Destination: Mono Lake

Our first destination for our third and last day of the road trip was Mono Lake.

Mono Lake is a majestic body of water covering about 65 square miles. It is an ancient lake, over 1 million years old -- one of the oldest lakes in North America. It has no outlet.

Throughout its long existence, salts and minerals have washed into the lake from Eastern Sierra streams. Freshwater evaporating from the lake each year has left the salts and minerals behind so that the lake is now about 2 1/2 times as salty and 80 times as alkaline as the ocean. (source)
Tufa is essentially common limestone. What is uncommon about this limestone is the way it forms. Typically, underwater springs rich in calcium (the stuff in your bones) mix with lakewater rich in carbonates (the stuff in baking soda). As the calcium comes in contact with carbonates in the lake, a chemical reaction occurs resulting in calcium carbonate--limestone. The calcium carbonate precipitates (settles out of solution as a solid) around the spring, and over the course of decades to centuries, a tufa tower will grow. Tufa towers grow exclusively underwater, and some grow to heights of over 30 feet. The reason visitors see so much tufa around Mono Lake today is because the lake level fell dramatically after water diversions began in 1941. (source)

Bird walks are offered at the Mono Lake County Park/State Natural Reserve boardwalk at 8:00 a.m. Fridays and Sundays mid-May through Labor Day.

The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center is a great place to start your visit to this area. The center is located just off Highway 395, north of Lee Vining and includes a variety of exhibits about the natural and human history of the Mono Basin. Visitor center staff stand ready to help you plan your explorations of Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra. (source)

Tufa towers are not the only form of tufa at Mono Lake. Calcium carbonate crystals will also precipitate out of lakewater far from springs and coat lakebottom surfaces like pumice boulders, beer cans, dead vegetation, dead birds, and anything else that might end up in the lake (instant fossils!). Another way tufa is formed is through biogenesis, the biological activity of organisms like the alkali fly. When an adult alkali fly emerges from an underwater pupae case it leaves behind a minute deposit of calcium carbonate, a waste product from its earlier life stage beneath the salty, alkaline lake. Alkali flies, on a small scale, actually contribute to the growth of underwater tufa towers!
Where else does tufa exist? The answer lies around the world and back in time, and possibly even on Mars. Tufa grows in many places where the right chemical environment exists. Some tufa even grows in the ocean off the coast of Greenland! Tufa is common at other Great Basin desert lakes, but Mono Lake has the most active formations around. Some Great Basin dry lakes in California and Nevada reveal old tufa formations that once were active when these lakes were full during the last ice age. Mono Lake has its own ice age tufa hundreds of feet above the historical level of the lake. If you think Mono Lake looks impressive now, you should have seen at the end of the last ice age when it was five times bigger than it is today!

To protect these fragile formations, at the urging of the Mono Lake Committee the California legislature established the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve in 1981.

If you would like to make tufa at home, see the chemistry page for how to make Mono Lake water. Then, just add calcium chloride dissolved in fresh water to make tufa (although the reaction won't be as vigorous as it is in real Mono Lake water).

This is a place to go when you have no other place to see that day. Make sure you allot a whole day to explore this wonderful lake. Because we were pressed for time (we still had to drive around Yosemite and drive home ---3 to 3.5 hrs from Yosemite to home), we didn't go beyond a few yards from Highway 395. If you google images of tufa or Mono Lake you will see really coold pics of the tufa (of course tweaked). Someday, I would want to return, take the tours, bird watch, and camp.
The website also indicated that swimming and boating are allowed. This is what it further stated:
"A swim in Mono Lake is a memorable experience. The lake's salty water is denser than ocean water, and provides a delightfully buoyant swim. Old timers claim that a soak in the lake will cure almost anything. Keep the water out of your eyes or any cuts, as it will sting."
Now wouldn't you want to go and dip your toes in the lake? I surely enjoyed my few moments here.


  1. Yeah Photo Cache, I think you should join Watery Wednesday. I've been playing for a few weeks now. The water pictures are just great. Happy Day!

    BTW, are you also known as ewok?

  2. I've heard the same thing about the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea. That the waters are so dense it's impossible not to float unless you're weighted. Fascinating post and some pretty spectacular photos to go with it!

  3. it is impressive. thanks for recommending us to start a journey from there.

    that's the advantage of having just one big land for a country. you get to have long trips like that.

  4. Wow...what a saw so many beautiful things along the way !

  5. Lovely images maria

  6. Quite an interesting reporting Maria.
    The pictures are wonderful!

  7. Those lime formations in the lake are amazing.

  8. I would dip my toe in Maria:)
    Lovely place and the pictures are a credit to you.

  9. A fine series of this notable place and comment that added much to my limited knowledge. A fascinating series.

  10. Wow excellent write up, Maria. This is the first time I heard about this Lake. Very interesting.

  11. Very beautiful images of a really interesting place!

  12. Lovely lake! I feel the energy of your road trip through your photos.

    Thanks for visiting Norwich Daily Photo and leaving your comments.

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  13. This is something I've never seen, Maria, so I'm getting my education through your eyes. Thank you!

  14. I enjoyed reading your post and the pictures are fantastic, too. :)

  15. These water cum dry country pictures remind me of part of South Africa. Nice landscapes and idea to blog a road trip.

  16. Hello Mroy! You are making in these last series a charming route by these places that photographies. I can be made a perfect idea of the place with these good series of photos.

  17. very informative and lovely compositions in your photos. the combination of the blue skies and the water in the lake are perfect!


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