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Mono Lake Tufas: How (+ Where) to See Them!

The Mono Lake tufas have been fascinating visitors to the Eastern Sierra of California for many years. A part of Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, the Mono Lake tufa towers are not only beautiful to view and photograph, they are also a habitat for birds and wildlife.

Mono Lake is an old lake: over a million years old! Covering almost 70 square miles, the saltwater lake lies between the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains and the dry Great Basin, in eastern California.

Tufas on the Mono Lake Boardwalk Trail in the Eastern Sierra of California
Mono Lake Boardwalk Trail with Tufas

If you are planning a visit to the Eastern Sierra, you will definitely want to include a stop at Mono Lake! One of the most beautiful lakes in California, Mono Lake offers lots to do. It is a must-stop spot on any Highway 395 road trip itinerary.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
History of the Mono Lake Tufas
How and Where to See the Mono Lake Tufas
Mono Lake South Tufa Area
Mono Lake Boardwalk County Park
Old Marina Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
Where is Mono Lake?
Map of Mono Lake Tufa Viewing Areas
Mono Lake Tufa Viewing FAQs
Tips for Visiting the Mono Lake Tufas

History of the Mono Lake Tufas

The Mono Lake tufas are picturesque limestone towers with knobby spires that look gorgeous against the waters of the lake. When fresh spring water, rich in calcium, comes up from the ground and mixes with the water of Mono Lake, which contains carbonates, calcium carbonate is formed.

Tufas in Mono Lake California
Beautiful tufa formations at Mono Lake

The calcium carbonate settles into a solid around the mouth of the spring, and over years and years of solids being deposited, a tufa tower very gradually takes shape underwater. Over time, tufa towers can grow upwards of 30 feet tall under the surface of the water.

At Mono Lake, tufa towers became exposed when the lake level drastically fell on account of massive quantities of water being diverted from the streams feeding the lake, starting in 1941. Water diversions from Mono Lake are now controlled.

Tufas stop growing once they are exposed, and they are fragile and liable to erosion. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve was established in 1981 expressly to help protect and preserve Mono Lake’s magnificent tufa formations.

How and Where to See the Mono Lake Tufas

Mono Lake is a large lake and there are three main areas from where you can view the tufa towers and get an introduction to Mono Lake’s unique ecosystem and features. We’ve visited all three areas and enjoyed all of them, but if you are short on time, we’ve described how to go about choosing where you go.

Mono Lake from South Tufa Road Lee Vining California
Looking at Mono Lake from South Tufa Road

Mono Lake South Tufa Area: Walking Trail or Canoe Tour

The best place to see the Mono Lake tufas is undoubtedly at the Mono Lake South Tufa area. The exposed formations you see here are in an impressive cluster at or near the shore.

South Tufa Mono Lake California
Looking down on the tufa grove at Mono Lake South Tufa

The Mono Lake South Tufa area is jointly managed by the California State Parks system (as Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve) and by Inyo National Forest (as Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area).

If you only have time for one Mono Lake tufa site, make it South Tufa!

The approach to Mono Lake South Tufa area is very scenic, with wildflowers in season and expansive views of the lake as you drive up. You will want to stop to take lots of photos! The road is dirt and gravel, but it is passable in a sedan.

Walking tour of the Mono Lake tufas

At South Tufa, do a self-guided walking tour through the tufas to see them up close: their spire shapes, textures, and subtle colors are extraordinary. Walking amidst the tufas is like walking through a series of small slot canyons in another world!

Tufas at Mono Lake South Tufa Area in Eastern California

You will likely see many birds as you walk: Mono Lake is a resting place for millions of migratory birds. They love feasting on the brine shrimp and alkali flies in the lake: you can see the flies and shrimp if you look into the water. Ospreys nest at the tops of the tufa towers, where their young are safe from predators.

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You can also join a naturalist-led walk to learn about the lake and the tufas as you walk. Free guided tours last about an hour, and you will learn a lot about the natural and human history of the lake. We highly recommend a guided walk if one is offered when you visit!

The Mono Lake South Tufa loop trail, which starts at the South Tufa information kiosk, is flat and super easy, about one mile in length. It is only accessible for the first quarter mile. It should take about one hour, with a few stops for photos. Wear water shoes if you want to step into the water.

There are restrooms at the South Tufa area.

Canoe Tour of the Mono Lake Tufas

You can also take a guided canoe tour of Mono Lake. Tours start at Navy Beach, near the South Tufa area, and head towards the tufa grove. It’s cool seeing the tufas from the water!

