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Lake Mono

California, USA


The Mono Lake is located in California's spectacular Eastern Sierra near Yosemite National Park within Mono County. Mono Lake is famous for the odd shaped limestone "tufa tower" formations that spike up from below the water's surface. They're called Tufa, and they actually grow while under water. In reality these mineral towers were formed underwater eons ago, but when Los Angeles started diverting water from the Owens River to the city in the 1940's, the water level at Mono Lake dropped, exposing the strange Tufa formations (a rough, thick, rock-like calcium carbonate deposit that precipitates from calcium-bearing spring water in an alkaline lake rich in carbonates) that are the most spectacular feature of the Lake.

Mono Lake is believed to have formed 760,000 years ago, although it may be a remnant of a larger lake that formed 1-3 million years ago, thus making it one of the oldest lakes in North America. It used to lose its water only by evaporation, becoming in the process alkaline and hyper-saline, like the Dead Sea in Israel. Mono Lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp that thrive in its waters, and provides critical nesting habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp. Mono Lake became famous also thanks to recent highlights in the newspaper about NASA discovering new 'extraterrestrial species' in this lake.

There are several great places to view Tufa. There is one of the boardwalks along US 395, but the best Tufa display is at the South Tufa Area. To get there, take US 395 south from Lee Vining, then turn east on CA Hwy 120. The area will be well marked on your left. During the summer months the lake can also be reached from Yosemite National Park using Highway 120 (Tioga Pass), but this route closes with the year's first snowfall and doesn't re-open until the following May or June.