Mono Lake and the Tufa

Lee Vining Travel Blog

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Mono Lake Shoreline with Gulls and Flies

We climbed in the SUV and headed north up 395 to the town of Lee Vining and Mono Lake to see the lake, tufa mounds, birds and flies.  Cindy had never been to Mono before and the last time that I was there was after a backpacking trip with my long lost friend Steve Vogel right before I took off on my post-college eighteen month travel adventure.  We had been backpacking in the Sierra for a week and were filthy, hungry and tired but decided to drive north to see the lake before heading home to Southern California.  The brown piece of shit car in the picture is (or I should say was since it was ultimately abandoned in San Pedro years later to rust away...) affectionately named "Belew".  As you can see from the picture, Steve made the brilliant decision to try to drive on the gravel road to get closer to the South Tufa Towers.

Belew Steve Vogel's POS Datsun
  Needless to say, we got stuck up to the axles and, after trying for several hours to dig ourselves out, we walked into Lee Vining (quite a distance) and got AAA to tow us out.  Obviously we got home a lot later than expected!  Thankfully, no such event occurred this time...


Mono Lake is kind of a unique, bizarre and eerie looking place.  The lake was formed around 750,000 years ago and is very high in salinity and alkalinity as there are no outlets from it.  It is fed from runoff from the melting ice and snow in the surrounding mountains and supports a huge amount of bird wildlife, brine shrimp (the only thing that can live in the triple strength saline water) and hordes of black flies zipping around the shoreline and serving as lunch for the birds (see the funny pic of the bird eating the flies).

Gull chasing flies at Mono Lake Shoreline
  Anyone who has read much of our Asian travels, knows I am not a huge fly fan but these guys stay away from humans and aren't to annoying.  The early people of Mono Lake were called the Kutzadika'a who were the Yosemite/Mono Lake Paiutes. Mono Lake Paiutes cultivated alkali fly larvae called kutsavi in their language. The origin of the term "Mono Lake" is unknown, however apparently, "Mono" is a Yokut Indian term for "fly eater". 

One of the most interesting features of the lake are the Tufa mounds described in the text below from http://www.

"Tufa, which 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.

Old tufa mounds at Pyramid Lake, NevadaTufa towers are not the only form of tufa at Mono Lake.

Mono Lake Panorama
Calcium carbonate crystals will also precipitate out of lakewater far from springs and coat lakebottom surfaces like pumice boulders, beer cans, dead vegetation, dead birds, and anything else that might end up in the lake (instant fossils!). Another way tufa is formed is through biogenesis, the biological activity of organisms like the alkali fly. When an adult alkali fly emerges from an underwater pupae case it leaves behind a minute deposit of calcium carbonate, a waste product from its earlier life stage beneath the salty, alkaline lake. Alkali flies, on a small scale, actually contribute to the growth of underwater tufa towers!"

The four of us toured around the Visitors Center and took a short walk before driving down to the shoreline and watching the birds.  Some of the gulls would run down the shoreline with their mouths wide open and devour the flies while these other cute little birds floated on the water and spun around in circles.  We drove over to the South shore which has better views of the Tufa and wandered around snapping pictures and looking at the bizarre geography before driving back to Mammoth via the June Lake road which is very pretty.

Mono Lake Tufa and Shore

That night we looked at our pictures from the Tibet trip and talked about all of the great and less than great things to eat, see and do in Tibet.  Hopefully we didn't worry Portia and Kevin at all with some of our tales, especially accommodations in Tingri by Everest Base Camp!  Eric came over to say hi so it was also great to finally meet him (even if X Drive is right about how incredibly young he looks...)  All in all, we had a fantastic time with two very gracious hosts, we hope they have a fantastic time in Tibet and look forward to seeing them again (even if Kevin is a snowboarder :-)

jenn79 says:
Aww, that's so cool that you got together with Portia and Eric! =)
Posted on: Jan 06, 2008
portia says:
We enjoyed your visit and and tales of your trip! Look for our blog and then after the snow falls, let's ski together!
Posted on: Aug 26, 2007
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Mono Lake Shoreline with Gulls and…
Mono Lake Shoreline with Gulls an…
Belew Steve Vogels POS Datsun
Belew Steve Vogel's POS Datsun
Gull chasing flies at Mono Lake Sh…
Gull chasing flies at Mono Lake S…
Mono Lake and Tufa Mounds - Adobe …
Mono Lake and Tufa Mounds - Adobe…
Mono Lake Panorama
Mono Lake Panorama
Mono Lake Tufa and Shore
Mono Lake Tufa and Shore
Mono Lake and Tufa Mounds
Mono Lake and Tufa Mounds
Lee Vining
photo by: Lynsey_loves_Cali