The wondrously and eerily beautiful Mono Lake

During my recent Great Basin collecting trip, we stopped briefly at one of my favorite places in the world—Mono Lake in eastern California. My last visit was almost 20 years ago, so it was a thrill for me to see the strange tufa moonscape once again after so many years.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake has no eventual outlet to the ocean. As a result dissolved salts in runoff from the surrounding landscape have accumulated in the lake, resulting in water with high pH levels.

Mono Lake

The late day shadows created a black/white tufa landscape.

Mono Lake

Conservation actions have raised lake levels from their historical lows resulting from diversion of water to Los Angeles, but they have still not recovered to their former levels.

Mono Lake

I held the camera barely above the water’s surface to get this shot. It took several tries to get just a thin sliver of perfectly horizontal water. Yes, it would have been easier to hold the camera higher, look through the viewfinder and then crop, but I wanted the widest view possible (besides, doing that would seem like “cheating”).

Mono Lake

Tufa forms when calcium from underwater springs comes into contact with carbonates in the lake water, causing a chemical reaction that produces calcium carbonate (limestone). The calcium carbonate settles around the underwater spring and over time builds a tufa tower. This happens only underwater, and the tufa towers seen here are visible only because of the lowered lake level resulting from water diversion. Unless the lake level is restored completely, these towers are “dead” and will eventually erode away.

Mono Lake

Smoke and haze from the Rim Fire burning near Yosemite boils over the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake supports the second largest nesting population of California gulls after Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Mono Lake

The water level at Mono Lake has dropped not only in recent years because of humans, but over several thousand years. At the end of the last ice age the water level was hundreds of feet higher than today and the lake 5 times its present size.

Mono Lake

Late day shadows, wildfire haze, and perfectly still waters create a surreal scene.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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10 Responses to The wondrously and eerily beautiful Mono Lake

  1. Anonymous says:

    You forgot to talk about the brine shrimp and brine flies.

    • Not really, but without photos it’s kinda hard to describe in a compelling way. They are amazing, and if I’d had more time there I would have invested the time in getting some photos that really capture the “swarms” feel one gets the first time they see them.

  2. randomtruth says:

    Good stuff Ted. It’s such a wonderful, surreal and interesting landscape. I’ve seen the lake in a bunch of different moods, and still enjoy it every visit. It draws the eye and mind.

    • Absolutely one of my favorite places on earth. I have many memories from several visits back in the mid-90s – once I found it I kept coming back until I moved back to Missouri. Seeing it again after almost 20 years made my heart sing (and further strengthened my desire to move back to California).

  3. GarryRogers says:

    Somewhere I have an old photo of a grad student (me) clowning around atop a long tufa tower at Mono Lake.

  4. biobabbler says:

    Oh, man, Mono Lake is SO great. So glad you got to go. Everywhere on the east side of the Sierras I pretty much love, but Mono is a heart stopper/freak show near & dear to my heart. Interesting to see shots from there during the Rim fire, since I was most decidedly on the west side of that thing.

    • The smoke and haze definitely added to what is already a surreal landscape. If I’d been alone (during which times I tend to be more of a bushwhacker), I would have stayed an extra day just to be around that lake again that I love so much.

  5. …seems like a great place for a Cicindis to occur, eh? – like the species at Salinas Grandes ……

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