Just reading about the alkalai flies inhabiting the shores, I wouldn’t have thought Mono Lake could provide such peace. But it did. And the flies won’t bother you—they’re too busy feasting on other things.
So if you’re anywhere near Mammoth Lakes (which is only about 30 miles south of Mono Lake), the entrance to Tioga Pass/SR 120 on your way into or out of Yosemite (about 13 miles north) or chasing ghosts in Bodie (about 25 miles northeast), you MUST take time to walk the South Tufa Trail at Mono Lake.
The Visitor’s Center, which is closer to the town of Lee Vining, is full of interesting information about the formation of the lake, the ecology, the history, etc. But even the signs there will tell you to get back in the car and head for the South Tufa.
There’s an access road a few miles further south from the Visitor’s Center off US 395. State Road 120 west will take you west, young man…it’s the Tioga Pass Road to Yosemite. State Road 120 East is the access road you’ll be looking for. You’ll soon see signs for the Mono Lake tufa and shore.
This hike to the tufa is easy—it’s all flat. Yes, you can take your grandma.
Great Towering Tufa | Mono-nificent Sights
Mono Lake is about 65 square miles in area and less than 60 feet deep in most spots (though one spot measures 159 feet deep). It is one of the oldest lakes in North America, and it is three times as salty as the Pacific.
You’ll see evidence of ancient volcanoes when you visit…the islands in the middle of the lake as well as the Mono Craters around the lake are all remnants of volcanic eruptions.
Tufa forms underwater when calcium from underwater springs mixes with carbonates in the lake water.
This is not a fishing lake, since the water is too alkaline to support our gilled friends. However, trillions of brine shrimp live here, billions of alkalai flies feed on the algae, and millions of birds migrate and nest here, feeding on flies, shrimp and each other.
Believe it or not, the flies are kind of cool. First you’ll notice that the shores of Mono Lake are black by the water. It isn’t until you step towards the edge and a black, buzzing blanket lifts and resettles with every step you take, that you realize the you’re not looking at sediment, but at billions of insects.
The flies lift and settle about a foot away from you, not wanting to be parted from their algae dinners for very long. The buzz is incredible. The seabirds waddling the beach as you walk are amusing – beaks open, they skim for flies as the blanket lifts, with your every step. Instant, easy grazing for the fowl.
Many of these birds nested on the islands, until the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting fresh water streams from the Sierras, and the lowered level of Mono Lake turned the islands into peninsulas, which created land bridges for bird and egg-eating predators.
Mono Lake restoration and conservation began in the late 90s. The water level still hasn’t reached it’s old depth, before the draining off of fresh water. But the ecology is reviving.