Once you leave California’s scenic Yosemite National Park along the Tioga Road through the Tioga Pass you enter the arid Mono Basin of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. In this basin lays the unique Mono Lake. A large 182 square kilometre (70 square miles) salt lake.
In 1941 water from tributaries that fed into the lake were diverted to the Los Angeles water supply to meet the growing demand of this massive city. With a lack of freshwater entering the lake the end result was the lake halved in water volume and the salinity level doubled. Over the decades that followed the lake was in dire straits and looked like becoming an ecological disaster. Luckily in 1978 a committee was formed by concerned locals who have taken legal action and worked with the various related government bodies to save Mono Lake ensuring water and wildlife habitat restoration occurs as required (today the lake level is rising and slowly nearing its original level).
The salinity of the lake means it has no fish, but it is home to algae and trillions of Brine Shrimp and Alkali Flies. These little creatures attract millions of birds to the lake each year (when the lake was in decline the health of the shrimp, flies and bird population were all at risk). According to the Mono Lake Committee website 50,000 California Gulls call Mono Lake home (the second largest population after Utah’s Great Salt Lake) along with over 80 species of migratory birds including up to 2,000,000 Eared Grebes, 80,000 Wilsons Phalaropes and 60,000 Red-necked Phalaropes!
There was nowhere near that many birds during my visit in September 2012, but the Alkali Flies provided some amusing bird related moments. The flies thickly carpet parts of the lakes surface and Gulls walk along scooping them up from the lake surface. The birds work their way through them eating as many as possible as the flies scatter. It was like watching a feathered vacuum cleaner at work!
One unusual thing about Mono Lake is the limestone towers that dot the edges of the lake and protrude from the water surface. Known as “Tufa Towers” they can be up to 9 metres (30 feet) tall and provide a very unique and scenic view.
Many of the towers now stand on land where the lake’s water once lay. You can wander around the towers and along the edge of the lake.
The majority of the towers can be seen in South Tufa. The towers grow from calcium rich underwater springs which blend with the carbonate rich water of the lake creating limestone that slowly but surely builds up around the mouth of the spring (it can take decades and even centuries to create the towers). Looking out across the water from South Tufa you have great views of the islands and the surrounding arid mountain landscape. If you are in this part of California it is well worth a visit to the lake to take in some very different scenery.