Mono Lake: Wikis


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Mono Lake
Landsat image of Mono Lake
Location Mono County, California
Coordinates 38°00′59″N 119°00′33″W / 38.0165°N 119.0093°W / 38.0165; -119.0093Coordinates: 38°00′59″N 119°00′33″W / 38.0165°N 119.0093°W / 38.0165; -119.0093
Lake type Endorheic, Monomictic
Primary inflows Rush Creek
Primary outflows Evaporation
Catchment area 2,030 km2 (780 sq mi)
Basin countries United States
Max. length 7.5 km (4.7 mi)
Max. width 7.5 km (4.7 mi)
Surface area 180 km2 (69 sq mi)
Average depth 17 m (56 ft)
Max. depth 48 m (157 ft)
Water volume 2,970,000 acre·ft (3,660,000 dam³)
Shore length1 25 km (16 mi)
Surface elevation 1,944 m (6,378 ft) above sea level
Islands Two major: Negit Island and Paoha Island; numerous minor outcroppings (including tufa rock formations). The lake's water level is notably variable.
References U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: Mono Lake
1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.

Mono Lake (pronounced mō′·nō) is an alkaline and hypersaline lake in Mono County, California. It has an unusually productive ecosystem, and is a critical nesting habitat for several bird species.[1][2]



USGS map of the Mono Lake area, showing geological features (open in new tab to see detail).
Relief map of Mono Lake and surrounding area, including nearby Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park (area within yellow boundaries); California-Nevada state border shown.

North of Mono Lake, in the Bodie Hills, there are 28- to 8-million-year-old andesitic lavas.[3] These lavas, and at least one caldera (Big Alkali Flat), were part of the last phase of subduction zone-related volcanism in the area.[note 1] At that time, the Sierra Nevada was an eroded set of rolling hills and Mono Basin and Owens Valley did not yet exist. About 5 million years ago, Basin and Range crustal stretching spread to the Mono area.[4] From 4.5 to 2.6 million years ago, large volumes of basalt were erupted around what is now Cowtrack Mountain (east and south of Mono Basin); eventually covering 300 square miles (780 km2) and reaching a maximum thickness of 600 feet (180 m).[4] Later volcanism in the area occurred 3.8 million to 250,000 years ago.[5] This activity was northwest of Mono Basin and included the formation of Aurora Crater, Beauty Peak, Cedar Hill (later an island in the highest stands of Mono Lake), and Mount Hicks.

Mono Lake is believed to have formed at least 760,000 years ago, dating back to the Long Valley eruption. Sediments located below the ash layer hint that Mono Lake could be a remnant of a larger and older lake that once covered a large part of Nevada and Utah, making it among the oldest lakes in North America. At its height during the last ice age, the lake may have been 900 feet (270 m) deep;[6] prominent old shore lines, called strandlines by geologists, can be seen above Lee Vining (near the white "LV") and along volcanic hills northeast of the current lake.

It is the terminal lake in a watershed fed by melting runoff, with no outlet to the ocean. Dissolved salts in the runoff thus remain in the lake and raise the water's pH levels and salt concentration.

The lake is in a geologically active area at the north end of the Mono-Inyo Craters volcanic chain and is close to Long Valley Caldera. Geological activity is caused by faulting at the base of the Sierra Nevada, and is associated with the crustal stretching of the Basin and Range Province.

Volcanic activity continues in the Mono Lake vicinity: the most recent eruption occurred 350 years ago at Paoha Island in Mono Lake. Panum Crater (on the south shore of the lake) is an excellent example of a combined rhyolite dome and cinder cone.

Conservation efforts

In order to provide resources for the growing Los Angeles area, water was diverted from the Owens River. In 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power extended an aqueduct system into the Mono Basin. So much water was diverted that evaporation soon exceeded inflow and the surface level of Mono Lake fell rapidly. By 1982 the lake was reduced to 37,688 acres (15,251.8 ha) having lost 31 percent of its 1941 surface area. As a result alkaline sands and once-submerged tufa towers became exposed and Negit Island became landbridged, exposing the nests of gulls to predators (chiefly coyotes) and forcing the breeding colony to abandon the site.

