By Greg Aragon
California is replete with natural wonders and Mono Lake holds its own against them all. As one of the oldest lakes in the western hemisphere, it is eerily beautiful, with giant tufa structures jetting from its serene surface and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada reflecting in its shimmering blue waters.
A friend and I began a recent fall getaway to Mono Lake at Whispering Pines Motel & Cabins located in the nearby town of June Lake. A rustic and beautiful property situated at the base of Carson Peak and 1.5 miles from June Mountain, the resort offers motel rooms, cabins, and two-bedroom suites for skiers and families who love the beauty of the Sierras.
Once checked into the room, we headed to Mono Lake, about 15 miles away. Located just east of Yosemite National Park, the lake and the town of Lee Vining, which sits on its western shore, have been the backdrop for numerous films, standing in for the Old West, outer space planets and the Himalaya in films like Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, Star Trek IX, True Grit and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
No matter the season, the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center is a great place to start your visit to the 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 is a wealth of information on things to do around the area. They are open 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily.
The lake, which has no outlet, covers about 65 square miles, and is estimated to be more than 1 million years old. It is known for the alien-looking tufa structures sprouting from the water. The tufa are calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. Throughout its 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 three times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline.
Because of its unique composition, Mono Lake has created a rare ecosystem, supporting a complex food chain of green algae, brine shrimp and alkali flies, and more than 80 species of migratory birds. Gulls especially like the lake, as about 85 percent of the bird’s California breeding population nests at the reservoir each year.
In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting Mono Lake’s tributary streams to meet growing water demands in Los Angeles. Without its freshwater sources, the volume of Mono Lake was cut in half, while its salinity doubled. Unable to adapt to these changing conditions within such a short period of time, the ecosystem began to collapse.
With the future of the lake in doubt, the Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978 to help preserve and restore the lake. The organization quickly grew to more than 20,000 members and today it helps protect the lake.
When we got to the lake it was a cool November morning. The water was calm and there were a few other sightseers like us, taking photos, exploring the shoreline and walking through tall grass, along muddy trails.
The lake has a few different points of interest for visitors. We visited the County Park area, located off U.S. Highway 395, near the town of Lee Vining. This spot has picnic tables and features an easy trail and boardwalk that leads to the lake.
Another good spot is Navy Beach, which is where you can launch kayaks and canoes. It is connected to the South Tufa Area by a short trail, where there is additional parking. Navy Beach is south of Lee Vining off U.S. 395.
For anyone interested in geology, the Panum Crater/Mono Crater area should not be missed. These spectacular young volcanoes, which look ready to erupt at any moment, range in age from 600 to 40,000 years old. Panum is reached via a short dirt road, off Highway 120 east about three miles east of Highway 395.
Fall is a great time to visit Mono Lake, as crowds are light and snow on the shoreline and tofu can be an incredible sight. But the weather can be tricky, and roads can close at any time, so make sure to check the local weather before going.