There are few places in California—and maybe on the planet—that can make you think you might just be on Mars. Mono Lake Tufa State National Preserve is one of them. At this high-desert preserve, on the eastern side of the towering Sierra, ghostlike tufa towers trim the edges of a one-million-year-old lake, the salty remnant of an ancient inland sea. Over a million sea birds feed on the surface and swirl overhead—an incredible show of life in this seemingly desolate setting.
Get yourself oriented with a visit to the excellent interpretive center, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains). Inside, exhibits shed light on the natural and human history of the Mono Basin, including major environmental challenges caused by water diversions that almost killed the lake. (Huge efforts by the local Mono Lake Committee, with the help of proceeds from its gift-and-book shop in Lee Vining, have successfully saved it.) Wraparound decks offer expansive views of the dramatic setting—Sierra peaks to the west, chaparral-dotted desert to the east, and views of the lake and its tiny Wizard Island, an important nesting site for western gulls and other sea birds. Bird walks are offered at 8 a.m. Fridays and Sundays, mid-May through Labor Day. The visitor center is closed December through March.
Trails lace the area; you can explore the rehabilitated Lee Vining Creek riparian habitat and the region’s cinder cones, blanketed with obsidian and pumice, or walk in the South Tufa Area. There, you can get close-up views of the lake-trimming calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs flowing into the ultra-alkaline lake water. Because it’s 2.5 times as salty as the ocean, swimming in the lake is a curiously buoyant experience—one not to be missed. All types of boating are permitted, but boaters review the various restrictions on the park’s site. Naturalists lead free tufa walks at the South Tufa Area twice a day from late June through Labor Day; alternately, the natural history of the lake is explained in a one-mile self-guided nature trail. Guided paddles are also offered through Caldera Kayaks.