Mono Lake, eerie in its stillness, is the main attraction in the northern part of the Eastern Sierra, just east of Yosemite. This unusual and beautiful lake is 2.5 times as salty as the ocean and is 1,000 times more alkaline.
The reason for Mono Lake’s odd appearance? It is fed by only about seven inches’ worth of rain and snowfall each year; the rest of the water inflow is from various streams. No streams or tributaries flow out of Mono Lake, but it loses about 45 inches of water each year to evaporation. Meanwhile, any salt and minerals that have been carried into the lake stay in the lake as water evaporates. Over time, the lake has collected huge stores of calcium carbonate, which solidifies into strange-looking tufa towers.
The lake surrounds two large islands: Negit Island, a volcanic cinder cone and nesting area for California gulls, and Paoha Island, which was created when volcanic activity pushed sediment from the bottom of the lake up above the surface. Mono Basin, where the lake is located, is part of the Inyo National Forest. In 1984 the U.S. Congress designated Mono Basin a National Forest Scenic Area, which gives it additional protections.
If you’re visiting the Eastern Sierra, you won’t want to miss this natural wonder. It’s large enough that you can see it from a distance—in fact, you can get a pretty good view just by driving by on U.S. 395, but stop to take a closer look if you can. One of the best viewpoints is on the grounds of the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitors Center (U.S. 395, 0.5 mile north of Lee Vining, 760/647-3044, closed winter). Another good spot for looking through binoculars and taking photos is the lookout area on the east side of U.S. 395 near the junction with Highway 120, right across from the Whoa Nellie Deli. Look for a grassy hill with a parking lot, a large American flag, and a “Mono Lake” sign with a big hunk of volcanic rock hanging from it. If you want to do more than just look, come in summer and enjoy an oddly buoyant swim in its heavily salted waters or a boat trip around the silent, uninhabited islands.
Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitors Center
The large building that houses the visitors center for Mono Lake is only a short drive from the highway. The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitors Center (U.S. 395, 0.5 mile north of Lee Vining, 760/647-3044, 8am-5pm daily summer, 9am-4:30pm Thurs.-Mon. spring-fall) is the perfect place to learn about Mono Lake, to take a walk around the lake, and to photograph the landscape. The interpretive museum inside details the natural and human history of the lake, from the way tufa towers form to the endless litigation involving the lake. Original films, interactive exhibits, a bookstore, and friendly staff are all available to help get you up to speed on this beautiful and unusual area. Walk out the back of the building to take one of several brief interpretive walks through the landscape or to sit on a bench and gaze down at the lake for a while. Talk to the staff to learn about the best hikes and spots to visit, swim, launch a boat, or even cross-country ski.
At the visitors center, you can also learn about various guided walks and hikes at Mono Lake, which can give you a more in-depth look at the wonders of the area.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
The tufa formations—freestanding calcite towers, knobs, and spires—make Mono Lake one of the most unusual lakes you’ll ever see. The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve (U.S. 395, just north of Lee Vining, 760/647-6331, 24 hours daily, free) educates and amazes visitors. Free tours are offered daily at 10am, 1pm, and 6pm in summer. Among other reasons to visit, the California State Parks service has declared it the “best place to watch gulls in the state.” About 85 percent of the entire population of California gulls nests here in the spring.
A boardwalk trail provides access to the North Tufa area. Enjoy wandering through the different chunks of this preserve, which appear along the shore all the way around the lake. Be aware that much of the land adjacent to the state reserve areas is restricted—help take care of this delicate terrain by not venturing out of the designated visiting areas. Also, to access some of the reserve at the east side of the lake, you’ll need either a boat or a 4WD vehicle, since no paved roads circle Mono Lake.
The South Tufa area (off Hwy. 120, 11 miles east of Lee Vining, $3 pp, free with Federal Parks Pass) on the—where else?—south shore of Mono Lake is one of the best places to view the spectacular tufa towers and a good place for newcomers to start exploring. This area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which charges a fee even though most of the state-run areas around here do not. But the good news is that all summer long, naturalists lead a one-mile, one-hour walking tour (10am, 1pm, and 6pm daily summer) around South Tufa, and it’s free.
If you’re hiking on your own, a good place to start is the one-mile interpretive trail (southeast of the visitors center, adjacent to Navy Beach) that winds through the South Tufa area and describes the natural history of the area and the formations.