Exposed tufa towers in Mono Lake; South Tufa, 1981

In 1974, Stanford University graduate student David Gaines studied the Mono Lake ecosystem and was instrumental in alerting the public of the effects of the lower water level.[7] The National Science Foundation funded the first comprehensive ecological study of Mono Lake, conducted by Gaines and undergraduate students from UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and Earlham College. In June 1977 the UC Davis Institute of Ecology published their report, "An Ecological Study of Mono Lake, California," which alerted California to the ecological dangers posed by the redirection of water away from the lake for municipal uses.[7]

Mono Lake viewed from the summit of Mount Dana. Note near-landbridge at left, almost connecting Negit Island with the mainland shoreline.

Gaines formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978. He and Sally Judy, a UC Davis student, led the committee and pursued an informational tour of California. They joined with the Audubon Society to fight a now famous court battle to protect Mono Lake through state public trust laws.[7] While these efforts have resulted in positive change, the surface level is still below historic levels and exposed shorelines are a source of significant alkali dust during periods of high wind.

Owens Lake, which once sustained a healthy ecosystem, is now a dry lake bed during dry years due to water diversion. Mono Lake was spared this fate when the California State Water Resources Control Board issued an order to protect Mono Lake and its tributary streams on September 28, 1994. Since that time, the lake level has steadily risen. In 1941 the surface level was at 6,417 feet (1,956 m) above sea level and as of August 2006 it was at 6,385 feet (1,946 m).[8] The lake level of 6,392 feet (1,948 m) above sea level is the goal, a goal made more difficult during years of drought in the American West.


Lakeside of Mono Lake 1999

The lake contains approximately 280 million tons of dissolved salts, with the salinity varying depending upon the amount of water in the lake at any given time. Before 1941, average salinity was approximately 50 grams per liter (g/l) (compared to a value of 31.5 g/l for the world's oceans). In January 1982, when the lake reached its lowest level of 6,372 feet (1,942 m), the salinity had nearly doubled to 99 g/l. In 2002, it was measured at 78 g/l and is expected to stabilize at an average 69 g/l as the lake replenishes over the next 20 years.[9]

An important, and unintentional, consequence of ending the water diversions was the onset of a period of "meromixis" in Mono Lake.[10] In the time prior to this, Mono Lake was typically "monomictic"; which means that at least once each year the deeper waters and the shallower waters of the lake mixed thoroughly, thus bringing oxygen and other nutrients to the deep waters. In meromictic lakes, the deeper waters do not undergo this mixing; the deeper layers are more saline than the water near the surface, and are typically nearly devoid of oxygen. As a result, becoming meromictic greatly changes a lake's ecology.

Mono Lake has experienced meromictic periods in the past; this most recent episode of meromixis, brought on by the end of the water diversions, commenced in 1994 and had ended by 2004.[11]


Lake alkali flies

The hypersalinity and high alkalinity (pH=10 or equivalent to 4 milligrams of NaOH per liter of water) of the lake, means that no fish are native to the lake.[12] An attempt by the California Department of Fish and Game to stock the lake failed. The lake is famous for the Mono Lake brine shrimp, Artemia monica, a tiny species of brine shrimp, no bigger than a thumbnail, that are found nowhere else on earth. During the warmer summer months, an estimated 4-6 trillion brine shrimp inhabit the lake. The brine shrimp feed on microscopic planktonic algae which reproduce rapidly during winter and early spring after winter runoff brings nutrients to the surface layer of water. By March the lake is "as green as pea soup" with photosynthesizing algae.[13] Brine shrimp have no food value for humans, but are a staple for birds of the region. Also an important food source, alkali flies (Ephydra hians) live along the shores of the lake and walk underwater encased in small air bubbles to graze and to lay eggs. The whole food chain of the lake is based on the high population of single-celled algae present in the warm shallow waters.

