There has been a lot of talk recently about then end of the NASA space exploration program and the introduction of Virgin Galactic to soon take non-astronauts into outer space. All of these dreams of exploring distant stars have been around for generations; but few know that there is an otherworldly experience right here on planet Earth. Mono Lake (pronounced mō′- nō, like the Spanish for “monkey”) in Mono County, California is an ethereal wonderland of beauty surrounded by majestic mountains and amazing flora and fauna.
Nestled in the Sierra Navadas, Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in the western hemisphere, estimated to be between 760,000 and 3,000,000 years old (obviously researchers still have some work to do here). There are over 1000 plant species and 400 animal species to be found in and around the ghostly “tufa” columns that rise from Mono’s salty, alkaline waters. The tufas are strange limestone deposits that were formed over millennia via high calcium carbonate levels and frequent evaporations. In recent years the tufa have become much more visible (and unfortunately more vulnerable) due to the diversion of the lake waters to Los Angeles. Modern conservation efforts have effectively halted this practice and restoration of the lake’s ecology has been steadily on the rise.
These deep blue waters may attract a lot of birds and other wildlife, but they are not as refreshing as you might think. More than twice as salty as the ocean, Mono Lake is incapable of supporting most marine life (save for the hearty brine shrimp). This is because the surrounding land is highly alkaline and any run off is concentrated into the water making it relatively inhospitable for most creatures. It does, however, make the lake a virtual endless buffet for the millions of migratory birds that visit the shores every autumn. Some of the more unusual ones spotted there in past years include Green-tailed Towhees, Red-necked Phalaropes, and Broad-winged Hawks. If birding isn’t exactly your bag, there are also mule deer, big horn sheep, mountain cottontail, and sagebrush lizards (which have very cool blue bellies).
Truly a nature lover’s paradise, there is so much to see and do at Mono Lake. Visitors often enjoy hiking, kayaking, photography, climbing, canoeing, and of course, the aforementioned bird watching. The Mono Lake Visitor Center can also provide you with a ton of information regarding guided walking and water tours. Just 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park, this ancient lake surrounded by calderas, mountains and untold beauty is a fantastic way to spend a vacation with someone you love!