Mono Lake

Chuck Graham

Mono Lake

Close Escapes: Mono Lake

Lots of Tufas and Birds Were Expected; Hot Springs Were Not

The continuous chirps were clear but unseen, carrying across Navy Beach just below the craters of the Eastern Sierra high desert. Then we spotted the osprey majestically perched on one of the taller limestone tufas overlooking the glassy, shallow waters of Mono Lake.

Kayak or stand-up paddleboard? Check. Tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad? Check. Food, water, down jacket, fleece pants, gloves, sunscreen, hat, and lip balm? Check. These were just some of my essentials for full paddling immersion on Mono Lake. Except my friend also brought a kite.

The saline lake just below the small town of Lee Vining — a half-day drive from Santa Barbara — is best explored by some sort of self-propelled watercraft. That felt especially true when we saw a busload of tourists barreling down the dirt road with a huge plume of dust behind them.

The biggest attraction is the knobby columns of limestone tufas found on the southerly lakeshore. A permit is required to paddle Mono Lake, but it’s free and can be picked up at the visitor center in Lee Vining. Just expect to be grilled by someone at the front desk warning about high desert winds suddenly whipping across the lake. A ranger told me there have been paddlers in the past who didn’t make it back due to those sneaky gales. Then it occurred to me why my friend brought a kite.

While tufas and too many migratory birds to count were to be expected, hot springs in the middle of the lake were not. One night we camped on the north side of Paoha Island. Before that, we paddled to its south shore and noticed geothermal plumes spewing out of the volcanic rock. They were also bubbling up beneath the shallow shoreline. Some of the water was too hot to sit in, but we found a comfortable spot to float the afternoon away.

To paddle Mono Lake, go to

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