Mono Lake is a vital resting and eating stop for migratory shorebirds and has been recognized as a site of international importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.[14] Nearly 2,000,000 waterbirds, including 35 species of shorebirds, use Mono Lake to rest and eat for at least part of the year. Some shorebirds that depend on the resources of Mono Lake include American Avocets, Killdeer and sandpipers. Over 1.5 million Eared Grebes and phalaropes use Mono Lake during their long migrations.

Late every summer tens of thousands of Wilson's Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes arrive from their nesting grounds, and feed until they continue their migration to South America or the tropical oceans respectively.[1]

Larus californicus

In addition to migratory birds, a few species spend several months to nest at Mono Lake. Mono Lake is the second largest nesting population of California Gulls, second only to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. After abandoning the landbridged Negit Island in the late 1970s, California gulls have moved to some nearby islets and have established new, if less protected nesting sites. Cornell University and Point Reyes Bird Observatory have continued the study of nesting populations on Mono Lake that was begun over 20 years ago. Snowy Plovers also arrive at Mono Lake each spring to nest along the remote eastern shores.


Arsenic-based life

Dr Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, has been studying possible arsenic based lifeforms at the lake, sampling the mud, reducing phosphorus levels, and hoping to show that there is a different form of life propogating in the arsenic-rich waters.[15]


Native peoples

Captain John. leader of the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiutes

The early people of Mono Lake were called the Kutzadika'a, who were the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiutes. Mono Lake Paiutes foraged alkali fly larvae, called kutsavi in their language.[16] Mono Lake was also referred to as Teniega Bah. The origin of the term "Mono Lake" is unknown.[17] Apparently, "Mono" is a Yokut term for "fly eater". The Kutzadika'a did not use the term "Mono".

During early contact the first known chief was Captain John. He was also referred to by the Paiute names of Shibana or Poko Tucket. Captain John was the son of another Paiute named the older Captain John.

The Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiutes would also camp yearly at Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite Valley, and along the Merced River to gather acorns and different plant species.

Cultural history

A tufa tower rock formation in Mono Lake, 2006.

Mark Twain's Roughing It, published in 1872, provides a humorous and informative early description of Mono Lake in its natural condition in the 1860s.[18][19] Twain found the lake to be a "lifeless, treeless, hideous desert... the loneliest place on earth."[6]

The general appearance of the lake and surrounding mountains circa 1973 can also be seen in the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter.

The Diver, a photo taken by Storm Thorgerson for Pink Floyd's album Wish You Were Here, features what appears to be a man diving into a lake, creating no ripples. The photo was taken at Mono Lake, and the tufa towers are a prominent part of the landscape. The effect was actually created when the diver performed a handstand underwater until the ripples dissipated.

The band Cinderella filmed the iconic power ballad Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone) at Mono Lake.

The Volcano Scene from the Award Winning 1953 film Fair Wind to Java[20] was shot at Mono Lake. Today the remnants of the Volcano hosts California Gull researchers on their visits to the island.[21]

Monolake is also a Berlin minimal techno act naming themselves after the location.


  1. ^ The Mendocino Triple Junction moved north after this time and the subduction zone immediately west of the Mono area was replaced by the San Andreas Fault.


