Kayaking on Mono Lake: An Unforgettable Adventure

Mono Lake is a remarkable and ancient body of water, renowned for its breathtaking tufa towers and vibrant blue colors. Many believe that the only way to truly appreciate the beauty of Mono Lake is from the shoreline. However, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that kayaking is a fantastic way to experience this unique natural wonder. As we glided across the super salty water in our Pelican kayaks, we embarked on an adventure filled with awe-inspiring sights and the thrill of exploration.

Where to Find the Adventure

For those seeking a kayaking adventure on Mono Lake, Navy Beach is the perfect starting point. You can easily locate Navy Beach using the coordinates 37°56’26.35″N 119° 1’11.63″W. Don’t worry if you don’t have your own kayak, as you can rent one from Mono Lake Kayak Rentals or join a guided tour with Caldera Kayak. The level of difficulty for kayaking on Mono Lake is considered intermediate, as navigating through the tufas requires some kayaking skill. Parking is free and a spacious dirt lot is available at Navy Beach. Restrooms are also available, although they may be closed at certain times. The estimated duration for the kayaking trip is 2-4 hours, depending on how far you wish to explore. It is recommended to embark on this adventure in the morning when the lake is calmest, ensuring a safe return to shore before the dangerous afternoon winds pick up. The best seasons for kayaking on Mono Lake are summer and fall, when the weather is mild and the winds are calm.

The Adventure Unveiled

We cannot emphasize enough the importance of starting your kayaking journey on Mono Lake as early as possible in the morning. The afternoon winds can be treacherous, reaching speeds of over 100 mph. Mono Lake is a deceptively unpredictable body of water that has sadly claimed the lives of several kayakers over the years. Therefore, it is crucial to never begin your trip when the winds are blowing.

To launch your kayak, head to Navy Beach, which is the ideal starting point. For additional advice and alternative launching points, you can visit the Mono Lake Information Center in Lee Vining. To reach Navy Beach from the 395 North, take a right on Mono Lake Basin Road or CA-120 E. After approximately 4.7 miles, make a left onto Test Station Rd. Shortly after, you’ll see a sign pointing to Navy Beach; follow it by making a right turn. From here, it’s all dirt road, and you’ll find the parking lot by following the signs or using the provided coordinates.

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If you bring your own kayak, you’ll need to carry it down to the water’s edge. The trail from the parking lot to the water is short but sandy and rocky. If you have a kayak cart, this is the perfect place to use it. We personally made homemade carts, and if you’d like instructions to build your own, you can find them here.

As we approached the water, we were welcomed by the familiar buzzing sound of the Alkaline flies that inhabit Mono Lake. These harmless insects cover the shore but quickly move aside as you walk through them. Now, you have a choice for your kayaking route on Mono Lake. Option one is to paddle 2.75 miles each way across the lake to Paoha Island. However, this option requires intermediate kayaking skills due to the unpredictable weather conditions and the need to depart early to avoid the afternoon winds. Option two, which we opted for, is to follow the shoreline for approximately 0.4 miles and paddle amidst the renowned tufa formations. This route felt more exciting and iconic to us, guaranteeing a swift return to the shore if the wind picked up. When paddling among the tufas, be cautious not to damage them, as it is prohibited by law.

During your kayaking adventure, keep an eye out for osprey nests, especially during mating season. These majestic birds require their space, and signs remind kayakers to stay at least 250 yards away from their nests. However, some nests can be hidden behind tufas, so it’s important to remain vigilant. If you encounter rangers or birdwatchers on the shore, don’t hesitate to ask them for information on the nest locations.

Leaving from Navy Beach and tracing the coastline, we discovered the most scenic part of Mono Lake. The tufas stood majestically in front of us, while the Sierra Nevada mountains loomed in the distance, creating a breathtaking panorama. Despite the abundance of alkaline flies buzzing above the water, they seemed to decrease as we paddled further away from the shore.

The high salinity of the water gave our kayaks a unique buoyancy, lifting them slightly higher than usual. However, this did not compromise stability. Beneath the clear water, we observed a multitude of brine shrimp, creating a mesmerizing sight. It was like being part of a sea monkey convention (for those unfamiliar, sea monkeys are brine shrimp).

Kayaking on Mono Lake is a truly extraordinary experience. As we ventured forward, we noticed bubbles emerging from the water’s surface. Upon closer inspection, we discovered tufas submerged about two feet below, with natural springs shooting out like underwater volcanoes.

