It’s not much of a hike, but wow, Mono Lake sure is gorgeous. The limestone tufas that jettison out of the water are a surreal sight unlike anything else. It’s a perfect place for serious landscape photography, or a relaxing sunset stroll after a day in the mountains.
Mileage: 0.5 miles Round Trip
Dog Friendly: Yes
Mono Lake is one of the rare State Parks in California that allows dogs to be on trails. This is quite surprising due to the sensitive nature of the area, so let’s not jinx it. Please respect the rules and keep your dog on leash at all times. This area gets a lot of traffic and there are additional reasons to keep your pet on leash, which I will get into later.
The main path to the South Tufa grove starts with a paved trail which quickly gives way to a wooden boardwalk. It’s enough of a walk that the lake feels removed from the parking lot, but not much more. Small views of the lake pop up now and then to give you a glimpse of what is to come.
The boardwalk ends at a beach at the southern end of the tufa grove. Depending on when you arrive, it might be pretty crowded with tourists and photographers. The area is pretty small, so there isn’t much room to spread out if a lot of people are at the lake at the same time.
It’s also important to note that while the lake is a beautiful place to take your dog for a walk, it is not a very inviting environment for your dog. The lake water is salty and full of alkaline which makes it unsuitable for your dog to drink. In fact, it was recently thought that the lake housed an alien life form! Callie ended up thinking the place was kind of a drag, but she is pretty spoiled when it comes to such things.
Another thing to be mindful of is the tufas themselves. The tufas are very fragile and it’s pretty obvious where people have treaded over them. Since there aren’t that many tufas to begin with, it’s important to preserve what is left of them so that future visitors can enjoy them, especially in light of the recent vandalism done in Goblin Valley. There are signs explicitly warning to not climb the tufas, but plenty of people ignore them unfortunately.
You may ask, what makes the tufas so special? Well, it’s the fact that you can see them. Tufas form when a calcium rich underwater spring runs into a lake rich in carbonates, an occurrence that is somewhat unique in its own right. In these locations, limestone tufas will form underwater over the course of decades. So, even if you are at a lake with conditions conducive to create limestone tufas, they will be obscured underwater. This is where mankind’s intervention comes into play.
Anyone who has spent a signficant amount of time in Owens Valley, or has seen the classic film Chinatown, knows that the California aqueduct played a significant role in the development of Southern California in the middle of the 20th century. In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting Mono Lake’s tributary streams in order to quench Los Angeles’ growing need for water. Over the course of the next forty years, the volume of the lake halved while its salinity doubled. Islands which had been used as a safe harbor for nesting birds morphed into peninsulas that were vulnerable to predators. The natural ecosystem of the lake was sacrificed to help irrigate Southern California.
By 1982, the lake had already dropped 45 feet and government action was required to salvage the area. Thankfully, the lake earned its much needed protection, and water began being routed back into it. As of 2013, the water level has raised back up eleven feet, with another nine feet left before it reaches its intended stabilization level of 6392 feet (read more about that here). The lake is estimated to return to its intended stabilization within about 20 years, which means that in that timeframe it will submerge the vast majority of the visible tufas. In other words, now is the time to visit and photograph this amazing place before nature reclaims it.
Despite the small size of the southern tufa area, every time I visit Mono Lake I am overwhelmed with the photo possibilities. The tufas create the perfect subject material to place in your composition to give the area an extraterrestrial feel.
The location is perfectly suited for both sunrise and sunset photography, although we always end up there on the tail end of the day.
On one winter evening, Riss and I were almost the only people there as we witnessed a vivid sunset mirrored on the glass like lake surface. In circumstances like this, the vast stillness of the basin can create a zen like feeling that is usually reserved for boundless desert spaces like Death Valley.
Other times, you may not be so lucky. This place is extremely popular among landscape photographers, and workshops often stop by here. Imagine my frustration when I set up this shot, and right as I snapped my first take of it…
This guy comes around the bend, and proceeds to set up shop right in the middle of the frame, as the light quickly fades into night. Here is a cropped view:
To top off the experience, I packed up my gear without getting the shot, moved around the corner, and was greeted by this view. Ah, the joys of photographing famous spots.
Once it is time to return back to the car, I recommend continuing the loop trail which provides a few different views of the lake and gets you away from the crowds that tend to return back on the boardwalk.
Trails doesn’t get much more relaxing than this.