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Exploring Mono Lake—What to Know

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Welcome to Mono Lake, a scenic body of water in the middle of nowhere Central California!

This lake isn’t just another body of water; it’s a natural wonder with intriguing trails, wildlife, and unique features.

Here’s everything you need to know before you visit.

Mono Lake—A Bit of History

Mono Lake’s rich history dates back to around a million years ago, making it one of the oldest lakes in the country!

Lots of small groups of petrified salt rocks in the waters at Mono Lake.
Salty rocks at Mono Lake.

So, aside from that fact, why is Mono Lake so special?

It features an alkaline and saline ecosystem that supports a unique web of life, including brine shrimp and alkali flies, which feed the many birds that pass through here.

The lake’s iconic tufa towers, those really weird-looking calcium-carbonate spires that decorate the shoreline, emerge from the water like sculptures, creating a surreal landscape you have to see.

Petrified salt rocks on the edge of Mono Lake surrounded by marshland.
Said tufa towers!

So, how does one check out all the cool things to do at Mono Lake?

Let’s get into it…

Exploring Mono Lake’s Trails

These are the three best trails to tackle to explore Mono Lake and everything it has to offer.

1. Boardwalk Trail at Mono Lake Park

Distance: .5 miles
Type of Trail: Out and Back
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Gain: 42 feet

Other important notes:

  • Dogs are not allowed

This easy, accessible trail leads to stunning lake views framed by the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains.

Nina walking along a boardwalk between two petrified rocks of salt along the Boardwalk Trail towards Mono Lake.
Nina along the Boardwalk Trail.

The wooden boardwalk meanders through white rock formations and past informational plaques that narrate the lake’s story.

There’s also a picturesque picnic area perfect for a family outing or a place to stretch your legs if you’re on a road trip.

2. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve Boardwalk

Distance: .7 miles
Type of Trail: Out and Back
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Gain: 9 feet

Other important notes:

  • Dogs are not allowed
  • There is a fee for this trail—$5 (or display your national park pass)

Here, you’re able to wander through a landscape dotted with tufa towers and nature’s own artwork (or maybe a chunk of Mars that landed here a billion years ago).

Nina hold a camera and walking along a dirt pathway heading through Tufa State Natural Reserve towards the shores of Mono Lake.
Another great area to experience Mono Lake!

While this is a short and easy wander, each step reveals a different angle of Mono Lake’s beauty, with more info displays along the way so you can better take in what you’re looking at.

3. South Tufa Loop and Navy Beach Trail—Our Fav Trail!

Distance: 1 – 3.6 miles
Type of Trail: Loop or Out and Back
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Gain: 30 feet

Other important notes:

  • Dogs are allowed
  • There is a fee for this trail—$3 (or display your national park pass)

The crown jewel of Mono Lake trails, this path offers a close encounter with the lake’s “Mars-like” terrain. You can simply do the 1-mile South Tufa loop or continue along the longer Navy Beach Trail.

Nina walking along the Navy Beach Trail besides Mono Lake heading towards a group of petrified salt towers.
Take a stroll through the petrified salt rock!

The trail, marked by a boardwalk and even more informative placards (you’ll learn a LOT on these trails), leads you right up to the water’s edge, where tons of tufas hang out.

If you have only time for one trail, this is the one to do! This one gets you the closest to the marvels here at Mono Lake.

Wildlife and Birdwatching at Mono Lake

Mono Lake serves as a rest stop for migratory birds, making it a paradise for birdwatchers or regular people like us who point at any cool bird and say, “Oh, look at that one!”

A Brewer's blackbird carrying a maggot in its beak perched on a tree branch.
It’s the perfect area for bird watching!

During our visit here, we caught the vibrant red-winged blackbird and the oh-so-sleek Brewer’s blackbirds.

Well, at least we think so. That’s what we surmised from reading the 1000 placards of info that are around this lake.

FAQ For Mono Lake:

Can We Swim in Mono Lake?

While swimming in Mono Lake is technically possible, it’s an unusual experience due to the water’s high alkalinity and salt content.

It’s buoyant, yes, but the salty and alkaline conditions mean you’ll want a good rinse-off after.

Two girls standing besides the blue waters of Mono Lake.
We wouldn’t recommend getting in…

Definitely don’t take a dip if you have any cuts, and don’t dunk your head under. Some people swear by the water’s healing powers here!

Navy Beach is the best area to take a dip.

What Else Can I Do Out on The Water?

For a truly cool experience, consider kayaking to explore the tufa towers up close if taking a dip isn’t in the cards for you. Bring your own kayak or hit up Caldera Kayaks for a tour or rental.

There are no motorized boats allowed here. You can put in at Navy Beach.

When to Visit?

The best season to visit Mono Lake is late spring through early fall (May to October). The weather is pleasant, and the lake’s unique ecosystem is teeming with life.

Petrified towers of salt on the shores of Mono Lake with a backdrop of snow covered mountains.
We ended up with the perfect weather in summer.

Summer months can be warm but provide longer days to explore, while the transition months of May and October offer cooler temperatures and fewer crowds.

Winter is also a great time with even fewer crowds and the snow adding to the other-worldly vibes, but sometimes the roads out here become impassable, so keep this in mind.

What Should I Bring?

Don’t forget to bring water, sunscreen, and binoculars for birdwatching. Or at the least, a nice zoom lens like we brought.

Other Notes:

  • This area’s habitat is super fragile, so take care while wandering.
  • Up until 1994, the water levels here were getting really low since they were removing water for city usage. This practice has luckily stopped, and the levels are coming back.
  • The area around Mono Lake is currently geologically active.
A white campervan parked up at Mono Lake Vista Point with a view of the lake and surrounding mountains.
Take a stop at Mono Lake Vista Point!

What’s There to Do Nearby?

We hope this helped you plan your visit to Mono Lake!

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