Exploring Mammoth: Mono Lake and tufa towers

Date Visited: June 21, 2010
Check current conditions: Mono Lake Tufa SNR 760-647-6331
  • Admission: $3 per adult for South Tufa Area
  • Parking: free (lot)
  • Hours: Contact the park
  • Location: Mono Lake Tufa SNR
  • Nearest Town: Lee Vining, CA
  • Kid-Friendly: Yes
  • Dog-Friendly: Yes

When Jeff and I took the kids on our great Historic Highway 395 road trip from Orange County, California to southern Oregon last June, with a couple nights’ stay in Mammoth, in addition to a stop at the Obsidian Dome, I also insisted we visit another site from my favorite childhood vacation memories — Mono Lake.  My Clint Eastwood fanatic husband quickly supported the idea once he discovered that Mono Lake served as the filming location for the town of Lago in the movie High Plains Drifter.

Walkway from the interpretive center in the South Tufa Area to the lake.

Walkway from the interpretive center in the South Tufa Area to the lake.

Mono Lake is located off Highway 395, 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park and 30 miles north of Mammoth, near the town of Lee Vining.  I can’t even remember how many times I visited it as a kid.  It might have been just once.  It might have been several times.  But, what has always stood out in my memory is the Tufa Towers and dry (very low) barren lake.

Mono Lake

The kids and Jeff get their first look at a Tufa tower.

The odd looking Tufa Towers are the primary reason most people visit Mono Lake.  They are limestone formations that are formed and grow under water, some up to 30 feet tall.  You can easily see the largest Tufa concentration in the South Tufa Area, which is part of the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.  Guided tours, as well as self-guided walks, are available in the Natural Reserve (admission is $3 per adult).

Mono Lake

Tufa Towers along the lake shore in the South Tufa Area.

Mono Lake

More views of the eerie yet spectacular Tufa Towers.

When we arrived here last summer, I was shocked to see so much water in the lake, because water levels were much much lower when I was a kid.  I had expected to find the lake almost bone dry, only to discover that it now even supports boating.  Obviously, I had not followed news of the region over the last few decades.

The reason that so many Tufa Towers were and are visible along the lake is because in 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power extended the Los Angeles Aqueduct into the Mono basin and began diverting all of the water from Mono Lake’s tributaries.  This caused lake levels to drop to dangerously low levels — which was the case when I visited as a child; with 1982 showing the lowest recorded levels on record — and put the area’s ecosystem into peril.

Conservation efforts lead to a court ruling that started reversing this process in 1994, requiring that lake levels steadily climb until levels are restored to just below the 1941 mark. When that target mark is met, a large portion of the South Tufa Area will once again become submerged under water.

Mono Lake

Once the target lake level is reached, this sign will be right at water's edge.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake is surrounded by such ruggedly beautiful landscapes. It's not hard to imagine Clint Eastwood here.

Mono Lake

Looking west towards the majestic High Sierras.

Mono Lake

Rapidly approaching dark clouds prevented us from exploring much beyond the touristy footpath.

Mono Lake

A final look at this geological gem of a lake and shoreline.

Comments

  1. says

    For the record, I always knew that was where High Plains Drifter was filmed, I just had never been there and wanted to see if we could find the town site!

  2. says

    Cool. The 395 is one of my favorite drives and my husband and I have driven it many times, but never got out of the car around Mono Lake. We should have. Beautiful pics!

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