Kayaking Mono Lake Tufas from the State Natural Reserve
Mono Lake is a fascinating place to visit when spending time in Yosemite or the Eastern Sierras! It’s a lake that’s fed by many snow-melt streams, but that has no outlet. As a result, it’s 2–3x saltier than the ocean (so extra fun to float in!). Additionally, LA Country began diverting water from it in the 40s, and at one point the water level was 40 vertical feet below it’s pre-diversion level. This caused the previously underwater tufas to be exposed. Tufas are giant limestone structures that form when underwater streams mix with lake water that’s rich in carbonates. Mono Lake is one of the few places in the world that these formations are above ground, so definitely a treat to kayak around!
Where to Kayak
Everything we read suggested going to the South Tufa area and Navy Beach, however, this was closed due to the fires, so we kayaked from State Natural Reserve instead. This has almost as many tufas as South Tufa/Navy Beach, but is even more convenient to access from Highway 395. There’s a nice parking lot directly off the 395 with picnic tables, a pit toilet, and a short walk to the beach. We carried out kayaks the 100 meters from the car to a nice spot to launch on the beach. There’s a few small tufas by the parking lot along shore, so we found a spot a bit to the west where we could safely maneuver off shore.
Some things to remember about kayaking here:
- The winds pick up like crazy in the afternoon! It’s not uncommon to get whitecaps, and it picks up quite quickly. We started our trip at 1pm on glass-clear water, and, by the time we were returning an hour later, we were paddling against wind-born waves.
- With it being 3x saltier than the ocean, you’ll get super salty kayaking here. The evaporated spray on your skin leaves a fine white, silky powder. Felt extra great to shower once we got back home!
- Osprey nest atop the tufas. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some young in the nests. But it’s illegal to get within 200 yards of the nesting birds.
- The ground is super muddy/mucky — A few places we stepped, we ended up sinking in to our knees and it was hard to get out. So step cautiously!
What Gear to Bring
- Intex Explorer K2 Inflatable Kayak — We were incredibly impressed with these inflatable kayaks. They’re definitely wider than a normal kayak, and felt a little scarier in wind gusts, but the portability and price is unmatched. The walk from the parking lot to the beach wasn’t too far, but it was definitely easier to carry these than a normal kayak. Also, don’t forget to plug the drainage hole in the bottom of the boat. We forgot in one of them and had to use the provided inflation pump to bail water. It worked great though!
- Giant Inflatable Unicorn Floaty — Because we were 5 people and 4 spots in the kayaks, we pulled my mom on a giant inflatable unicorn.
- Sunscreen — With the high elevation, it’s easy to get burnt!
What Critters to See
- Sea Monkeys — Super cute, tiny brine shrimp that float around in the lake.
- Alkali Flies — See left. There’s millions of them around the lake. They’re fun to walk through and watch swarm away, and the larvae can even be eaten! The Kucadikadi people, who used to live in the area, would harvest them annually as a source of protein and fat. Additionally, they generally live the larvae stage of their life underwater, acquiring oxygen from the photosynthesis of the algae.
- Osprey — They build nests on top of the tufa towers and can be seen there from about May to late August. Don’t forget to stay 200 yards away from the nests!
- California Gulls — 50% of California’s nesting population of California Gull can be found at Mono Lake, so there’s tons!
What else to do at Mono Lake
Kayaking around the tufas isn’t the only option — swimming in Mono Lake is also fun since it’s 2–3x saltier than the ocean. Additionally, many of the tufas can be viewed from shore so just walking along the beach is fun as well. It’s a lovely place for a day trip :)