One of the attractions that tourists traveling Highway 395 love to see is Mono Lake. Like California’s Salton Sea, this is a lake that is creepy but fun. Two to three times saltier than an ocean, Mono Lake is kind of a kick to swim in. I have not had that experience, but I assume it’s similar to swimming in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, which I have done. It feels kind of weird not to be able to sink in saline water.
I have now seen Mono Lake twice. Many years ago Ruth and I drove the back entrance to Yosemite National Park, up and over Tioga Pass, and saw it. I remember being impressed by its size. We also stopped to see it when driving Highway 395 last month. Many others did too.
Mono Lake is a salty soda lake with no outlet. This leads to a high level of salinity. Mono used to be a lot deeper than it is now. You would think that a briny lake like Mono would have no life in it, but that would be wrong. It has lots of brine shrimp, a feature that attracts a lot of birds like Wilson’s Phalaropes to the area. Even though it has no outlet, a lot of high sierra streams flow into Mono Lake. That’s why the city of LA once used its water. However, the level of the lake was dropping so they stopped using this water source and the lake has somewhat recovered. One sign at Mono Lake notes, “Habitat damage is so extensive that California has lost 90 percent of its wetlands.”
Mono Lake covers 65 to 70 square miles and has a mountainous backdrop, so many consider it very scenic. It’s known for tufa towers and volcanoes. These weird towers rise above its surface. Mono is a very old lake. Tufa towers are mineral structures that form when fresh water from springs below Mono Lake’s watery surface bubble up and form them. They can and do grow tall. People like to kayak and canoe Mono Lake’s surface to see them up close. Others prefer to just stop at a park off of Highway 395 to see some of these tufa towers from a distance. Some like to hike to them. Mono Lake has 2 fairly large islands, Negit and Paoha, that were formed by recent volcanic activity. Recent as in geologic time. The most recent volcanic activity occurred 300 years ago, and such events shaped both islands. They can be seen from stoppable vantage points along Highway 395. That’s Paoha and Negit in the photos just below and at the bottom.
The closest town to Mono Lake is small Lee Vining. Mono Lake has impressed writers and movie makers. The best literary description of it occurred in Mark Twain’s Roughing It, and the most famous film made in the area is Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter.
If you are planning a trip to Yosemite any time soon, the park that John Muir loved, spent lots of time in, and became largely responsible for it becoming a national treasure and national park, take the time to exit Yosemite via Tioga Pass if in the summer to see Mono Lake. It’s not traditionally beautiful like Tahoe, but it is strangely interesting and quite an attraction.