Mono Lake California: An Ancient Dead Sea Near Yosemite

Sponsored by Globus Journeys

In the middle of the Eastern Sierras in California near Yosemite National Park, you’ll find the ancient and mystical Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
They mystical Mono Lake

Until organizing my Globus Journeys Northern California Dreaming Tour, I knew nothing about it. But as soon as I saw a kayak trip of Mono Lake, CA on the list of YourChoice Excursions, I hit the “sign me up” button.

I love to go off-the-beaten path to pursue my curiosities and dive deeper into a region without the crowds. I’ve traveled so much that it can often be difficult to find things that WOW me.

Going on a guided tour for the first time, I was concerned it would just be big ticket attractions and I’d miss those smaller wow moments that often end up being better.

So, I was stoked that this unknown and otherworldly lake was on our Northern California itinerary.

I joined the Globus Tour on a paid partnership project with iambassador and Globus Journeys. You can read more of this trip where I share why I loved the Globus group tour, and the main highlights from our Northern California trip.

What’s special about Mono Lake, California?

the tufas of mono lake ca
Mono Lake Tufas

At over a million years old, Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America and has an average depth of 100ft.

Mono Lake is known as the Dead Sea of California. It’s 2.5 times saltier than the ocean and high in alkalinity. This is because Mono Lake has no outlet and only collects water where large quantities of salt accumulate.

It is known for its uniquely shaped Tufas – columns and spires of solid calcium carbonate formed when freshwater springs met the alkaline water of the lakes.

As the water levels of the lake receded these tufas arose out from the underwater world and now many sit on the shores for you to explore and gaze in wonder at.

This high salinity and alkalinity have not just created unique tufas, but a rare ecosystem, that includes green algae, alkali flies and more than 80 species of migratory boards and endemic species of brine shrimp.

South Tufa Towers Loop Trail

south tufa towers loop trail mono lake
Enjoying the Loop Trail with my Globus friends

One of the Choice Touring excursions our Northern California Globus tour was to kayak the lake.

Choice Touring adds flexibility into a Globus tour. You have your big-ticket attractions on the tour, but also a selection of curated experiences in key and off-the-beaten-path destinations – included in the package price. This unique group tour feature allows travelers to tailor their tour to their own interests and passions.

Of course, outdoor adventure and stunning areas of nature are my passions, so I loved how this tour was giving me that opportunity.

Unfortunately, we could not kayak due to an unforeseen event, but we got to walk around the South Tufa area and take in its mystical beauty.

Globus were very accommodating in ensuring we were able to have an outstanding experience in this Mammoth Lakes region despite this happening and it meant we also were able to experience the Brodie Ghost Town Choice Touring option, which I really loved. So, I’m grateful I was still able to visit Mono Lake and see its beauty even though we didn’t kayak.

mono lake island
Views over Mono Lake to the island

We went to the South Tufa Entrance to walk around exploring the limestone tufas of Mono Lake. It’s a one mile, flat and easy self-guided nature trail that starts at the parking lot. 

The tufas reminded me of stalagmites and stalactites deep inside the earth’s caverns. Our tour director, Derek, also perfectly described them as a cross between Yellowstone with its ethereal geothermal activity and Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos.

Mono Lake California tufas

It was crazy to think if we had walked this trail in 1941, we would have been waist deep in the water. As they are working to raise the water levels of Mono Lake (see below) I was grateful for the opportunity to explore them so closely.

The south shore trail has interpretive panels along the way sharing the geology and history associated with Mono Lake, Ca.

After 0.3 miles, the boardwalk section of the trail ends, and you walk on the soft sand at the lakes edge.

Mono lake boardwalk trail
Keep walking on the trail to here!

Be sure to loop around the trail, don’t double back to the paved section. I really enjoyed the dense tufa formations and outcrops here and those forming islands a little offshore. There are several stretches of beaches here that are colorful and picturesque with the tufas. I think this was my favorite part of the trail.   

You’ll also great views across the lake of the Sierras: Mount Dana, Mount Gibbs, Tioga Peak, and Mount Lewis.

Don’t forget to look out for the birds and the alkali flies at the shallow waters edge flying close to the muddy ground. They won’t bite you! They provide food for much of the birdlife.

Navy Beach mono lake
Navy Beach

For those wanting to do a little more than the South Tufa boardwalk, Navy Beach is where the kayaks and canoes normally launch and people swim.

Be ready for effortless floating! Many believe a soak in Mono Lake will cure almost anything, so bring your ails and let them float away!

Sunrise or sunset would be the ultimate time to visit Mono Lake and capture these ethereal images.

The fee is $3 for adults, and there’s a kiosk that collects the fees on most days. An America the Beautiful pass will cover your fee. And of you are on a Globus tour, all of that is taken care of for you!

See more in my Reel

Where is Mono Lake?

mono lake tufas

Mono Lake is situated in the Eastern Sierras near the town of Lee Vining. It’s 22 miles (35 km) southeast of Yosemite’s Tioga Pass entrance and 20 minutes from Mammoth Lakes, making it an easy trip from either of these top places to visit in California. 

The Mono Lake Visitor Center is just off US Highway 395 and is the best place to find out about current conditions and see exhibits about the lake’s history. 

Lee Vining is a small town but is where you’ll find some amenities like motels, restaurants and cafes. 

While there aren’t any campgrounds in the Mono Lake State Natural Reserve, there are some nearby in Lundy Canyon, Lee Vining Canyon and June Lake Loop.

Mono Lake County Park is a wonderful addition to your Northern California road trip.

Saving Mono Lake, California

shrinking mono lake
Endangered Mono Lake

Mono Lake is also a good example of the power of people coming together for a good cause: to protect Mother Nature and unique ecosystems like this.

Mono Lake’s surface level once stood at an elevation of 6,417 feet in 1941. 

It was during this year that the Los Angeles Department of Water built a reservoir in the Mono Basin. This aqueduct providing LA with water drained Mono Lake’s main tributaries raising the salinity level of the lake and taking away its freshwater supplies.  

Mono Lake shrunk over the years until the 1970s when the lake reached is lower feet of 6,372 feet (a drop of 45 feet)  

The dropping levels caused a land bridge to form between the shore and Negit Island, home of thousands of nesting migratory birds. This land bridge gave predators a way to kill huge portions of the bird population causing an ecological crisis.

mono lake Tufa state natural reserve

This spurred the people to come together to form the Mono Lake Committee fight the big corporations in LA and protect the flora and fauna of this region. After a decade of litigation, the California State Water Resources Board ruled to protect Mono Lake and its tributary streams, allowing Sierra mountains run-off to replenish the lake.

The reserve was created to protect the tufas, the lake surface level, as well as the wetlands and sensitive habitat for the species of migratory birds that rest at Mono Lake each year. Those birds include California seagulls (coming in from the beach) plovers, avocets, red-necked phalaropes, and grebes.

The board has set a goal for a new lake level of 6,392ft, and in August 2019, it was within 9 feet of the target level. Ongoing drought, heat and evaporation and making it difficult for Mono Lake to reach the target.

Let’s hope they make it and more beautiful and unique places like Mono Lake; California is protected for the planet’s future.

Don’t miss nearby Bodie State Historical Park and our 3 day Yosemite Trip!

Comment: Have you been to Mono Lake before or heard of these strange tufas?

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