Tufa Towers of Mono Lake

Mono Lake looks like a lunar landscape.

Mono Lake Tufa-Yellow Flowers half SN003 300

Mono Lake (pronounced moh-noh) is a salt lake located in central California close to the Nevada state line and near Yosemite National Park. The lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America, formed at least 760,000 years ago if not 1-3 million years ago. The surface area covers 65 square miles. The lake is three times saltier than the ocean.

Clint Eastwood chose the alien Mono Lake landscape as the location for his 1973 film High Plains Drifter.

Mono Lake has no outlet; therefore, the mineral content of the fresh water from the streams that feed the lake becomes salty. The tufa towers form beneath the lake when underwater springs mix with the lake waters. They are composed of calcium carbonate limestone.


In 1941 the City of Los Angeles began diverting water from these streams. Over the years the lake level dropped 45 feet, exposing the tufa towers. By 1982 the lake had lost 31 percent of its surface area. It was in peril of becoming a salt flat.

When Los Angeles diverted water from the lake, the lower lake water levels threatened the ecosystem imperiling the two million migratory birds who nest in the area and who feed on the brine shrimp and black flies (that also feed on the shrimp) in the lake. The black, brine flies that thickly ring the lake have no interest in humans, only in the shrimp. There are no fish in the lake.

The mineral content of the lake contains chlorides, carbonates and sulfates, similar to the content of your laundry detergent, high alkaline, a pH of 10. It is said you can dip your laundry into the lake and it will come out clean. The average depth of the lake is 56 feet but can rise to around 158 feet. The water level is notably variable, especially as measured by the height of the exposed tufa towers. In these photos of mine you can see the two major islands in the center of the lake — Paoha, the larger, and Negit, the smaller. The formation of the area is of tectonic and volcanic origin.


To protect the lake and its ecosystem, the Mono Lake Committee, a nonprofit, was formed in 1978 and through litigation, legislation, cooperation and public support the committee has been able to protect the lake from excessive water diversions to Los Angeles. The city has found alternate water sources, thereby drastically reducing the amount of water taken from the tributary streams. Consequently, the water level in the lake has risen from the lowest level of 6,372 feet above sea level (asl) in 1982 to 6,378 feet asl in 2015. Before diversion in 1941 the water level was at 6,417 feet asl. It is expected to take 20 years for Mono Lake to reach the stabilization level of 6,392 feet. At the stabilization level, the lake will be two times saltier than the ocean.

My photos of Mono Lake are not nearly as dramatic as many that are out there. For example, here is one, with no photo credit, I got from the Internet:


Here’s a link to an informative, short blog, with photos of Mono Lake and stills and story of High Plains Drifterhttps://markosun.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/that-mysterious-lake-in-the-clint-eastwood-movie-high-plains-drifter/.

To film High Plains Drifter, the filmmakers built the town of Lago, the town the stranger painted red, on the Mono Lake shore and then dismantled it after they finished filming. Here is an 8:34 minute video taking you step by step through where the movie was filmed: “The Return to Lago: The Great Silence”. You only have to watch the first few minutes of the video to get an idea of the alien landscape that Clint Eastwood meticulously selected for the film site.

You can view a stunning slide show of the lake in all seasons at Mono Lake Committee images.

Here are some additional links, if you’re interested, with more detail and dramatic photos of the lake.

Amusing Planet

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

–Samantha Mozart

12 Responses to Tufa Towers of Mono Lake

  1. Gulara says:

    Wow! It definitely looks very loonar 🙂 very beautiful.

    • sammozart says:

      The first time I saw Mono Lake was when I watched the movie High Plains Drifter. I thought, “Where is that fascinatingly beautiful place? An ocean-looking body of water in the middle of the Wild West high desert? Then, a few years later I saw Mono Lake in person. It’s one of those places you have to keep coming back to, I think, because it changes appearance with the rising and falling water levels and with the light at different hours of the day.

      Thanks for coming by, Gulara.

  2. Red says:

    That’s stunning! I’m always amazed at the natural beauty out there. You’ve certainly seen some unique places!

  3. So many wanders we have in California. Wonderful learning more about Mono Lake. You’re right, it looks like lunar landscape — I suppose very different and alien, almost. Glad the committee has been able to protect the lake. Goes to show that when there is a will, humanity finds a way.

    • sammozart says:

      So true on all counts, Silvia. As for writing about Calf., I was thinking about how much I’ve written about the state and that I could go on. It has a lot. Its geological energy, those dynamics, I think energize the inhabitants. It’s hard to stay still. 🙂 Yes, the Committee, and I’m amazed that nevertheless how slowly the lake level rises.

  4. Gwynn Rogers says:

    This time I receive your post via Facebook and not your Admin so I hope you receive my comment. Mono Lake reminds me vaguely of the Great Salt Lake. The land scape in some of the pictures looks how I would visualize the moon or other planets. Interesting pictures and history.

    • sammozart says:

      The Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake have a quite similar ecology, Gwynn. The Great Salt Lake, of course, is bigger. Yes, Mono Lake does have an interestingly alien landscape; and when you view it from overhead it looks like a caldron of soup.

      As far as connecting to my site via FB, I post those FB links personally, daily, as soon as I can get around to them.

      Better post notification signup app — it’s Feedburner, which I had before and that worked so perfectly. Sign up, if you’d like, in my right sidebar. I tried it and I’m good to go.


  5. Pat Garcia says:

    I didn’t know that High Plains Drifter was filmed at Mono Lake. I will take a look at the links you put in the article. What I do find fantastic is the banding together of people to stop the water pillaging and to preserve the characteristics of the lake and its environmental surroundings.

    Visiting from the A to Z Blog Challenge.

    Patricia @ EverythingMustChange

    • sammozart says:

      When the movie opened, when I first saw it, and Clint Eastwood rides across the high desert sagebrush into this town beside what looked like a little ocean in a lunar landscape, Patricia, I thought where could this possibly be? And then a few years later I went to Mono Lake and I found out. I didn’t even know Mono Lake existed until I worked for the commuter airline flying to Mammoth Lakes. Phenomenal.

      People who live in that area are outdoorsy anyhow, so it’s natural and good they came together. That and the Hetch Hetchy story and what St. Andrew’s school does and what they teach the children, these are all tied together, protecting the ecosystem step by step.