised and am now eager to share my discovery of Mono Lake.
I’ve heard about this lake for forty years or more. Yet all I knew was that it was some tiny, lifeless briny pool that was slowly evaporating, dying, or disappearing. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Well, I was partially right. Yes, the lake is in danger and it isn’t as large as it once was. Perhaps now is a good time to explain a little about this place.
Mono Lake is an old lake having been formed about a million years ago. The lake is fed by streams from the mountains. The reason for the salinity is that there is no way for water to flow out of Mono Lake. The alkaline minerals from the mountain runoff are trapped in the lake. As the water evaporates, the concentration of salts increases until now Mono Lake is three times saltier than the Pacific Ocean.
I was expecting a tiny puddle, but the lake is now about 60 square miles in size. The color is often a bright turquoise blue.
One of the most remarkable, and photogenic, aspects of the lake is the tufa.
In the photo above you can see how rough and bumpy this tufa is. This rocky substance is calcium carbonate formed by freshwater springs at the bottom of the lake. As the water mixes with the carbonate in the lake water, calcium carbonate (limestone) is formed. As the spring flows, the limestone grows! When the shore line recedes, the towers are left on land as seen above. The rock is sharp, rough, and fragile. It isn’t a good idea to climb on the tufa! It’s a fantastic idea to photograph tufa!
There are several kinds of tufa, all different from that above. I definitely want to return to see the others.
The lake is important for reasons other than geology. The tiny brine shrimp that live in the lake are a food source for migratory birds. There must be billions of these shrimp, as well as fly larvae. They are very small but I could stand on the shore and see them! What a feast for the birds. I imagine this would be a great place for bird watching and photography.
This grouping of tufa was only a short distance from the shore. On the last column on the left is an osprey nest with chicks. This is a bit peculiar since an osprey doesn’t eat shrimp. One has to wonder why this bird is nesting here.
The lake isn’t just for the birds. People spend a lot of recreational time here. Swimming is permitted and I’m told one will float quite easily because of all the salt. Be warned, there weren’t any showers near the South Tufa Reserve. If you go in the water, you’re going to come out covered with salt!
Kayaks and canoes are great ways to see the lake. There are some rules about where and when one may paddle. For example, bird nesting areas are off-limits. A ranger will be able to explain which areas are closed.
To learn more about the lake, one can stop by the Visitors Center.
Here you will get all the data about the lake as well as information about nearby Yosemite National Park. It’s a good place to begin.
As for me, I know I will be back. This lake is too beautiful to miss, and a quick visit for an hour or so is not long enough. Like the woman in the photo below, I just want to stand on the shore and appreciate it.
To see more of my photos from Mono Lake, please click here.