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All About Mono Lake

Updated on September 14, 2014

Mono Lake Shore


A Wonderful Spot

Mono Lake is an interesting place you should visit. It's one of the most unusual places in the country and it features unique biology, unique geology, and a unique history, so there's something that will be interesting for everyone.

Mono Lake is located on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range across from Yosemite National Park. It is close to the California and Nevada border. It is an incredibly amazing place and definitely worth a visit if you're ever in the area.

About the Lake by Mark Twain

Mark Twain's classic novel about his adventures in the west, Roughing It, features his impression of Mono Lake. A part of his account is quoted here:

"Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds. This solemn, silent, sailless sea-this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth-is little graced with the picturesque. It is an unpretending expanse of grayish water, about a hundred miles in circumference, with two islands in its centre, mere upheavals of rent and scorched and blistered lava, snowed over with gray banks and drifts of pumice stone and ashes, the winding sheet of the dead volcano, whose vast crater the lake has seized upon and occupied."

He wasn't too impressed by the place obviously. And while I normally agree with him, I find that here, Mark Twain wasn't able to see the beauty, nor the interesting aspects of Mono Lake. It's a intriguing place, ripe for exploration and learning. Most naturalists will find the place fascinating.


Get a Copy of Roughing It

Roughing It (Bibliolife Reproduction)
Roughing It (Bibliolife Reproduction)
Read more about Mark Twain's adventures at Mono as well as around the rest of the west, by picking up a copy of Roughing It, today.

Where in the World in Mono Lake?

Location of Mono Lake
Location of Mono Lake

Mono Lake Viewed from Above

Negit and Paoha Islands
Negit and Paoha Islands | Source

Mono Lake Location

Mono Lake:
Mono Lake, California 93541, USA

get directions

Mono Lake and the Sierra Nevada

At the Base of the Sierra Nevada

Mono Lake runs alongside the steep, eastern-face of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The dramatic front of the mountains makes for a lovely backdrop of the serene lake and adds even more geologic interest.

Mono is just across the mountain range from Yosemite, which is on the western side of the Sierra.

Mono Lake and the Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and Lake at the Eastern Foot
Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and Lake at the Eastern Foot | Source

About Mono Lake


"It is one of the strangest freaks of Nature to be found in any land"

~Mark Twain

Mark Twain at Mono Lake - Read about His Adventures in the Area

Mark Twain: His Adventures at Aurora and Mono Lake
Mark Twain: His Adventures at Aurora and Mono Lake
Get this classic book from Amazon. It's a bit rare, but it very fascinating and worth getting.

The Tufa of Mono Lake

Growing out of the lake and in some places along its shore are strange, complex sculptures. These monstrous towers are a unique geologic formation, called tufa.

Tufa is formed only in certain areas and Mono Lake is lucky enough to be one of them.

Ornate Tufa Tower

Ornate Tufa Tower
Ornate Tufa Tower | Source

Tufa Formation

It starts underground.

Warm or hot springs flow underground, dissolving minerals along the way. These mineral-rich springs have to emerge somewhere. Many hot springs in this area emerge under the surface of Mono Lake. When the warm, mineral-saturated spring water hit the cooler water in the lake, it releases much of its minerals, a tiny trace around the lip where the spring came in. Over time, more and more minerals build up, and eventually creates the towering columns and odd structures of tufa that we see today.

The tufa wasn't always visible though. The tufa was hidden, underneath the waters of the lake. Only after they lowered the level of the lake did most of the tufa we see today get revealed. It took having the lake levels lowered to see the intricate rocks.

Mono Lake Tufa

The tufa of Mono Lake
The tufa of Mono Lake | Source

Mono Lake Islands

There are two main islands on Mono lake. Paoha Island is the white, large island in the middle of the lake, and Negit is the smaller, black one.

Both islands formed because lava bubbles tried to push up underneath the lakebed. The lava pushed up and made a sort of bulging blister that eventually pushed above the water level. In the case of Negit, the lava made it to the surface, which is why the island is black. Paoha is white because the lava didn't make it all the way up, and the lake bed sediments are still visible.

Islands in the Lake

Islands in the Lake
Islands in the Lake | Source

The Water War Over Mono Lake

The lake has been at the center of a large debate for years. When they ran out of water in their area, Los Angeles started looking elsewhere for water they could beg, borrow, or steal. First they found Owens Valley, with it's irrigated fields and happy farmers. LA bought up the land and soon had the lake's water for their city. It wasn't enough for long though, and they soon turned their eyes elsewhere.

The water in the lake is saltier than the sea, so it should have been safe, but the waters that flowed into the lake, weren't. LA bought up some of the streams that feed the lake and as the water was diverted to the thirsty city to the south, the water flowing into the lake was less and less, and the lake level started dropping. It seemed LA would have its way, and had already proven they could do whatever they wanted. as with Owens Lake.

The water levels dropped and as there was less water to thin it out, the salt levels rose. The delicate balance of the Mono Lake ecosystem was upset. The algae and shrimp populations floundered in the increasingly saltier water. Then coyotes started getting to the birds that nested on the lake.

The islands in the lake form some of the most secure nesting areas in the that part of the state. That was until the water levels dropped. Soon, the islands were nearly connected to the mainland-- and to the hungry predators on it. Coyotes started trekking out to the islands, and soon were decimating the nesting bird population.