  1. ^ a b "Birds of the Basin: the Migratory Millions of Mono". Mono Lake Committee. Retrieved 2007-05-12. 
  2. ^ Carle, David (2004). Introduction to Water in California. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  3. ^ Tierney 2000, p. 44
  4. ^ a b Tierney 2000, p. 45
  5. ^ Tierney 2000, p. 46
  6. ^ a b Harris 2005, p. 61
  7. ^ a b c "History of the Mono Lake Committee". Mono Lake Committee. Retrieved 2009-01-25. 
  8. ^ "Monthly Lake Levels". Mono Lake Committee. Retrieved 2004. 
  9. ^ "Mono Lake FAQ". Mono Lake Committee. Retrieved 2007-05-12. 
  10. ^ Jellison, R.; J. Romero, J. M. Melack (1998). "The onset of meromixis in Mono Lake: unintended consequences of reducing water diversions". Limnology and Oceanograph 3 (- No. 4): 704–711. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  11. ^ Jellison, R.; S. Roll (2003). Weakening and near-breakdown of meromixis in Mono Lake. unpublished; online version. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  12. ^ "Living in an Alkaline Environment". Microbial Life Education Resources. Retrieved 2008-11-12. 
  13. ^ "Mono Lake". Ecoscenario. Retrieved 2007-01-23. 
  14. ^ "Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network". Retrieved 2008-01-19. 
  15. ^ Could the Mono Lake arsenic prove there is a shadow biosphere?, The Times, 4 March 2010, accessed 6 March 2010
  16. ^ Dave Gracer. "A Tale of Kutsavi". Small Stock Foods. 
  17. ^ "Kutzadika'a People". Mono Lake Committee. Retrieved 2006-04-02. 
  18. ^ Twain, Mark. "chapter 38". Roughing It. University of Virginia Library: Electronic Text Center. Retrieved 2008-11-12. 
  19. ^ Twain, Mark. "chapter 39". Roughing It. University of Virginia Library: Electronic Text Center. Retrieved 2008-11-12. 
  20. ^ Fair Wind to Java, IMDB
  21. ^ Banding California Gulls at Mono Lake, Mary Malec, 20 July 2009, accessed 6 March 2010

Further reading

External links

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Mono Lake tufa formations at sunrise.
Mono Lake tufa formations at sunrise.

Mono Lake [1] is in Eastern Sierra region of California in the United States, just east of Yosemite National Park. The lake is a saline lake with no outlets and is also a stopover point for nearly two million migratory birds.



Starting in 1941 the streams that fed Mono Lake were diverted for use by the city of Los Angeles. With a yearly evaporation rate of 45 inches (nearly four feet) the lake level quickly dropped, going from an elevation of 6,417 feet above sea level to a low point of 6,372 feet above sea level. The accompanying 31% loss of surface area and 50% loss of water volume had a devastating effect on the estimated two million birds that used the lake each year, as well as causing air quality problems due to the dust from the now-exposed lakebed. In 1994 a court ordered that the lake be returned to a level of 6,392 feet above sea level, but due to droughts in the region the current (2008) level is still only 6,382 feet above sea level.


The lake is believed to have formed 760,000 years ago, although it may be a remnant of a larger lake that formed 1-3 million years ago, thus making it one of the oldest lakes in North America. It is a saline lake with no outlets, fed solely by runoff from the surrounding mountains. One unusual feature of the lake is its many tufa rock formations. These rock towers form when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with the waters of the lake, which are rich in carbonates. The resulting reaction forms limestone. Over time the buildup of limestone forms a tower, and with the drop in lake level the towers have become exposed.

Flora and fauna

Mono Lake is a noted birdwatching destination. Brine shrimp and brine fly larva in the water and brine flies on the shorelines provide abundant food for hungry migrants that stopover to refuel before moving on. Additionally, despite the fact that Negit Island has become land-bridged (and thus accessible to predators) due to lake level decrease, the area's islands remain important breeding areas for birds. Approximately 85% of the state's population of California gulls cross the Sierras each year to breed here, as well as a significant portion of the state's snowy plovers. In addition, between 1.5 to 2 million eared grebes use the lake during migration each year, as well as 80,000 Wilson's phalaropes, 60,000 red-necked phalaropes, and nearly 80 other species of waterbirds.

The lake's food chain begins with algae that bloom in summer months. This algae becomes food for the 4-6 trillion brine shrimp that inhabit the lake, as well as the brine flies that gather on the shoreline. In summer months these flies rise up in black clouds when approached, although luckily they aren't biting insects and thus are not a nuisance to humans.


