Home » 2012 Northern California Road Trip

Mono Lake South Tufa State Reserve, CA

Saturday, June 2, 2012 - 8:30am by Lolo
109 miles and 2 hours from our last stop


Mono Lake TufasMono Lake TufasAnyone visiting Yosemite, should definitely make the short side trip to see the surreal “tufa castles” of Mono Lake. We like them so much that we drove a lot of extra miles to enter Yosemite from the east entrance, just so we could visit them again.

One of the best places to see the tufas is at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve along the southern shoreline of the lake. You can get there by going south on 395 from the town of Lee Vining and then taking the turnoff for the State Reserve. From the parking lot, there is a mile-long loop trail that leads to a large concentration of tufa castles at Navy Beach.

Lolo mit TufasLolo mit TufasAs I mentioned in an earlier stop, Mono Lake is in contention for being the oldest lake in North America, claiming to be over a million years old. The other lake in the running is Clear Lake. Whether it is the oldest or not, it is still extremely unique, because of the massive amounts of salt and minerals that flow into it from Sierra streams and have no way out except through evaporation—similar to the Great Salt lake in Utah. However, Mono Lake has something the Great Salt Lake doesn’t – “tufa castles,” which build up over thousands of years from the calcium-carbonate deposits accumulating in the lake. Normally they would just be hidden beneath the water, but as lake levels dropped, they became exposed, some of them rising as high as 30 feet above the surface—and they do look like castles.

Unlike our previous visit in 2007, I had absolutely no desire to swim with the tufas and get my body coated with salt and brine flies. There are some things in life that should be done once, and only once.

Whoa Nellie’s Deli Buffalo Meatloaf & LoloWhoa Nellie’s Deli Buffalo Meatloaf & LoloOne of the reasons I had agreed to drive the extra 150 miles to enter Yosemite from the east rather than the west was that I wanted to eat at the Mobil gas station that Celeste’s father had recommended. I was intrigued. Technically, we were not exactly eating at a gas station, but at a deli called “Whoa Nellie’s Deli” that happened to be located inside the gas station’s main building, right near the East Gate into Yosemite. The place was packed. In addition to a few tables inside, there were several picnic tables outside overlooking Mono Lake.

The menu was quite exotic for a gas station. Herb had the Wild Buffalo Meatloaf, grilled cowboy style (how else would it be cooked??), and I had the “Legendary” Lobster Taquitos on a bed of Brazilian black beans. Very yummy and worth the extra miles.


Mono Lake is located just off Highway 395 near the town of Lee Vining, California, 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park. Mono Lake is extremely unique. First of all, at over 1 million years of age, it is one of the oldest continuously existing lakes in the continent. Secondly, it is about 2 ½ times as salty as the sea and about 80 times as alkaline. This is because Sierra streams flow into Mono Lake bringing trace amounts of salts and minerals, but the lake has no outlet other than evaporation. As a result, the concentration levels of salts and minerals keeps growing each year. Thirdly, and the main reason Mono Lake is so popular, are the hundreds of spectacular “tufa towers” that rise from the lake. These intriguing calcium-carbonate sculptures were formed beneath the water when carbonates in the water combined with calcium from freshwater springs feeding into the lake. As lake levels dropped, these extraordinary-looking knobs, spires, and minarets became exposed. Most of the towers visible in the lake are from 200 to 900 years old and rise as high as 30 feet above the water.

A good place to start your visit is at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, located just off Highway 395, north of Lee Vining, where you will find exhibits about both the natural and human history of the Mono Basin.

One of the best places to view the tufas is at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve along the southern shoreline of the lake. The trailhead for the south tufa castles and Navy Beach is at the edge of the parking lot. During the summer, rangers lead walking tours 3 times a day (10am, 1pm, and 6pm), but if your not lucky enough to catch one of these, there are plenty of informative signboards along the trail. A short walk along the mile-long trail brings you to the strange and fanciful tufa castles at Navy Beach. A swim in the buoyant waters of Mono Lake is a memorable experience, as long as you are willing to step through the millions of harmless alkali flies that line the water’s edge. It’s fun to watch what at first looks like black sand part before you.

Surrounded by volcanic hills, Mono Lake is also a geologist's paradise. The two major islands in the lake are actually volcanic domes. The large black island, which the Kuzedika Indians named Negit, meaning “blue-winged goose,” erupted about 1700 years ago. The white island, which the Native Americans named Paoha, meaning “spirits of the mist,” erupted 250 years ago.

Bird watching and photography are other popular activities at Mono Lake.

Mono Lake South Tufa State Reserve location map in "high definition"

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