Exploring Mono Lake by Kayak or Canoe

Oct 15, 2020

With its tufa towers and turquoise water, Mono Lake is a place unlike anywhere else in California. The highly alkaline (salty) waters of the lake combined with the high-altitude desert climate provide rare habitat for a diverse collection of birds, mammals, and some rather strange invertebrates — which makes it an amazing place to explore by kayak or canoe.

Situated between the Eastern Sierra and Great Basin, the ancient lake spans more than 65 square miles, and supports a rich ecosystem—not with fish, but brine shrimp and alkali flies, which attract nearly 2 million birds each year. Mono Lake is situated on one of the biggest migratory paths in North America and is also the nesting habitat for 300 bird species, so it’s not just great for sightseeing, but also an amazing place for bird watching in the Eastern Sierra.

One of the best ways to explore Mono Lake and its remarkable biodiversity is by human-powered boat. While motorboats are prohibited on the lake, canoes, paddle boards, and kayaks are permitted and even encouraged. Several local outfitters have kayaks and paddle boards for rent (more info below) and the Mono Lake Committee offers canoe and kayak naturalist tours on weekends into early September. Find more information about tour schedules and reservations (required).

How to Kayak Mono Lake

If you have your own human-powered watercraft, Navy Beach on the south shore is the best launch spot on the lake. Take U.S. Highway 395 north from Mammoth Lakes and turn right onto State Highway 120 just before Lee Vining. Follow the signs to Navy Beach.

No kayak? No worries. Caldera Kayaks offers guided natural history tours of Mono Lake and provides all the gear you’ll need. You’ll follow a guide along the shoreline, through the tufa towers and to the inlet of Rush Creek. No experience is required, but a sense of adventure helps. The Mono Lake Committee also offers naturalist tours in canoes.

The Birth of Mono Lake

Mono Lake began forming around 750,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest lakes in North America. At this time, the Eastern Sierra was undergoing a period of rapid extension, or pulling apart. This pulling apart caused the Mono Basin area to drop below the surrounding mountains, creating a deep depression in the earth’s crust.

Runoff water from the surrounding mountains became trapped in the basin, especially each spring when the snows receded. With no outflow and limited inflow during the summer and fall, salts and calcium rapidly accumulated in the lake as the surface water evaporated. Today, scientists consider Mono Lake to be hypersaline (more salty than the ocean) and many very unique organisms have adapted to thrive within this ecosystem.

The Aquatic Environment

As previously mentioned, the waters of Mono Lake are incredibly alkaline. In fact, the water is three times saltier than the ocean and has a PH of around 10. These conditions are too harsh for fish and for most other organisms.

In the absence of competition, tiny invertebrate brine shrimp flourish in the lake. Have you ever seen sea monkeys or had them as “pets”? If so, then you know what brine shrimp are.

The brine shrimp of Mono Lake are their own distinct species (Artemia monica) and they are only found within the lake’s waters.  About a third of a penny in size, the shrimp are small but are far from microscopic. They feed on plankton and die off in the winter when cold temperatures set in. In the spring dormant embryonic cysts left in the mud from the previous generation of the brine shrimp hatch and bloom, creating an explosion of underwater life once the lake’s water begins to rise in temperature.

These tiny crustaceans number in the trillions in Mono Lake and are a very crucial component of the lake’s ecosystem. They are a source of protein and nutrition for millions of migrating birds, especially when their numbers peak in the late summer.  During this time, the waters of the lake come alive with the underwater dance of the brine shrimp. When paddling on Mono Lake during the summer, it is impossible to not be surrounded by millions upon millions of the brine shrimp.

The lake does have a commercial fishery and produces dried brine shrimp as fish food and pet fodder. Their catch does nothing to impact the brine shrimp population, making the operation completely sustainable and ecologically sound.

Bird Watching at Mono Lake

For one of nature’s grandest displays of biodiversity, keep an eye on the sky. Millions upon millions of birds comprising over 300 species visit the Mono Basin annually. From song and sea birds to birds of prey, they all may be found around the lake. Some stop here on their migratory paths, others stop at the lake to breed and nest on the lake’s islands.

Birds are able to capitalize on the readily available source of nutrition provided by Mono Lake and the lake is arguably the most crucial body of water for migratory birds in North America. Visiting birds find a rich and abundant food source of high energy brine shrimp and alkali flies. It is no coincidence that Mono Lake’s bird population reaches it’s highest levels in the middle of summer to early fall, which is when the invertebrate population peaks as well.

