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Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

South Tufa Trail

1 to 2 miles round trip

It’s one of the grand landscapes of the American West —an ancient lake cradled by volcanoes, glacier-carved canyons and snowy peaks. Visitors marvel at the 8 mile long (north to south) and 13 mile wide (east to west) lake and its unusual tufa towers, remarkable limestone creations that rise from the lake in magnificent knobs and spires.

Mono Lake has been called “California’s Dead Sea,” but it’s actually a life-support system for great numbers of birds. California gulls fly in from the coast to nest on the lake’s isles. An estimated 90 percent of the state’s population of this gull is born on Mono Lake.

Some 800,000 eared grebes, duck-like diving birds, have been tallied. Mono’s summertime winged visitors include Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes, species that commute from wintering grounds in South America.

Primary bird food is the brine shrimp which, like other organisms dependent on Mono’s waters, has evolved over the last million years or so to adapt to an extremely saline habitat.

While Mono is anything but a dead sea, it was, until recently, a dying lake. Beginning in 1941 and continuing for more than a half-century, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diverted most of the major creeks and rivers that had sustained Mono Lake for centuries. Such diversions caused the lake level to drop 40 feet and its waters to double in salinity.

The resultant damage to the lake’s ecological integrity and to Mono Basin’s wildlife habitat prompted the Mono Lake Committee and National Audubon Society to take legal action to stop this drastic drain. After 16 years of conservation efforts and legal challenges by citizen activists in numerous courts and forums, the State Water Resources Control Board agreed to raise the lake level in 1994.

Theoretically and legally at least, Mono Lake has been “saved.” Much shoreline and wildlife habitat restoration will be necessary, however, to return the lake to ideal environmental health. Learn more about the lake and conservation efforts at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center located on the outskirts of Lee Vining. The Mono Lake Committee maintains an information center and gift/bookstore in “downtown” Lee Vining.

Travelers with limited time can get a quick look at the lake and some tufa formations with the help of two boardwalk trails located at Old Marina on the west shore and Mono Lake County Park on the northwest shore.

The best place to observe Mono’s most compelling natural attraction— its tufa towers—is the South Tufa Area, explored by a short interpretive trail. The trail’s shoreline segments will no doubt need to be relocated periodically as the lake rises and reclaims its ancient bed.
Tufa towers are formed when calcium-rich freshwater springs bubble up into the carbonate-saturated alkaline lake water. This calcium-carbonate comingling results in limestone formations—the magnificent tufa spires.

Trailside interpretive signs explain more than most hikers will want to know about the lake’s food chain of algae, billions of brine flies, trillions of shrimp, as well as gulls, grebes and other migratory birds. Some visitors, overwhelmed by the lake’s majesty, might be disappointed to learn that Mono is the native Yokut word for “brine fly.”

South Tufa Trail leads past some landlocked tufa formations, then skirts the lakeshore for a look out at those protruding from the midst of Mono. Loop back to the parking area if you wish, or extend your hike by continuing on to Navy Beach, the lake’s best swimming area.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 395, about 5 miles south of the hamlet of Lee Vining, turn east on Highway 120 and drive 5 miles to the signed turnoff for the South Tufa Area/Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve. Turn left and proceed a mile on good gravel road to a parking area near the trailhead.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at