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The Geologic Big Picture: Great Basin Edge
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Great Basin Edge
The Big Picture

A sail on the lake develops a group of pictures of rare beauty and grandeur. Long ranks of snowy swans on the dark water; clouds of ducks enveloped in silvery spangles. The mighty barren Sierra rising abruptly from the water to a height of seven thousand feet, and stretching north and south for twenty miles with rows of snowy peaks. Ranges of cumulus clouds swelling in massive bosses of pearl--cloud mountains and rock mountains equally grand...

John Muir
excerpted from his journals



View from Mt. Warren looking east 5,942 vertical feet above Mono LakeHere is a journey we do not recommend: Beginning at the summit of Mt. Warren in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and traveling east we will descend down steep, avalanche-prone slopes and drainages, dropping nearly 6,000 ft in elevation within five miles. At the western shore of Mono Lake we will slip into salty, alkaline waters, past tufa-coated pumice boulders, and begin a leisurely swim of about 13 miles across the surface of the lake. After several miles we will navigate the channel between Negit and Paoha, Mono Lake's volcanic islands. Several miles later we will emerge from the eastern edge of the lake and shake the brine shrimp out of our swimsuits. The alkaline water has transformed us into human prunes, but we will nonetheless begin hiking across a thin strip of muddy, wetland shoreline to the sagebrush scrub. We soon find our way into the Adobe Hills, hiking just north of the Cowtrack Mountains. Somewhere between Mt. Warren and here, we have entered the western edge of the Great Basin.


The Mono Basin sits along the western margin of what is commonly referred to as the Great Basin. Hydrologists, biologists, and geologists each assign different boundaries and definitions to this vast landscape. From the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Range in Utah, and from eastern Oregon to the CA/NV/AZ border, this large geographical area has no outlet to the ocean, and is punctuated with long, north-south trending mountain ranges and basins. Sagebrush is the most common shrub, while pinon pine and juniper dot higher elevations. Pronghorn antelope, rattlesnakes, sagebrush lizards, and Golden Eagles make their home here. The Great Basin is one of the four great deserts in North America, among the four it has the highest average elevation and coldest average temperatures.


NASA Space Shuttle photo of the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin. Can you spot Pyramid, Tahoe, Walker, and Mono Lakes?Mono Lake is but one of many lakes spread throughout the Great Basin. The greatest concentration of lakes lie along the western margin of the Great Basin—Mono, Walker, Pyramid, Honey, Goose, Abert, and Malheur. On the eastern margin of the Great Basin lies Great Salt Lake, an impressive saline lake that together with its western sisters is also a remnant of wetter, ice age climate. Fifteen thousand years ago nearly every valley in the Great Basin was filled with water, some filled together to form inland seas. Since the onset of a drier, warmer climate these lakes have shrunk or dried up completely. They have no outlets, so their waters have varying concentrations of salt and other minerals. Their unique chemistry typically nurtures a productive ecosystem. They are all an oasis of bird life in the stark landscape of the Great Basin. Millions of migratory birds depend on these lakes for food and refuge. Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake together provide nesting habitat for most of the North American population of California Gulls. These two lakes also provide critical habitat for most of the migratory Eared Grebes in North America and most of the migratory Wilson's Phalaropes in the Western Hemisphere.



The Big Picture

Volcanic History


Lake Chemistry



Alkali Flies

Brine Shrimp

Bird Life

Other Wildlife

Plant Communities


Human History

Kutzadika'a People

Prospectors & Pioneers

Water History

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