Pros:Spectacular scenery, very interesting animal life and geological formation.
Cons:Isolated, minimal accomodations in immediate area.
The Bottom Line: Get away from the crowds of Yosemite or Tahoe and see a spectacular saline lake with interesting animal life and bizarre geological formations.
Once upon a time, during the latter part of the last ice age, Lake Russell, 900 feet deep and with a surface elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level graced the northern end of the large valley east of Californiaís Sierra Nevada. Todayís Mono Lake, with no natural outlet but still shrinking due to diversion of watershed and evaporation, is a mere shadow of Lake Russell, but still one of the most subtly interesting places to visit in the eastern Sierra.
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This is not a mega-resort area like Lake Tahoe. It's really an ecological preserve with very interesting natural and human history, ecology and geology.
Mono Lake has no outlet, yet it is shrinking because most of the watershed that would normally drain into it has been diverted to Los Angeles, hundreds of miles to the south. As a result, the lake is already saltier than the ocean, and its salinity continue to increase.
The algae that grow in the salty water feed brine shrimp and a few unique species of fly, which in turn feed various bird species, particularly grebes, phalaropes and seagulls, which amazingly fly from the Pacific shores over the Sierra crest to get here. The eared grebe, phalarope and gulls come in the spring, and other grebes come in the fall. The grebe population can grow to nearly a million, and the gulls number as many as 50,000.
There were once two islands in the lake: Paoha and Negit, the later being the nesting ground for gulls. With the decrease in water level, both islands are now connected to the mainland, but strict policies and difficult terrain prevent harassment of the birds.
As you stand right at the waterline, youíll notice there are swarms of flies near ground level. Fortunately, these unaggressive flies confine their range to just a few feet right at the waterís edge.
The country around Mono Lake is typical of the eastern Sierra high desert, scrubby and desolate. However, the view of the Sierra crest to the west and other mountains to the east is spectacular.
There are literally hundreds of freshwater springs within the lake. When the calcium rich fresh water combines with carbonated salt water in the lake, if forms calcium carbonate, which coats rocks, shoals and logs, creating branching, stalagmite-like formations known as tufa. The lakeís retreat exposed these formations, which you can see today in two viewing areas, one just off of US 395 a mile or so north of the town of Lee Vining and another more secluded area at the south end of the lake. These formations are a photographerís delight, especially in the early morning and evening hours. Please donít touch these formations. Theyíre very delicate.
Seeing the Lake
Back around 1980, I walked to the top of 13,000 foot Mt. Dana on the eastern border of Yosemite. Iíll never forget the view of Mono Lake from there. It was like looking down from heaven. If you donít have the time or energy to walk to the top of a mountain, there are some spectacular views of Mono Lake from various points on Tioga Pass Road (California 120) coming down from the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park. This road itself is spectacular and--although wide enough and well maintained--not for the faint of heart.
The town of Lee Vining is just north of the junction of California 120 with US 395, and itís the gateway to the Mono Lake area. Thereís an excellent visitor center about a mile north of town, and thatís where youíll find one of the tufa viewing areas. Use the maps there or ask the rangers for the locations of other shoreline access points.
Lee Vining has a few small motels, and there are some primitive campgrounds just off California 120, but two major resorts, June Lakes and Mammoth Lakes, are a short drive south. Both these areas have numerous hotels and many excellent campgrounds.
Most people visit this area between June and September. Note that the trans-Sierra Tioga Road, California 120 is closed in winter, typically from late September to mid-June.
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Best Suited For: Families
Best Time to Travel Here: Mar - May