One of the oldest lakes in North America, at least 760,000 years old, can be seen along Hwy 395 at Lee Vining, near the eastern border of Yosemite National Park. It is the enchanting, mysterious Mono Lake, one of the most productive lakes in the world. Mark Twain dubbed this lake the “Dead Sea of California”, but he could not have been more wrong. Not too many species can survive in this harsh environment but those that have adapted do so in prolific numbers.
Fed by five streams, underground seeps, and the Sierra snowpack, Mono Lake has no outlet. Because of its inability to release water, it is three times saltier than the Pacific Ocean, an extremely alkaline condition.
If you were to swim in Mono Lake, and you can, you would be so buoyant you would bob up and down like a cork in water. As a comparison, below is the saline count of a couple of well-known bodies of water:
- Lake Tahoe – 0.001% salt
- Pacific Ocean – 3.5% salt
- Mono Lake – 10% salt
To convert Lake Tahoe’s waters to that of Mono Lake, you would need to add the following to one quart of water:
- 2.5 tablespoons table salt
- 1.5 tablespoons baking soda
- 2 tablespoons Epsom salts
- a pinch of borax
- a pinch of detergent
Is it any wonder that fish cannot survive in these waters? It is amazing to me that anything can. However, brine shrimp and alkali flies seem to like these salty waters just fine.
During the early spring months, the lake is “as green as pea soup”, due to the microscopic algae bloom. As the water warms, recently hatched brine shrimp and alkali flies feed on the algae. By summer they have consumed so much algae that the lake water becomes clear and returns to a blue color once again.
In the warm summer months, an estimate of 4-6 trillion brine shrimp swim in these waters. Alkali flies live along the shore and walk underwater, encased in small air bubbles for grazing and to lay their eggs. These two Mono Lake inhabitants are an important source of food for the millions of migratory and nesting birds who find their way to this salty sea.
Interesting chemical reactions occur when freshwater springs (calcium) meet alkaline water (carbonates). Calcium carbonate (solid limestone) is the result, better known to geologists as a tufa. These hauntingly beautiful formations have their beginnings underwater and continue to grow as freshwater and lake water meet. There is evidence of Ice Age tufa at Mono Lake, which grew beneath the water nearly 13,000 years ago. They have a crystalline structure that differs from more recent tufa. Mono Lake’s “petrified springs” are a fascinating example of what nature can do with a few basic ingredients.
Many photographers come to the South Tufa to capture these unique limestone statues. The best time for photos is at sunrise, if the sun makes an appearance, and she has been a bit timid these past several days.
At its height, Mono Lake soared to a depth of 900 feet, but now its average depth is a mere 50 feet, with a maximum depth of 150 feet. The lake is currently seven vertical feel lower than its targeted level. About 45” of water is lost annually to evaporation, so freshwater inflow is critical to its health. Although we have been less than enchanted with the rain, sleet, and snow flurries that have pelted this area during our visit, we are comforted knowing that Mono Lake is the better for it.
We begin our journey north in search for warmer temps, as we can’t seem to will the thermometer to move beyond the 50 degree mark yet.
58 thoughts on “Hauntingly Beautiful Mono Lake”
Indeed it is. Great shots.
Thanks you two! How are things back in Colorado?
You have some great pictures this time. Love the ones with the clouds and the sun.
Thanks Andrew. I wasn’t sure how they were going to turn out given how little sun we have been having here.
What beautiful pictures, Lu! I’m so glad you were able to get some sunshine, in order to take them. Thank you for the wonderful history lesson of Mono Lake. I have been by there many times, but didn’t know the scientific facts about it. Every a.m., when I am watching the weather report, about Arizona, they show a map with what is happening in California, and it just looks like that cold, wet weather is following you. Hope you can get into a different climate soon. Be safe!!!
The rain does seem to be following us but California so badly needs it that I can’t complain too much. I was glad to get a glimpse of the sun while at Mono Lake. I find this lake to be fascinating.
The weather seems to be less than agreeable in many areas. At least you managed to capture some stunning images of this unique place.
Getting up before dawn and driving out there with such cloudy skies I wasn’t expecting much Ingrid. We got a few glimpses of the sun.
Well, it was still worth the early morning outing. Lovely captures. The sun in Colorado has been playing a steady game of hide and go seek 😉
We’ve had three solid days of rain but the sun is out this morning. 🙂
A fascinating field trip and nicely penned. Thank you.
We definitely have to stop there next time around ! Spectacular photos !
Thanks Z! It is an amazing place.
Thank you, LuAnn. Your pictures and thoughts are lovely. We were here about a week ago. The movie in the Welcome Center said the Natives collected the flies also and ate them!! I wondered how they prepared the flies but tried not to picture it too graphically!! We also learned about the tufas and that was great. Sara
I find Mono Lake to be such an interesting place. How those flies exist underwater is fascinating.
