The Tufa at Mono Lake – Amazing

road sign for Bishop and Lee Vining

Which Way To Go?

At the bottom of the Tioga Pass, on the east end, the road ends at Hwy 395. That means a choice has to be made. When we got there we flipped a coin and decided to head south to June Lake, not knowing anything about it. Something new was waiting: what would it be?

sign for June Lake

We drove about 30 minutes south and west until we reached the town and took a little drive-through tour. We found a campsite next to the lake and had a picnic.

By this time of the day the bar was pretty high for things capturing our interest after traversing the pass through Yosemite. This place didn’t so we went back to Hwy 395 and continued north.

June Lake

Mono Lake Visitor Center

A few miles north of the turn off for Yosemite we found a sign for Mono Lake and decided to check it out. Our first stop was the Visitor Center. We found the typical displays – maps of the area, history of the geological formations, native wildlife and plants – all the good stuff.

Then we noticed more and more descriptions of the tufa. The information kept going on about chemical reactions and the Table of Elements and then onto biology-sounding things. Huh? We looked at each other at a loss. Between us, we grasp about a thimble-full of science. Not to discount that. Respect for all that? Absolutely! Interest and understanding, not that much.

sign for Mono Basin National Forest Area

Mono Lake and Los Angeles

There are a few things we learned in the visitor center that are important, unique things about this lake that made it all the more interesting. 1) It’s fed by runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountains nearby. 2) It’s an important stop for migratory birds of all kinds. 3) Oh, it has no fish. No, really. No fish. That’s strange but true. Something about salt and shrimp and birds. You’ll need to look that up if you’re interested. We still don’t understand that part. 4) A lot of the story of Mono Lake has to do with Los Angeles and its need for water. Most water projects involve damming up a river, flooding an area, and sending water and electricity somewhere far away. Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite comes to mind. But this lake was already there: no dam needed. 

Mono Lake

The Effects

Like any body of water within 500 miles of the happiest place on earth, the city fathers of Los Angeles had their eyes on it for a long time. In 1941 they finally stuck a straw in it and kept sucking on it until 1990. After a ten-year lawsuit and years of local efforts, the State put a halt to that.

By then the lake had fallen 45 feet, lost half its volume and doubled in salinity. Not a very nice thing to do to your neighbor’s lake. If there was anything good coming from that, besides a community standing up for itself, all these tufas were exposed as the water level declined.

Mono Lake

Tufas! Well, That’s a New One

They looked fascinating in the photos, so we thought we’d take a look even though you have to drive about 15 miles out of the park and around to the south entrance to see them. 

Apparently, they were growing under the water (something about chemicals, minerals, and just enough salt and fresh water. We don’t remember the recipe.) But once exposed to the air and the sun they died and are now just standing there in some kind of chemical-biological purgatory.

Sierra Nevada Mountains from Mono Lake

They are strange-looking things, and the photos below show that pretty well.

Just one more detail about the lake – it’s filling up these days with limits on the annual draw going south to LA. Will these tufas ever grow again, or new ones come up? Stay tuned. We don’t know. As former Angelenos, we felt some guilt having likely used some of the water taken from the lake.

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

What a Strange Place!

Wow, what a sight met our eyes as we got close to the lake on the south side. From a distance, some of them looked like those long-lost temples in the jungles of Malaysia. Kind of worse for wear but still there.

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

Obviously, we weren’t able to get close to the ones in the water, but what a sight!

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

Just the strangest place to walk around while investigating all the formations.

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

I loved being there and wished we had arrived at dawn or sunset – then the photos would be stunning!

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

It’s not clear to us why they crop up in one place and not another. Or, why some grow head-high or more, and others don’t.

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

You can walk around and between some of them, which we did. Very strange to do that. Are these a fresh water version of coral reefs? Except for the color, it seems they could be.

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

Aren’t they cool! We loved it although it did feel like a desert landscape, with very strange cactus!

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

You guys stay there, we’re going on up!

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

I had to play around with the photos a bit to see what they’d look like in black and white – I loved this one!

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

Maybe a little friendly competition between these two?

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

We wondered how far up these things could grow if left alone. Up to the sky?

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake

Okay, Now Where?

We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the tufa or tufas. Our next agenda item was finding a campground somewhere closer to Sacramento than we were. However, there were mountains in our way.

Hey, said someone in the car, “Why don’t we head out west and go over the Sierras again? The first time this morning was fun. Maybe it will be again.” You can’t object to that kind of logic, so off we went.

steep grades ahead sign

First, the road went north a while, and we stopped for a picnic before ascending into the mountains.

Soon enough, we began climbing quickly and abruptly, and we saw some fantastic vistas before entering canyons. We didn’t know this at the time, but we were crossing the Sierra Nevada on the second highest pass and had just crossed on the highest one – Tioga – a few hours earlier.Sonora Pass, California

It wasn’t long before we saw the snow-caps eye to eye, and realized this wasn’t a road you’d want to be on in winter – good thing it’s closed then! 

Sonora Pass, California

I’m not sure we saw more than a handful of vehicles the entire way, and no trucks at all. It seems they took the advice on that sign. Maybe that had to do with the steep grades of 8 and 26% for going up and down. 

Sonora Pass, California

The video below isn’t at the windiest parts, but it does give a bit of the flavor of our journey.


Up and Over

Just over the pass on the western side, there’s a historical placard describing the trail through this area used by settlers long ago. We were struck with the image of doing that on foot, on horseback or in wagons. That was in our thoughts as we descended. 

We’ve all heard stories about the pioneers crossing the mountains, to say nothing of Native tribes living in the area. But the notion of going through here without a paved road – very challenging even to conceive of that.

Sonora Pass, California

What a ride! That’s one high pass. Sayonara Sonora!

The video is from our one stop near the top.

Once we finally got out of the mountains, we traveled through quite a few small towns looking for the campground I had found on my camping app.

It took a while and led to some frustration especially since hunger and fatigue were descending upon us. 

Sonora Pass, California

Time For Bed

When we finally found the campground, we had our choice of spots as there were few people there. The more interesting part of that park, down by the lake, was closed for the season. Neither of us liked this spot much. But after a long travel day, we took it, set up the tent and tarps and that was that. 

Here’s a shot of the place before we invaded. Little did we know that 24 hours later we would have traded an appendix for a spot like this. Oh well, you don’t know what you’ve got til you see what you get tomorrow. Or something like that.

a camp site

What’s Next – An absolute nightmare 

Go ahead and subscribe!

It won’t hurt a bit!

Permanent link to this article:

%d bloggers like this: