The Bizarre Reason This Mesmerizing Lake Is One Of The Most Dangerous In California

When it comes to bodies of water in California, you probably think of the ocean. But the state is also home to some stunning lakes. From Big Bear Lake, one of the world's most filmed lakes in southern California to the incredibly blue Lake Tahoe in northern California, the Golden State has some impressive and idyllic lakes. One of its most dangerous lakes is also one of its most beautiful — Mono Lake. The dangers come predominantly from the water's unique chemical characteristics.


In California's Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, the 60-square-mile Mono Lake formed close to a million years ago, and it gets its water primarily from a series of streams that drains snowmelt from the mountains. But there's no outlet for the water, so as it evaporates, it leaves behind salts and minerals. Over time, this has made Mono Lake even saltier than the ocean, and it has a pH of 9.8, similar to that of glass cleaner. The water also has arsenic in it, so whatever you do, you do not want to drink water straight from Mono Lake.

Air quality at Mono Lake can be dangerous

Beyond the water at Mono Lake, it's actually the air quality that can be the most dangerous. Water from Mono Lake is used by Los Angeles — it's treated first! — and as the water is taken from the lake or the water levels drop due to drought, it exposes its highly alkaline dry lake bed. When the wind kicks up, the ensuing dust storms are composed of fine particulates that are damaging to human health and particularly problematic for people with bronchitis, heart disease, asthma, and other respiratory conditions.


It's not a constant, year-round condition, but pretty much nowhere else in the U.S. will you find more concentrated particulate pollution than you can find at Mono Lake. The lake has also had the unfortunate distinction of having an astonishing amount of National Ambient Air Quality Standard violations, according to the Mono Lake Newsletter. October is one of the worst months for the dust storms, which can blanket nearby towns and reduce visibility to a quarter mile.

Mono Lake has a unique beauty despite its dangers

The chemicals and salts that make Mono Lake so potentially dangerous have also helped make it uniquely beautiful. It has an otherworldly quality to it thanks to its tufa towers, which form as calcium and carbonate combine. And while there aren't any fish in Mono Lake because of its alkalinity, there are plenty of brine shrimp. The lake is also a vital destination for a number of bird species. California gulls come by the tens of thousands in the spring to feed on the brine shrimp while over a million eared grebes come to Mono Lake in the fall.


Mono Lake isn't one of the most dangerous places to swim in the world, so long as you don't swallow much of it. And thanks to its high salt content, you'll be impressed by the buoyancy of the water. However, if you have any open cuts, maybe give swimming at Mono Lake a pass — that salt will make them sting! And while snorkeling is a possibility, you'll want to make sure you have a very well-fitting mask.

So if you don't have any underlying respiratory conditions or if you're going to make your visit quick, consider adding Mono Lake to your list. Just make sure to bring your own drinking water!