After a week of exploring the Sierra Nevadas, we thought we had them all figured out: granite peaks, alpine lakes, epic views. Everything was a gorgeous variation on that theme. But of course, every time you get complacent, Mother Nature throws a curve ball like Mono Lake. It's a land of salt water, tufa spires, and brine shrimp -- completely different from anything we'd seen.
Mono Lake is an immense inland sea. Its shores are rimmed with distinctive, castle-like tufa spires. Tufa (pronounced too-fa) forms when calcium bubbles up from subterranean springs and combines with carbonate in the alkaline lake waters. As the lake level drops, the spires are exposed. The park is surrounded by volcanic craters, which hint at an explosive past.
At first glance, Mono Lake seems like a dead sea, but it's actually teaming with life. The salty water is full of brine shrimp and alkali flies. These critters are considered delicacies by swarms of migratory birds. Additionally, 85% of the state's nesting population of California gulls raise their chicks on the lake's volcanic islands during the spring and summer. If your timing is right, Mono Lake is a birding mecca.
Mono Lake is a quick drive east off Highway 395. Swing by the visitor center first -- it has lots of informative displays and a great movie about the lake. From there, you can head down to the lakeshore and walk around. The South Tufa Reserve on the south rim has the biggest concentration of tufa spires, and wandering through them is a surreal experience. We didn't have time during our visit, but you can also rent kayaks at Navy Beach, which looked like a blast.