Home » 2007 Cross Country Road Trip

Mono Lake South Tufa State Reserve, CA

Saturday, July 28, 2007 - 6:00am by Lolo
76 miles and 2 hours from our last stop


Lolo exploring Tufas of Mono LakeLolo exploring Tufas of Mono LakeAnyone coming from or going to Yosemite via the Tioga Pass entrance should definitely make the short side trip to the “tufa castles” of Mono Lake.

Mono Lake is not your typical lake. Besides being over a million years old, and probably the oldest continuously existing lake in North America, it is 2 ½ times saltier than the ocean and 80 times more alkaline. This is because the water that flows in from the Sierra streams, carrying trace amounts of salts and minerals with it, has no way to leave the lake other than evaporation. So, the concentration levels of these salts and minerals keeps building up year after year. I think it’s the same reason that the Great Salt Lake in Utah is so salty. However, although the Great Salt Lake might be more famous for its saltiness, Mono Lake does have one it doesn’t—“tufa castles.” Tufa, not to be mistaken with “tofu,” are calcium-carbonate deposits that form in lakes with high calcium contents. Normally they would just be hidden beneath the water, but as lake levels dropped, they became exposed, some of them rising as high as 30 feet above the surface—and they do look like castles.

Lolo exploring brine flies of Mono LakeLolo exploring brine flies of Mono LakeOne of the best places to see the tufas is at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve along the southern shoreline of the lake. You can get there by going south on 395 from the town of Lee Vining and then taking the turnoff for the State Reserve. From the parking lot, there is a mile-long loop trail that leads to a large concentration of tufa castles at Navy Beach. Although a ranger-led walk was forming when we got there, we decided to avoid the group-thing and enjoy the walk on our own. The “tufa castles” really were quite beautiful.

I was the only one of us that felt the need to swim amongst the tufas. The brine flies along the shoreline and the thought of the salt drying on our skin afterwards was not particularly appealing. The Gaidus men wisely chose to hang on the shore and photograph. With a wave of my arms, I parted the black mass of brine flies and entered the water. I expected to have to swim out to the castles, but the water never got any deeper than my knees. Well, it did make for a better photograph having one of us posing in front of the tufa castles.


Lolo of the TufasLolo of the TufasMono Lake is located just off Highway 395 near the town of Lee Vining, California, 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park. Mono Lake is extremely unique. First of all, at over 1 million years of age, it is one of the oldest continuously existing lakes in the continent. Secondly, it is about 2 ½ times as salty as the sea and about 80 times as alkaline. This is because Sierra streams flow into Mono Lake bringing trace amounts of salts and minerals, but the lake has no outlet other than evaporation. As a result, the concentration levels of salts and minerals keeps growing each year. Thirdly, and the main reason Mono Lake is so popular, are the hundreds of spectacular “tufa towers” that rise from the lake. These intriguing calcium-carbonate sculptures were formed beneath the water when carbonates in the water combined with calcium from freshwater springs feeding into the lake. As lake levels dropped, these extraordinary-looking knobs, spires, and minarets became exposed. Most of the towers visible in the lake are from 200 to 900 years old and rise as high as 30 feet above the water.

A good place to start your visit is at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, located just off Highway 395, north of Lee Vining, where you will find exhibits about both the natural and human history of the Mono Basin.

One of the best places to view the tufas is at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve along the southern shoreline of the lake. The trailhead for the south tufa castles and Navy Beach is at the edge of the parking lot. During the summer, rangers lead walking tours 3 times a day (10am, 1pm, and 6pm), but if your not lucky enough to catch one of these, there are plenty of informative signboards along the trail. A short walk along the mile-long trail brings you to the strange and fanciful tufa castles at Navy Beach. A swim in the buoyant waters of Mono Lake is a memorable experience, as long as you are willing to step through the millions of harmless alkali flies that line the water’s edge. It’s fun to watch what at first looks like black sand part before you.

Surrounded by volcanic hills, Mono Lake is also a geologist's paradise. The two major islands in the lake are actually volcanic domes. The large black island, which the Kuzedika Indians named Negit, meaning “blue-winged goose,” erupted about 1700 years ago. The white island, which the Native Americans named Paoha, meaning “spirits of the mist,” erupted 250 years ago.

Bird watching and photography are other popular activities at Mono Lake.

Mono Lake South Tufa State Reserve location map in "high definition"

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