Most people think of the town of Lee Vining as a pit stop outside Yosemite National Park – a place to find lodging or a meal before moving on to grander sights. But the oft-overlooked town in the eastern Sierra has its own gems to explore, and passers-by should be careful not to miss Mono Lake.
Covering 45,000 acres, Mono Lake is something of an ecological wonder. Because it doesn’t flow into any rivers or oceans, the closed basin retains high levels of salt and is home to algae that give the water a turquoise tint. It’s roughly three times saltier than the ocean and ranks as the ninth saltiest body of water in the world, falling just two slots behind the Great Salt Lake and one above the Salton Sea in Southern California.
The lake’s main distinguishing feature by far is the tufa towers – unusual rock formations that line its shores and islands. The tufa was created many centuries ago, when calcium springs far beneath the lake’s surface shot upward and interacted with the carbonates in the water, creating limestone towers. They grew slowly over years to as tall as 30 feet, but didn’t become visible until water diversions brought down the lake level drastically in 1941.
Today, visitors can get a close-up look at the rocky sculptures by taking the South Tufa Trail, an easy 1-mile walk lined with educational placards. Though the path is flat and easy, walkers can easily lose an hour or two staring at the twists and turns of the hundreds of tufa spires. Like snowflakes, no two are the same.
You can take a side trip to Navy Beach for a swim, but be warned – the water is extremely briny. In fact, it’s home to tons of brine shrimp that help sustain the regional and migratory birds who rely on Mono Lake, such as sandpipers, snowy plovers and California gulls. Dozens of different bird species live there, so bring binoculars if you’d like to see them up close.
Whether you just spend the day at Mono Lake or add a stop at the nearby 200-foot-wide Mono-Inyo craters, you’re bound to learn something new about the eastern Sierra environment. And even if you don’t read a single informational sign, the views are well worth the trek.