Canoe tours are narrated, and you will learn about the tufas, the history of Mono Lake, ongoing efforts to preserve the beautiful environment for future visitors, the brine shrimp and alkali flies that inhabit the lake, and the millions of birds that visit each year.

The guided canoe tour is about one hour long. Don’t forget your camera: if the waters are glassy, you can snap photos of the beautiful reflections of the tufas and the surrounding mountains in the still waters of Mono Lake.

Canoe tours are generally offered on weekend mornings in the summer. You can reserve your spot online in advance. You will get wet to the calves when boarding the canoe, so wear water shoes.

You can also take a canoe out on your own: local outfitters rent kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes that you can launch at Navy Beach, where the parking lot is just a short walk from the beach.

How to get to Mono Lake South Tufa

From US 395, take California Highway 120 East toward Benton. Go on CA 120 for about 5 miles, and you will see the sign for the South Tufa turnoff. Take the left turn and drive the unpaved road to the large parking area by the water.

View from Mono Lake South Tufa Road in Eastern Sierra California
The view coming back from Mono Lake South Tufa is pretty nice too!

Mono Lake South Tufa Entrance Fee

There is a modest entrance fee for the South Tufa area, USD3.00 per person at the time of writing. The America the Beautiful national parks pass is accepted here.

Do you have your National Parks Pass yet? Valid for one full year from the month of purchase, the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass costs USD80.00 and offers admission (one vehicle or 4 persons) to over 2,000 Federal recreation sites, including national parks, national forests, and more! Get yours online at REI now!

Mono Lake County Park: Boardwalk Trail

While South Tufa is the best place to see and photograph the Mono Lake tufas, you can also see tufas from the Mono Lake County Park boardwalk trail, some up close. If you have the time, this is another beautiful Mono Lake walk.

Boardwalk Trail at Mono Lake County Park California
The boardwalk trail meanders towards the lake

The Mono Lake boardwalk trail meanders through the marshland areas of Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve before ending at a viewing area looking out onto the water.

Along the way, you will pass several tufas, some very close to the boardwalk. And from the viewing area at the end, you can see tufas in the water, although these tufas are not very close.

You may also see birds at the shoreline or in the water, or perched atop the tufas, if you brought binoculars or a zoom lens. The walk through the local flora is lovely, and you may see birds in the willows or on the tufa towers along the way.

Tufas on Mono Lake Boardwalk Trail Eastern Sierra California
Tufas along the boardwalk

Naturalist-led bird walks, lasting for 1.5-2 hours, are offered along the boardwalk twice a week in the summer on Friday and Sunday mornings at 8 a.m. Check the Mono Lake website for more information.

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If you enjoy birding and also want to take in the views of the Mono Lake tufas, this trail is for you. The boardwalk trail is flat and easy, about 0.5 mile each way. It is accessible. Even with a lot of dawdling, it took us about an hour.

There are restrooms, drinking water, and picnic tables at the County Park.

How to Get to Mono Lake County Park

Off US Highway 395, head east on Cemetery Road: there is a sign for the County Park. The parking lot comes up in about 0.5 mile.

The boardwalk trail begins at the end of the grassy area with picnic tables.

Admission to Mono Lake County Park

At the time of writing, Mono Lake County Park and interpretive boardwalk trail are free.

Old Marina: Mono Lake Trail

Old Marina is a great spot to get a quick view of Mono Lake and to snap a few photos. You can view the lake right from the parking area.

A view of Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra of California
Viewing Mono Lake in the fall!

If you have the time, you can walk the trail to the water’s edge for a view of tufa towers and the islands of Mono Lake. The Mono Lake Trail is an out-and-back trail, 0.75 mile each way, and accessible. It starts at the Old Marina parking lot.

The David Gaines Memorial Boardwalk, part of the trail, traverses the wetlands to the shore, and offers birding opportunities and views of tufas. There is also a spur trail, about 0.4 mile, that goes up the hill nearby and offers views of the lake and tufas just offshore.

If you walk the trails here at a leisurely pace, Old Marina will take you between 1 to 2 hours. If you have time, they are certainly worth doing, but if time is a constraint, head to South Tufa instead.

There are restrooms and picnic facilities at Old Marina.

How to Get to Old Marina

Old Marina is located one mile north of Lee Vining, off US Highway 395. The parking lot comes up just off US 395.

Admission to Old Marina

Since Old Marina is part of the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, there is a fee to park, currently USD3.00. With a California State Parks pass, you can park for free here. The National Parks pass is not accepted at Old Marina.

Where is Mono Lake?