Haunting beautiful, indeed! Amazing views via your lens, LuAnn!
Thanks Amy. It is an intriguing place.
Mono Lake was almost drained dry by diversion of water to Los Angeles. It was only through the efforts of local activists that the diversion was drastically reduced to sustain Mono Lake. See the post from our visit in October, 2012. http://michigantraveler.org/2012/10/29/yosemite-national-park-october-2012/
I had read this in some of the literature we had picked up. I will be heading over to your blog to read more about it. Thanks!
This is the one area I can’t wait to see when we make this drive. Your photos are some of the prettiest I’ve seen of the tufa and the lake. Gorgeous colors:) I enjoyed reading your excellent description of the lake. Thanks for the detail info:)
Sure hope you found some warmer weather. We have warmed in to the low 70’s but it drops to the low 60’s with each rain storm, which is often!! Safe travels!
Thanks Pam. I think you two will love the Sierras. I find everything about Mono Lake to be so interesting. I could come back here time and time again. We are now at Washoe Lake SP and as I type this it is raining. 😦
Funny you should mention that word!! It is not only raining here but we are in the middle of a thunderstorm…number four for today!!
80% chance of rain here today! I don’t recall how many days in a row now it has been raining. This is some crazy weather!
Have a fun time with Jim and Gayle!! Someday we WILL meet them!!
I know you will and you will love them!
Your images have certainly convinced me that there is some beauty to be had from Mono Lake. I’ve never been able to work up much enthusiasm for it myself. Don’t know exactly where you’re headed next, but it’s been unusually chilly here, too.
I’m not sure why but I find Mono Lake to be fascinating. We are now near Reno, NV and it is raining and chilly. This area certainly needs the rain so it is hard to complain.
I know Nina also posted about how enthralled she was with Mono. Goes to show we all see things differently. Then again, maybe I’ve never given Mono a chance. Always just drove on by (on quite a few occasions). It just doesn’t do anything to draw me in. Too many other places to see. Seems we’re all stuck in that rainy, chilly pattern lately.
That’s what makes life so interesting. We all see beauty in different things. And yes, this is some crazy weather we all seem to be sharing.
Your first image is especially magical, LuAnn. Although we’ve been to Mono Lake, I didn’t know all of the interesting backstory about the lake. I like the recipe for Mono Lake water. 🙂 It’s been a few years since we’ve traveled 395, and we’re looking forward to revisiting the lake this fall when we mosey down that way.
Thanks Laurel! I am convinced that fall is the best time to visit the Sierras. See you two soon. 🙂
You managed to get some really great photos in spite of the weather. We would never have gotten up that early!
Thanks! Terry was not excited about getting up that early either but at least it was not as cold as last time we did it.
Beautiful ! Feels like yesterday we were there …
You have covered a lot of territory since then, with so much beauty to come! Can’t wait for you to share it with us Hector. 🙂
Love the photos! Hope you find some warm weather soon.
Thanks! Enough time and we should all get out of this crazy weather pattern.
I enjoyed reading your post about Mono Lake. Lots of very interesting info. And beautiful pics! Thanks for sharing your research. I knew some of the basics, but you added some really intriguing data.
Thanks Linda. Hope to meet you two some day.
Your description of hauntingly beautiful fits the images well.
Such fascinating formations LuAnn. It reminds me of some ‘outer space’ scene. Your lead photo is so beautiful. I found it so interesting that the lake is like pea soup in the early season and then nature cleans itself up. I used to teach swimming as a teen and on one occasion the lake turned into pea soup overnight. shall we say the classes ended early that season? 🙂
I would not go in water that looks anything like pea soup. I do think it would be fun, however, to see just how buoyant one would be in this water.
Your title says it all!
Great description…..so buoyant you would bob up and down like a cork in water. What a treat to see.
I find it to be a fascinating place to visit.
We have such a good memory of Mono Lake, one of the best places we’ve visited in California.. alongside Yosemite. The hike down the lake was quite nice 🙂
Yosemite is one of our favorite national parks.
Lovely photos of this beautiful place LuAnn.
Thanks Lisa. 🙂
Pretty incredible place LuAnn!
It certainly is Nicole.
Gorgeous pics of one of our fav places! So glad you got to spend time there and catch a sunrise!
Thanks Nina. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen, given the cold rainy weather we were having. The sun is finally out today. 🙂
Never knew of Mono Lake…so thank you for these beautiful photos of it. But pea soup? Interesting! And interesting new knowledge I have because of your factual information.
Quite a place I would love to see. Thank You!
It is unique and quite beautiful Nancy.
I fell in love seeing Mono Lake in pictures from Nina before. My face just dropped once again. I’ll be sharing this on my facebook page. STUNNING!!!
Thanks Rommel. I think you would love photographing the tufas, particularly at sunrise.