With little more than desert scrub in the basin, there is no shelter from the elements.

Winds routinely rip through the basin in all seasons. Choking alkali dust clouds can be lifted out of basin by the winds. Usually, the wind direction sends these clouds out to the east away from the most visited parts, but there's no guarantee that the direction won't change and provide you with a much more intimate opportunity to study the clouds firsthand.

In winter, snow occasionally covers the ground. Chains may be required to get around the basin, and are frequently required to cross the passes to get in and out of the region. State Route 120 is closed just west of US 395 all winter (and often all spring), and is closed east of the South Tufa area for much of the winter too.

In summer, if the wind stops suddenly, a cold day can suddenly turn into a scorcher.

Get in

The primary access to Mono Lake is provided by Highway 395, which runs north and south along the Eastern Sierra. During the summer months the lake can also be reached from Yosemite National Park using Highway 120 (Tioga Pass), but this route closes with the year's first snowfall and doesn't re-open until the following May or June.


There are no fees charged to visit Mono Lake.

  • Mono Lake Tufa SNR, [2]. The state reserve includes areas of the lake with the largest tufa towers. The section of the reserve located below the Mono County Park offers a boardwalk featuring interpretive information. Free.  edit



Mono Lake can be a challenging environment for boaters - the high salt content of the lake, strong winds, and submerged rock formations combine to test the skills of boaters. Most boaters exit the lake by early afternoon to avoid the rough winds that are common. Due to the lake conditions, canoes and kayaks are the most popular types of craft for venturing out on the lake. Boaters should also be aware that from April 1 through August 1 the lake's islands are closed to protect nesting birds.

  • Caldera Kayaks, +1-760-934-1691 (), [3]. Offers guided morning kayak tours during the summer leaving from Navy Beach. Call or write in advance to set up a trip. $70 per person for three or more people, $105 per person for two person tours.  edit


Naturalist-led walks are offered daily in the summer by the forest service, the state reserve staff, and the Mono Lake Committee. In addition, the Mono Lake Committee offers three-day seminars covering topics from geology, human history, and wildlife of the Mono Lake area.


Supplies and other necessities can be purchased in the town of Lee Vining. Gas is available year-round, but many establishments are open only during the summer season.


There is a very popular restaurant at the corner of highway 120 and 395 that is part of a Mobile Gas station. Given the remoteness it is quite nice and recently remodeled. On a weeknight expect to see as many as 30 other diners enjoying the views overlooking the lake. Food is standard grill fare, and due to the somewhat limited off-season options this stop may be the best bet in the area.


Drinking water is available at the visitor centers. For stronger fare the town of Lee Vining has seasonal options.


Since this is a preserve, no camping is permitted anywhere within the Mono Lake Scenic Area.


Lodging is available within the city of Lee Vining, some of which overlook the lake.

  • Big Bend Campground, (take SR120 west from US395, then left onto Poole Power Plant Road which leads up the canyon to the campground). In a stand of trees next to the creek in Lee Vining canyon. Several other campgrounds are in the same canyon. $15/night.  edit
  • Lee Vining. Located along the lake shore, this town offers services and information about the lake.
  • Yosemite National Park. The Tioga Pass entrance to the park is located just south of the lake, but is closed from the first snow until the roads can be cleared in the Spring (usually around May).
This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!

Simple English

[[File:|thumb|right]] Mono Lake is a saline lake on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, in the U.S. state of California. It is endorheic, meaning that it does not connect with the sea. It is fed by streams flowing off the east side of the mountain range, including Rush Creek, Lee Vining Creek and Mill Creek. Lee Vining Creek has its headwaters near Tioga Pass, near Yosemite National Park.

The lake covers 69 square miles (180 square kilometers) and is about 4.7 miles (7.6 km) long. It is a very ancient lake, and is thought to have formed 760,000 years ago. In the 20th century, the city of Los Angeles began to take water from the streams feeding Mono Lake. This caused the lake to fall, exposing unique tufa formations.


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