Over 100 species use the Mono Lake area for nesting and the lake’s broad islands are considered critical nesting habitat for several species of song and sea birds. One of most common nesting birds is the California gull, which generally lay their eggs on the small islands surrounding Paoha Island. Over 60,000 of these gulls return each spring to nest in Mono Basin and will remain until the middle of the fall.  Unlike most gulls, California gulls travel inland to raise their young around lakes and aside from the Great Salt Lake in Utah, Mono Lake is the second large breeding ground for these birds.

Near the end of the summer, throngs of Wilson’s phalarope invade the Mono Lakes Basin on their migratory path. These small wading birds use the lake to replenish their fuel reserves while en route from their Canadian nesting grounds to their winter range high in the Andes. While small and modest looking, these birds are fast and may fly the 3,000 miles from Mono Lake to South America in as little as 3 days!
In October, the lake explodes with almost two million visiting eared grebes, which is most of North America’s population. These small diving duck-like birds may double to triple body weight on brine shrimp before moving on. Some have even been reported to fatten themselves to the point of being unable to fly!

Throughout the summer, predatory osprey raise their broods in nests perched high upon the tufa towers of the lake’s southern shores near Navy Beach. These spires of rock are completely surrounded by water and provide critical and safe nesting habitat for these magnificent birds of prey. When paddling, please allow plenty of space around the tufa tower nesting sites to limit disrupting the osprey.

Due to it’s importance as a migratory route for many birds, Mono Lakes is designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN). Certain restrictions may be in effect to protect nesting or migratory birds, so before you head out onto the lake, check in at the Mono Lake Information Center. This modern facility is located on the northern outskirts of the small town of Lee Vining, conveniently just off of U.S. Route 395.

Wildlife at Mono Lake

The Mono Lake ecosystem also supports a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Mule deer and coyote may be seen roaming through the surrounding sage brush, especially along the shorelines of the northeast corner of the lake or around Rush Creek.

In the underbrush, blue-bellied lizards may be seen darting among the rocks throughout the daytime. In the mornings and in the evenings, jackrabbits and ground squirrels emerge from their burrows to forage during the cooler hours.  With 10’s of miles of shoreline, Mono Lake is perfect for recreational boaters interested in observing the local wildlife from the water.

Tips and Things to Consider Before Paddling Mono Lake

  • Most of the time, access to the lake is available year round, although conditions can change very rapidly in the Eastern Sierra. Contact the Inyo National Forest at (760)-873-2400 or stop by the Mono Lake Information Center for current weather conditions and for advice. 
  • Stop at the Mono Lake State Nature Reserve and take a self-guided walk along the boardwalk to learn about the stunning tufa towers and history of the basin.
  • Be aware of rapidly changing weather while on the lake, as increased winds may pose a risk, especially in the center of the lake.
  • Always have at least one Coast Guard approved life jacket per boater, as under California state law.
  • The sun can be quite intense while on the lake and it is highly recommended that ample water and sunscreen is taken. Sunglasses, sunhat, and long-sleeved clothing are highly encouraged.
  • One of the easiest places to launch small craft is at Navy Beach, which is on the south shore of the lake. For additional launching points and for advice, stop by the Mono Lake Information Center in Lee Vining.
  • The small town of Lee Vining offers basic services. The Mono Lake Information Center in Lee Vining is a great resource for information about the region. For complete services and additional boat rentals, the city of Mammoth Lakes is only 30 miles to the south, just off of U.S. Rt. 395.
  • If interested in bird watching, don’t forget your binoculars, camera, and birding guide. Ask the scientists at the Mono Lake Information Center for recent sightings and advice. For a complete list of all of the confirmed bird species, visit www.monolake.org/about/birdlist.
  • Camping is allowed on the east end of the lake, although check with the info center and permits are required (available at the info center). Camping is not allowed anywhere on the south and west end shorelines of the lake. After September 1st, restricted camping may be available on Paoha Island although check in prior to embarking for current regulations.

Just beyond the crest of the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains looming to the west of Mono Lake is Yosemite National Park. While only a short drive away, the ecosystems of the lake and the park are drastically different and it is a true rarity to be able experience such clashing environments in a single day. Plus, a visit to Mono Lake offers a break from the summer crowds of the national park. 
Whether paddling Mono Lake in your own boat or a rental, take a moment and relax in the middle. Listen to the waves lap against the boat’s hull. Gaze at the jagged mountain skyline, rising almost 5000 ft. above, as you become immersed within the unique Mono Lake ecosystem  There are only a handful of places in the world like Mono Lake, so take advantage of the lake’s easy access and go explore!

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