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It's older than the MOON!

by Brie Grossman

"Who could imagine beauty so fine in so savage a place?...A country of wonderful contrasts. Hot deserts bounded by snowladen mountains, —cinders and ashes scattered on glacier-polished pavements, —frost and fire working together in the making of beauty. In the lake are several volcanic islands, which show that the waters were once mingled with fire." John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras (1911)

If there is anything I hope you get from this post, it’s that Mono Lake is AWESOME!!!  Enough said right? Ok, fine, I’ve never been good at explaining things briefly so bear with me. 

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve is a uniquely beautiful state park full of rich history, interesting geology, and diverse biology.  When you first see the lake from HWY 395 you might think, “it looks like any other lake, but this one has things sticking out of it”. Trust me, it gets better, I promise. The park looks like a barren gray landscape you might see on the moon. Mono Lake is ancient, almost as old as the moon itself! Ok maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But the lake is over 1 million years old, making it one of the oldest lakes in North America. Over the past million years, salts and minerals have been deposited into the lake from Eastern Sierra streams that feed the lake.  Stream diversion and evaporation has left the lake very salty.  In fact, the lake is over 2 ½ times saltier than the ocean. As you can imagine, not a whole lot of life can survive in such a salty environment but brine shrimp and alkali flies call this lake home. The park also protects indispensable habitat for the 1-2 million birds that visit every year. Mono Lake is far from barren. This is a happening place!  

Mono Lake Tufa SNR is probably best known for the bizarre shaped formations that jut from the water and line the shore. These limestone sculptures designed by good ol mother nature are called tufa.  Tufa are essentially limestone.  But the way these spires form is the fascinating part.  Beneath the salty lake are freshwater springs that seep into the lake water.  These freshwater springs are rich in calcium and when the fresh water mixes with the salty carbonate-rich lake water it causes a chemical reaction that leaves behind a solid waste, limestone. Over time, LOTS of time, we’re talking decades even centuries, these towers grow. But these towers form exclusively underwater. The reason so many tufa are visible today is because back in 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) started diverting the tributary streams to meet their growing needs for water. The lake level fell over 40 feet, leaving many tufa towers exposed.  In 1994, legislation went through that rescinded LA’s rights to the water and required LADWP to restore tributaries and return the lake level to 6,392 feet by the year 2014.  As of August 1, 2012, the lake level was at 6,383.9. With only 8.1 more feet to go, things are looking up in the Mono Lake basin. 

Canoeing on Mono Lake next to an actively forming tufa

Canoeing next to a currently forming tufa.  The fresh water was bubbling up from the limestone tube.

Large tufa formations at the South end of the lake with the Sierra Nevada's looming in the background. 

Multiple pictures of tufa and Mono Lake

For more information about the park, visit their website:

This park was also featured in the Huell Howser series, California's Golden Parks. Click the link below to view his entertaining visit to Mono Lake Tufa SNR.  It's worth the view, trust me!  At one point in the show he has a mating pair of brine shrimp in his hand, rather entertaining if I do say so myself! 


Published: 08/24/2012


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