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Numerous underwater tufas are scattered along the route, some surprising us if we didn’t pay close attention. One caught Dustin off guard, forcing him to quickly maneuver to avoid colliding with it.

As we reached the peninsula, we hugged the shoreline to steer clear of the osprey nests. We noticed a canoe tour group paddling through the tufas, indicating that it was safe to follow suit. Rounding the peninsula, we found ourselves immersed among the tufa formations, a view that can only be accessed from the water.

The technical aspect of kayaking on Mono Lake thrilled us. There were numerous narrow passages to explore, but we remained cautious, making sure not to damage any tufas. A short hiking trail runs behind the tufas, offering a different perspective from the shore. It can be accessed from the South Tufa parking lot, and you’ll be awed by the unique viewpoint we enjoyed from the water.

Continuing our adventure, we discovered another fascinating section of tufa formations just beyond the hiking trail. Although many of the tufa areas appeared similar, we persisted, uncovering every hidden passageway we could find.

After spending some time paddling, Dustin decided to follow the recommendation of a friendly lady we had met at the Olancha Sculpture Garden. She suggested taking a swim in the lake. Despite initial apprehension due to the flies, Dustin took the plunge. It was a surreal experience as he instantly floated to the water’s surface. The lake’s salinity makes you even more buoyant than in the ocean. If you decide to swim, ensure there’s a nearby place to shower afterward, as the water leaves a salty film on your skin. Just remember to protect your eyes from the water.

We highly recommend embarking on the Mono Lake kayaking adventure at least once if you have the opportunity. It offers an unparalleled experience on a truly unique body of water. However, remember to give your kayaks a thorough wash afterward, as they become quite crusty due to the saltwater. If you’re seeking affordable accommodation nearby, Tom’s Place is an excellent choice, known for its exceptional customer service. While traveling along Highway 395, don’t miss out on visiting Fossil Falls and the Hot Creek Geological Site. If you’re heading to Tahoe, we recommend kayaking at Sand Harbor and taking a stunning sunset hike down to the beautiful Chimney Beach. For a more extreme adventure, consider checking out Tahoe Via Ferrata.

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Recommended Gear

Don’t forget to check out our Recommended Gear section as well. Here are a few essential items to consider bringing:

  • Sunscreen: Protect yourself from the intense sun with eco-friendly sunscreen options like Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen or Sun Bum Sunscreen.
  • Water shoes: A pair of water shoes, such as ALEADER Women’s Mesh Slip-on Water Shoes or ALEADER Men’s Quick Drying Aqua Water Shoes, can come in handy for climbing boulders or navigating the beach area.
  • Water: Ensure you bring an ample supply of water, as the lake’s exposure to the sun can leave you feeling dehydrated.
  • Dry bag: Keep your towels, sunscreen, camera, and phones protected with a reliable dry bag like the Field and Stream Dry Bag or Earth Pak Waterproof Dry Bag.
  • Lunch and snacks: Pack a delicious lunch and some snacks to keep hunger at bay during your adventure.
  • Towels: If you plan on taking a dip in the water, don’t forget to bring towels.
  • Life jacket: Always adhere to California state law and have at least one Coast Guard approved life jacket per person on board.
  • Waterproof Phone Case: While not mandatory, a waterproof phone case like the Mpow Waterproof Case can be useful for taking photos or playing music without the risk of water damage.
  • Windbreaker or jacket: Prepare for sudden weather changes by bringing a windbreaker or jacket.
  • Collapsible Cooler: Keep your water cold with a compact cooler like the Igloo Maxcold Cooler, perfect for fitting inside your kayak.
  • Kayak and Paddle: Opt for reliable kayaks such as the Pelican Mustang 100x Kayak and Pelican Sports Poseidon Kayak Paddle.
  • Binoculars: If you’re interested in birdwatching, consider bringing binoculars to observe the numerous bird species present at Mono Lake.

Camera Gear

Capture stunning moments on your adventure with the following camera gear:

  • Camera: We recommend the Sony a7 III and GoPro Hero 7 Black for high-quality photos and videos.
  • Accessories: Enhance your GoPro shots with the Bobber – Floating Hand Grip for GoPro HERO Cameras.
  • Lenses: Opt for the versatile Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T Zoom Lens and the Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 EX lens.
  • Drone: To take breathtaking aerial shots, consider using the Mavic 2 Pro Combo drone.

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Remember, if you’re looking for a truly extraordinary kayaking adventure, Mono Lake is the place to be. So grab your paddle, embark on this unique experience, and explore the wonders of Mono Lake. For more exciting adventures and useful tips, visit UpStreamPaddle.