The Many Colors of Mono Lake

mono lake003mono lake001Our first visit to Mono Lake was on a day trip from Yosemite National Park more than 30 years ago. We drove east on Tioga Pass and wound up on the east side of the pass looking at this brilliantly beautiful lake. This was my first encounter with the many colors of Mono Lake.mono lake004

The lake was stunning and her colors changed when viewed from different angles. So much so that I later became convinced that there was more than one lake. And I never forgot her.mono lake018

mono lake081So this year we planned to return and spend some time there with the intent of watching sunrise over the lake, and of course photographing her. When we arrived in the area, our friends Nina and Paul and Russ and Todd had saved us a spot next to them overlooking the lake.mono lake002

They too were planning to drive out to the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve (SNR) before sunrise. So all of us drove down to the lake in the dark. She shone like a jewel from below us as we approached. That morning we saw her colors change from blue, to light green, to gold, to orange and lilac and to silver.

mono lake006mono lake005There are many other reasons why Mono Lake is so captivating. It is one of the oldest lakes in North America, over one million years old.

And of course what makes her so outer-wordly are the tufa towers. These towering formations are mineral structures formed by calcium from freshwater springs that mix with carbonates in the alkaline water, causing limestone, which solidifies around the springs. Over many, many years, the limestone towers grow underwater.mono lake007

mono lake023The tufas are visible because the water level fell significantly since the Los Angeles Aqueduct began to divert the creeks that fed the lake  in 1941. Mono Lake has no outlet, as it is part of a basin formed by the surrounding mountains. As the water evaporated, the water level in the lake continued to fall.mono lake009mono lake014mono lake008mono lake017

Also, with this continual evaporation, the lake became more than twice as salty as the ocean. And also highly alkaline, all from the salts and minerals and occasional volcanic ash that have washed into it over its long existence.

mono lake019We went into town for breakfast and needed naps to recover from the morning outing. Our campsite with a view was a great place to hang with friends.mono lake024

mono lake027Hector and I needed to see more of and learn more about the lake. We returned to watch sunset. That evening, the lake colors alternated between green and blue.mono lake025mono lake028

mono lake010mono lake036mono lake034The next morning, we returned before sunrise once again. That morning was a bit cloudy and the lake turned orange, then the clouds turned a peachy color. The clouds were reflected on a silvery blue lake which later turned light green and then bright blue.mono lake033mono lake037


mono lake042We noticed quite a lot of bird life around the lake. We are not birders but really enjoy watching birds and learning about them. There was a large osprey nest on a tufa, and the ospreys were busy building up the nest. We also saw yellow-headed blackbirds, least sandpiper and others.

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mono lake029mono lake049Later that day we went to the excellent visitor center to learn more about life in the lake.

Over a million birds stop here to feed and rest along their migration. Amazingly, there are only two forms of animal life in this extremely salty and alkaline lake: tiny brine shrimp and alkali flies.

The brine shrimp hatch in the spring, adult alkali flies emerge from the water in summer. They both feed on algae that grows in the spring and the migrating birds in turn feed on the shrimp and the flies.

The visitor center is definitely worth a visit to learn more about this fascinating ecosystem and its history.mono lake030

mono lake060mono lake062That next morning we were lured once again to watch sunrise over Mono Lake. It was also a bit cloudy and the water was the stillest of all three days. The sky turned orange and was reflected in the lake, then for a fleeting moment, a bright red sky was reflected in the lake. Somehow some bright blue shone through the red. Beautiful.mono lake058mono lake061

mono lake063Mono Lake’s ecosystem suffered over many years as the reduction of fresh water into the lake and the evaporation of the existing water caused the water level to sink more than forty feet under her original level. Her salt and mineral content continued to increase.mono lake064

By the 1960’s, wetlands bordering the lake were gone, and algae in the lake declined, causing the brine shrimp population to decline. Some birds disappeared from the area. Continuing decline in the shrimp population could disrupt the migratory pattern of thousands of birds.mono lake065mono lake071

mono lake076After a number of suits, the State Water Board mandated a twenty-year restoration plan for the lake which was implemented by the Los Angeles Water and Power Department. The water level has risen from all time lows, but the three-year drought has halted progress.mono lake055

mono lake083Our friends took off for the Reno area a couple of days before us, leaving us to enjoy the lake all by ourselves.  A beautiful setting with vast views for miles in all directions.

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mono lake070mono lake063mono lake068The restoration plan is still expected to increase water levels to twenty-five feet below her original high level. This is considered a lesson that restoration can never replace conservation.mono lake040

Mono Lake definitely looked different to me than when I first saw her thirty years ago and I suspect it is a pretty drastic difference. Our original photos of the lake, however, are in deep storage.mono lake080mono lake092

Someday I will go back and compare them to these. There is no lesson better learned than one you witness for yourself. I am thankful to all of those who have fought for this mesmerizingly beautiful lake and the life she sustains.mono lake093

On our last day in the area, we returned to the visitor center. I had seen a photo of a Great Horned Owl on a tufa and asked the ranger about the owl. He told me there was a resident owl in the county park, which has a little boardwalk that goes out towards yet another side of Mono Lake.

mono lake095After bushwhacking a bit on the fringes of the park, Hector found the owl. A real beauty. We watched her for awhile, and she did not seem to mind although she kept her big eyes on us most of the time. Finally, she flew away.

We walked out on the boardwalk to take another look at the lake. This time she shone an emerald green, the greenest color we had seen.mono lake096

mono lake039Mono Lake is enchanting and unforgettable. Hopefully, we will return and witness even more of her colors.

~ Brendamono lake078

17 thoughts on “The Many Colors of Mono Lake

  1. Hector and Brenda, you really outdid yourselves on this post- such beautiful photography and descriptions of a place that almost defies description! The bird shots are amazing too- that owl…WOW! I’ll never forget that cold early morning exploring the tufas at sunrise, so glad we were able to share that experience with you!

    • Thank you, Russ! The owl was so much fun to watch, he was way up in the tree, but we got pretty much right under her. We really enjoyed exploring with you too – stay tuned for Bodie. By the way, the photo of you and Polly is my favorite – so sweet!

  2. Oh, what a wonderful world! Thanks for the stunning reminders. Godspeed, Friends. xo
    PS Angel looks FAB!!!!!

  3. The post I have been waiting for is finally here and well worth the wait! What a beautiful post! Hector your photos of the lake, sunrise, and tufas are just magnificent. Brenda, you narrative is so beautifully written. You two are quite the team:) Hector, I love looking at your photos because they always appear so authentic. I feel like I am seeing what you actually see. I am very excited to make this drive and fianlly visit the incredible lake in the fall.

    That is quite a nest stand that osprey has decided to build on top of. Hope it doesn’t blow off! And to find that owl…how cool!! This is one creature we have yet to find.

    Love that last photo of the three of you:) You had the perfect location to enjoy this gorgeous place.

    • Thank you, Pam. We may actually go back in the fall, if we are not too late out of Canada so might see you there. We love owls, if you go to Mono Lake, this one hangs out in the county park in one of the poplar trees.

  4. What a nice post!! Really makes me want to visit and spend some time! Great description and wonderful pics! But all those early morning excursions…!!!

  5. I have been patiently waiting for this post as I knew that I was going to be blessed with some stunning photos of the tufas, and I was not disappointed…beautiful! But equally as wonderful is the birdlife that you captured Hector! Imagine what we will see when you get to Alaska. Great post! 🙂

    • Thank you! There is lots of great birdlife at the lake, and apparently even more so in the summer. We’ve seen lots of birds in Yellowstone, can’t wait to share them.

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