June is here and that means it’s time for our annual trek down to Mono Lake to kayak among the tufa formations. We look forward to this trip every year, but this year after the winter we have had and continue to have, we are especially looking forward to it.
Mono Lake is a terminal inland lake located along the eastern border of California, due east of Yosemite National Park. It is surrounded by high desert and mountains. The Mono Basin is accessed by Highway 395, one of the most scenic highways in the world. The map shows the route from Donner Summit and this four-five hour drive is exceptional in its beauty and a great way to the see the splendor of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The small town of Lee Vining, nestled in the shadow of the Sierra mountains (maplink), is the closest town to the lake. There are several hotels in the town for those who want to stay indoors. We always take our travel trailer and stay at one of the Lee Vining campgrounds located just a few miles up Hwy 120 towards Yosemite. The Lee Vining Canyon is a beautiful glacial canyon and the forest service campgrounds (maplink) are located in the aspen groves along Lee Vining Creek. They are very well maintained and open May-November. There is, however, no running water and has pit toilets, so make sure you have water. Although we camp, we always make it a point to have at least one meal at the Whoa Nellie Deli located at the Tioga Gas Mart located about a quarter mile up Hwy 120 from Hwy 395 (maplink). Do not be put off by the fact that the Deli looks like a mini-mart in a gas station. The food is really great.
The kayaking experience at Mono Lake is unique. As a result of the really interesting geology of the lake, there are tufa formations in the lake that are other-worldly to paddle through. The put in point for exploring the South Tufa formation (the most extensive tufa formation) is at Navy beach (maplink). There are a couple of precautions that should be considered when kayaking in the lake. The Mono Basin is a large relatively flat expanse surrounded by mountains. The area can be subject to moderate and at times very high winds that can really whip up the surface of the lake. It is probably a good idea to find out what the weather forecast is before driving out to Navy beach. The other consideration concerns the fact that Mono Lake is an inland lake, but unlike the other fresh water lakes in the area, has extremely high salinity. Be prepared for the fact that all of your gear will be coated with salt if it gets wet. Be especially careful with binoculars any camera gear. It is recommended that after a paddle on the lake, it is a good idea to rinse all your gear including your kayak and paddles in fresh water. There is a fresh water spigot available on Hwy 120 (maplink).
It is about a third of a mile paddle over to the tufa towers. The tufa are very fragile formations and should not be approached closer than 30 ft and they should never be climbed on. As you approach them, it is easy to see the remnants of many Osprey nests, some of which are usually active early in the year. Active nests should not be approached closer than 200 feet to prevent stressing chicks. Although the Ospreys nest on the lake, there are no fish in the lake due to the high salinity, so they must hunt in surrounding fresh water lakes and creeks. The only marine life in the lake is a huge population of brine shrimp which attracts many sea and shore birds including California Sea Gulls, Terns and Grebes. The tufa towers continue for about a mile along the shore and it is well worth the paddle to see all or most of them. After you’re done with the paddle, you might want to stop by Panum crater to see the obsidian formations (maplink). And on the way home you might want to stop by Bodie, the gold mining ghost town (maplink).
June is probably the best time of of the year to go, before the heat becomes oppressive in the summer months. Linda and I will be heading down in the next week or two, so if you decide to go this year, look for us out there.