Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area is on the east side of Yosemite National Park. At the heart of the Forest is Lake Mono, one of the oldest lakes in the state and the fourth largest. Some consider it to be one of the most underrated tourist destinations, especially in an area that is not too far from destinations such as Yosemite and Mammoth.
It's not common to find a lake with a high salt concentration—it almost seems like an oxymoron considering that most lakes have freshwater. However, this unique attribute gives Lake Mono an equally unique ecosystem. One of its most popular distinguishing features: are tufa towers (limestone formations) along the lakeshore.
As part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), Lake Mono has been identified as a critical feeding ground for hundreds of migratory birds. As a result, Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area is the perfect pitstop for a nature trip.
The tufas of Lake Mono are a known nesting area of ospreys and owls. These form due to a combination of the high calcium content of the freshwater springs and naturally occurring carbonates, which causes a chemical reaction that forms the tufa. Tufas are very fragile and brittle rock formations. They are prone to erosion due to weather changes and even the carelessness of humans. This is why visitors are advised to take photos of the tufa from a safe distance and not attempt to get close for the risk of damaging the tufa.
A lot of people go to the area just to see the lake and the tufas. These are so unique and unlike any other natural wonder in the area. Sadly, it is not as well-known as its neighbors, Yosemite and Mammoth.
The Wildlife At Lake Mono
Lake Mono does not have fish, but it is the breeding ground and habitat of brine shrimp (Artemia Monica) and alkali flies. These are two types of creatures that migratory birds feed on. Visit the lake during migration season to see different species of birds: Western, Least, and Baird's sandpipers, Dowitcher, American Avocet, Sabine's Gull, Black Tern, Parasitic Jaeger, and Wilson's Phalarope.
Brine shrimp (Artemia Monica) is a species unique to Mono Lake. These shrimp are no longer than a thumbnail. Alkali flies live underwater for most of their life cycle, emerge once they enter adulthood, and return to the water to breed. Birds need not reach deep to get their fill of brine shrimp and alkali flies. Lake Mono is a popular stopover for migratory birds. Those who will visit during spring and summer can see migratory birds passing through.
Go to the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area if you are looking to spend a relaxing day amid nature. This place is protected and focuses on preserving the natural beauty of the site. Visitors can choose from the following activities:
- Watching the sunrise and sunset at Navy Beach or South Tufa
- Nature Walk
- Swimming – not recommended, but some people try it out. Make sure to take a shower or rinse off all the salt and saltwater immediately after getting out. When salt water dries on the skin it can irritate it. Bear in mind that some public restrooms and shower areas might not be available.
- Bird Walk – accompanied by a naturalist, visitors can look out for exotic birds that live within this area.
- Panum Crater – a guided, easy hike where visitors can learn about the area's geologic history.
- South Tufa Walk – learn about the wildlife, geology, and marine life of the area. Visitors can see phalaropes loading up on alkali flies and brine shrimp during the fall before migrating to warmer regions like South America. Register for the South Tufa walking tour here.
- Lundy Canyon Bird Walk – a naturalist will guide visitors through Lundy Canyon. Visitors can learn about the various bird species that live in an area surrounded by open water, woodlands, and a forest.
Mono Basin Natural Forest Scenic Area offers options for visitors who (for whatever reason) cannot make it to the site:
- Online content from their website
- Schedule of seminars
- Custom education trip
What To bring
Before exploring the forest and the lake, make sure to pack the following items:
The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area is open daily, 7:00 am to 8:00 pm, all year. It has free admission so that visitors can come at any time during the year. Like many state parks, certain areas of the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area might be closed for reasons such as bad weather conditions or seasonal closure. It's best to check the website regarding any announcements.
Nearby Landmarks and Attractions
Here are other nearby attractions:
- Yosemite National Park (1 hour away),
- Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain (30 minutes away),
- June Lake
- Town of Bridgeport (30 minutes away)
- Lake Tahoe
- Palm Springs
Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area is a beautiful place to visit either on the way to or from nearby national parks and landmarks. While it's not a top tourist destination, it is still worth visiting due to its beauty and tranquility. You won't see hordes of people crowding around significant sites!