Mono Lake is located on US Highway 395, the main north-south road that traverses the Eastern Sierra of California. The lake is located near the town of Lee Vining, about 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park.

Mono Lake is one of the most ancient lakes in North America. It is a saline lake, with no outlet. Mono Lake is one of the most scenic spots in the Eastern Sierra, and Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, in our opinion, is one of the most beautiful state parks in California.

Map of Mono Lake Tufa Viewing Areas

Mono Lake Tufa Viewing FAQs

Where are the Mono Lake Visitor Centers located?

There are two visitor centers where you can watch short films on Mono Lake, view exhibits, talk to staff about recommendations for exploring the area, and browse bookstores.

The Mono Lake Committee Information Center & Bookstore is located in downtown Lee Vining, at the corner of Highway 395 and Third Street. Find hours of operation and more information on their website.

The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center is located on the east side of US 395, 0.5 mile north of Lee Vining. The center overlooks the lake, and a trail leads down to the lake from here. Find hours of operation and more information here.

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What are the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve hours?

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve is generally open all year, from sunrise to sunset. For information on special closures, and for current hours of operation, check the park website before you visit.

In the winter, the area can see lots of snowfall. The access road to South Tufa is plowed, so you should be able to visit, except during or just after a snowstorm. You can go cross-country skiing in the South Tufa area, Old Marina, and the County Park trails in winter.

Boardwalk Trail Mono Lake County Park California
Walking back along the Mono Lake Boardwalk Trail

What is the Best time to Photograph the tufas?

Sunrise and sunset are the best times to photograph the tufas. The light is spectacular, and you will see photographers lined up with tripods at sunset, trying to capture that perfect shot of the tufas outlined against a colorful sky.

In the early morning, the lake is more apt to be absolutely calm, and you will see fabulous reflections of the tufas, and the surrounding mountains, in the glassy waters of Mono Lake.

Night photography is also popular at the Mono Lake Tufas, with photographers showcasing the Milky Way above the tufa towers. In the winter, snow crystals on the tufa towers sparkle in the sun, making for a magical scene.

Are Drones Allowed?

Drones are not allowed to be flown over the surface of Mono Lake and shores managed by the California State Parks system, except by special use permit.

Are Dogs Allowed at Mono Lake?

As of the time of writing, dogs are permitted on the South Tufa area walking trail, but not on the boardwalks in Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve or in Mono Lake County Park. If you want to bring your dog to Mono Lake, call one of the Visitor Centers prior to your visit for updated guidelines.

Tips for Visiting the Mono Lake Tufas

Here are some tips for your visit to view the Mono Lake tufas!

Bring your Camera and binoculars

You will want to bring binoculars to view the birds of Mono Lake. We use the Celestron Trailseeker compact binoculars: they are waterproof and work great in low light situations, perfect for early or late in the day when you can most expect to see wildlife and birds.

If you a serious landscape photographer, you will want to bring your gear to get dream shots of the tufas. As amateur photographers that still seek good captures of landscapes and wildlife, we carry the Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70 with us when we hike or walk. The little camera fits into a jacket pocket. It has a 30X zoom and Leica lens, and produces really good photos!

Walking Mono lake Boardwalk Trail California
The beautiful Mono Lake Boardwalk trail

Dress in layers

The weather at Mono Lake is changeable, and winds can whip up in a hurry, so dress in layers. Loose, light clothing is recommended for hiking in the sun. Bundle up if you visit in the colder months: the area sees lots of snow!

We generally wear clothing with SPF protection if we are going to be in the sun for several hours. Check REI for women’s SPF shirts here and men’s SPF shirts here.

Use Sun protection

Trails are exposed, as is the lake. Wear a hat with SPF protection, sunscreen, and sunglasses when you are out and about, walking the trails or exploring the tufas by canoe or kayak.

carry Adequate Drinking Water

Always carry plenty of drinking water on hikes, even short ones. Drinking water is available at the Visitor Centers and at the County Park, so bring your refillable bottles. We always carry our Nalgene water bottles on our hikes.

Wear Appropriate Footwear

Sturdy, closed-toed footwear is recommended for the South Tufa walking trail. Sneakers or walking shoes with good grip are fine for these short nature trails. If you plan to explore the tufas by watercraft, or want to step into the water as you tour the South Tufa area, bring water shoes to protect your feet. Look for water shoes online at REI.

Maps

Download all the maps and brochures you need prior to your trip. Cell service is not always available at Mono Lake.

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Discover how and where to see the Mono Lake Tufas in the Eastern Sierra of California! The best views for photos and the best experiences at Mono Lake!

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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