Sunset at Mono Lake South Tufa, Lee Vining, CA - September 2015

I'd been wanting to go to Mono Lake for years - really since I'd heard about it and seen photos from a trip V and T took there back in 2008-ish. So, on a Saturday in September, with a commitment-free weekend ahead of us, we decided to drive north to spend some time with the tufa towers.

According to the Mono Lake Committee website:
"Tufa is essentially common limestone. What is uncommon about this limestone is the way it forms. Typically, underwater springs rich in calcium (the stuff in your bones) mix with lakewater rich in carbonates (the stuff in baking soda). As the calcium comes in contact with carbonates in the lake, a chemical reaction occurs resulting in calcium carbonate--limestone. The calcium carbonate precipitates (settles out of solution as a solid) around the spring, and over the course of decades to centuries, a tufa tower will grow. Tufa towers grow exclusively underwater, and some grow to heights of over 30 feet. The reason visitors see so much tufa around Mono Lake today is because the lake level fell dramatically after water diversions began in 1941."

Doesn't sound that interesting, but wait until you see them!

The drive north through the Owens Valley was pretty scenic. We passed through California's Red Rock Canyon and it felt really different to have the mountains to the west (we'd never been to the Eastern Sierras, only Sequoia which is west). The air was smoky from recently extinguished and still burning wildfires. As we turned west at Bishop the mountains loomed large ahead and we drove onward.

The drive up to the lake took about 6 hours and since we didn't leave L.A. until after noon we were racing the sun so we could get a good look at the tufas and lake before the light was gone.

Our directions took us right to the Mono Basin Scenic Area visitor center just north of Lee Vining, but this was closed and high above the lake so while it was a nice view, it wasn't what we were looking for - we wanted to be right in the tufas.

For that, we needed to head south again and turn off the 395 onto the 120 (Mono Lake Basin road) to get to the South Tufa Area just as the sun was setting. Here's where we ended up:

You have to pay a few dollars ($3 I believe) to park in this area (honor system) so make sure to have some cash. As we walked towards the lake we could hear a yipping coyote close by and the colors of the brush really popped against the smoky sky.

The level of the lake was much higher when most of the tufa towers were formed. Again, some history from the Mono Lake Committee website: "From 1941 until 1990, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) diverted excessive amounts of water from Mono Basin streams. Mono Lake dropped 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume, and doubled in salinity." Wow. In 1994 the California State Water Resources Control Board ordered DWP to allow Mono Lake to rise to a healthy level of 6,392 feet above sea level and it is currently rising towards that goal. When we visited, however, the lake was close to its historic low of 6,372 ft (it was 6,378 ft). That probably has something to do with this drought we're in!

Enough history, now onto the beauty of the tufas!

Millions of birds migrate through this area between mid-summer and fall. Abundant alkali flies and brine shrimp provide an endless food supply for them. Again, according to the Mono Lake Committee website: "If you visit a beach in California and you see a California Gull, there's a high probability it was born at Mono Lake. By late spring anywhere from 44,000 to 65,000 California Gulls arrive to breed on Mono's lesser-known islands." We saw some birds, but not many: Sage Thrasher, Least Sandpiper, Eared Grebe, Phalarope of some sort and California Gull.

 Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)
Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)
We knew we needed more of the tufas so we went back in the AM to catch the sunrise at a different part of the lake.

For more of my photos of Mono Lake see my Flickr set.