On top of all this environmental destruction, the air quality around Mono Lake dropped. There was so much hazardous dust in the air from the drying up lake and newly-exposed lakebed, that it violated the Clean Air Act. Many people thought the lake and the community around it were doomed.

Then David Gaines took a stand. Trying desperately to fight against the Goliath destroying the area, he formed the Mono Lake Committee, and started talking. David and the MLC talked to everyone they could, spreading the word about what was happening at this amazing place. Soon they had more and more people on their side, ready to fight to protect such an important place. They eventually earned some protection for Mono Lake, and LA is now required to allow the lake to reach near-normal water levels.

Cadillac Desert

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition
California and other states in the western US are well-known for their water problems. Learn a bit more about these water shortages by checking out this classic book.

Star Trails Over Mono Lake


The Biology of Mono Lake

Being so salty, Mono Lake is not home to much wildlife, though what wildlife there is, is important and different. There are no fish in Mono Lake, it is far too salty for that, but there is life in there.

Mono Lake has a relatively simple food chain. At the base of the chain is microscopic algae. This algae lives on the rich nutrients that flow into the lake. Living on the algae are brine shrimp. Yes, the little ones they call sea monkeys. But the brine shrimp of Mono Lake are special, they are found no where else in the world. Mono Lake brine shrimp, or Artemia monica, are in turn a rich source of food, not for the fish in the lake, since there are none, but for the birds that come to its shores to nest.

Mono Lake has one of the largest populations of nesting gulls, and also has other nesting shorebirds. It an important stop for many migratory birds as well.

On the shores of Mono Lake are another odd creature. Small black flies converge on the lake at certain times of year. These alkali flies aren't pesky like normal flies, they simply lay about the shore or walk into the water to graze or lay their eggs. The flies' pupae also formed an important food source for the native people, who collected and stored mass quantities of them, as well as traded them with other tribes.

Mono Lake has some very interesting biology, and some creatures you will see no where else in the world.

Mono Lake Endemic Brine Shrimp

Endemic Brine Shrimp Artemia monica
Endemic Brine Shrimp Artemia monica | Source

Tiny Brine Shrimp

Tiny Brine Shrimp in Hand
Tiny Brine Shrimp in Hand | Source

Alkali Flies and Gull Along the Shore

Alkalai Flies and Gull on Lakeshore
Alkalai Flies and Gull on Lakeshore | Source

Mono Basin Ecosystem

The Mono Basin Ecosystem: Effects of Changing Lake Level
The Mono Basin Ecosystem: Effects of Changing Lake Level
Read about the changing ecosystem of the lake and how the lower lake level is impacting the area.

Learning about Nature

Children studying the water and life in it
Children studying the water and life in it | Source

A Children's Book about Mono Lake

My Visit to Mono Lake: a children's book
My Visit to Mono Lake: a children's book
Written as though from the point of view of a 9-year-old girl, "My Visit to Mono Lake" is for 4th grade level readers and up and contains 26 color photographs and a map.

The Volcanics of Mono Lake

Mono Lake is actually in a highly-volcanic area. The two islands in the middle of the lake are blisters from lava welling up beneath them, and to the south is a row of mountains called the Mono Craters. The volcanic activity is fairly recent too. There are native American accounts of one of the islands emerging from the water, only hundreds of years ago, and the craters date from only a few million years ago.

Mono Craters is a great place to get out of the car and go for a hike. One of the craters, Panum Crater, has a rim just like a regular volcano, but down in the center there is a plug of hardened lava bulging up.

Mono Craters

Mono Lake Craters
Mono Lake Craters | Source

Panum Crater above Mono Lake

Volcanic Crater Near Mono Lake
Volcanic Crater Near Mono Lake | Source

Canoeing on Mono Lake


Visiting the Area

Most people visit the area while on a trip along Highway 395. The highway parallels the lake for a short distance, and it's simple to stop and visit the shore or visitor's center even if you're on the way somewhere else.

Located north of Mono Lake is the exciting ghost town of Bodie, then Carson City and Reno, while just a little south is the backdoor entrance to Yosemite, and quite a bit further south is Death Valley. There is a small town alongside Mono Lake, called Lee Vining, and it offers a place to fuel up your car and yourself.

Mono Lake is lovely to photograph, for bird watching, or simply just walking around the lake shore. Swimming in the lake is claimed to be good for your health, and the extreme salinity of it, makes you float even better than in the sea, though beware if you have any cuts or open sores. The visitor's center should be your first stop, and will help you learn more about this fascinating area.

Mono Lake: Explorations and Reflections

Mono Lake: Explorations and Reflections
Mono Lake: Explorations and Reflections
Even if you can't visit the lake, you can admire the beauty of Mono Lake with this book.

What do you think of this amazing place?

5 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of Mono Lake

Sunset Silhouette

Sunset and Rocks
Sunset and Rocks | Source

Mono Lake: Mirror of Imagination

Mono Lake: Mirror of Imagination (Companion Press Series)
Mono Lake: Mirror of Imagination (Companion Press Series)
Learn more about this amazing place by checking out this book on it. I've barely covered the basics, there is lots more to learn and enjoy.


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    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great tail.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 

      10 years ago from So Cal

      This is one of our favorite places to visit and my boys (old and young) can't seem to leave the flies alone. They love to watch them scatter.

    • profile image

      LarryCoffey LM 

      11 years ago

      It's a lovely place!


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