Tufa Formations at Mono Lake


US 395 drops down from the mountains to pass Mono Lake, near the town of Lee Vining.  If you’re headed southbound, this great viewpoint will be your first view of the valley.

It’s a panorama that’s simply too big to fit in one picture (or three).

Don’t forget to bring a bumper sticker, to add to the collection on the guard rail.

Filosena Ranch

After dropping down from the viewpoint, but before reaching the lakeshore, I noticed an abandoned old building off to the right side of the road.  It took several turns on unmaintained roads to get a closer look, but it was worth the effort.

A sign explained that this is the old Filosena Ranch, built sometime around 1885.  It was one of the first homesteads in the Mono Basin.  The Mono Historical Society is in the process of stabilizing and eventually restoring the building, the sign explained.  The cabin is sealed shut, but a few missing boards on the windows gives you the chance to peek inside.

There’s plenty of other historic junk around the cabin–the kind that a child could get hurt on–so use caution.

I was surprised to find that one of the roads I took to get to the old homestead was actually, at one time, a two-lane paved road, with a line down the center.  Perhaps it’s a historic old alignment of US 395, abandoned and slowly weathering away in the desert.

Back on US 395, the main road skirts the edge of Mono Lake.  There’s a visitor center at the side of the road, where you can pick up a souvenir and get advice about the lake.  Of course, you’re not going to need any advice from them, because I’m about to tell you the best place to view the lake’s unique feature: its tufa formations.

When I visited Mono Lake in 2004, I didn’t have much time to explore (I was also cramming a visit to Bodie and Yosemite into the same day).  So, I stopped at the tufa viewing area nearest to US 395 (at the northwest corner of the lake).  The tufa at that spot wasn’t very plentiful or dramatic.  This time, I went to a much better spot, known as the South Tufa Area.

 South Tufa Area, Mono Lake

To reach the South Tufa Area, drive through Lee Vining on US 395.  South of town, watch for the intersection with California Route 120 east.  This road closes in winter, but the first few miles should stay open year-round — and that’s all you need.  The South Tufa Area is about 11 miles from Lee Vining.  There is a small parking fee ($3 if I remember correctly), so make sure you have exact change for the self-pay envelope.

From the South Tufa Area parking area, a boardwalk trail takes you down to the edge of the water.  This trail is supposed to loop around, but once I reached the shore, I lost track of the trail and simply wandered around the tufa formations.

Tufa formations, in case you are wondering, are the rock-hard, calcium carbonate remnants of ancient underwater springs.   Since it has no outlet, Mono Lake is highly alkaline and more than twice as salty as the ocean.  When carbonates in the lake’s water reacted with the calcium in the fresh water from the springs, the calcium-carbonate tufa formed.  Mono Lake used to be much higher, but water-thirsty Los Angeles sucked away much of the water from the Mono Basin, as well as the nearby Owens Valley, causing a drastic drop in the lake, and exposing the tufa.

Mono Lake’s water is so salty and alkaline, brine shrimp and flies are the only creatures that live here.  You might not see the shrimp, but you will definitely see the flies.

Afternoon isn’t the best time for viewing the tufa.  Some photographers have captured stunning pictures of the formations in the early morning light, when the eastern sun begins to shine on the tufa and the mountains in the background.  In the afternoon, however, the sun is already preparing to set behind the mountains, making it tough to take a picture in that direction.

The weather was windy, and the lake’s surface was choppy when I visited, making it a little less photogenic.

Tufa aren’t just in the water.  The entire path down to the water’s edge is surrounded by formations.

On the way back up the path, notice the signs that mark the historic water levels, starting back before 1941, when LA began stealing water from the area.  This particular sign shows where the lake stood in 1930.

Efforts are underway to restore Mono Lake’s water levels.  The state water authority enacted protective rules for Mono Lake and its tributaries in 1994, and the levels have slowly but steadily risen since then — although the lake is still several feet below the goal, and dozens of feet below the 1941 levels.
Once you’ve finished exploring the tufa at Mono Lake, drive back to US 395.  Before I continued the journey south, I crossed 395 and hooked up with the June Lake Loop scenic road.

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