|July 21, 2002|
“It is one of the strangest freaks of Nature to be found in any land, but it is hardly ever mentioned in print and very seldom visited, because it lies away off the usual routes of travel.” -- Mark Twain
Lee Vining, Calif. — Floating in the shimmering waters of Mono Lake, I gazed at the snow-capped Sierra summits while the lake’s slippery waters kept me effortlessly afloat. More than twice as salty as the ocean, the lake buoys swimmers. I’ve seen pictures of people reading the newspaper while floating in this saline sea. But reading was not the order of the day.
I’d booked a canoe tour with the Mono Lake Committee, a non-profit citizens group dedicated to saving and restoring Mono Lake. The hauntingly beautiful high desert lake has spurred more water-rights controversy than any other watershed in California history.
For many people, ancient Mono Lake and the nearby town of Lee Vining perform the role of extended rest stop. Nestled along U.S. 395, two hours south of Reno, 30 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and 10 miles east of Yosemite National Park, drivers briefly pit-stop here en route to the more popular vacation destinations of Lake Tahoe or Yosemite. Mark Twain wrote about Mono Lake in the 1800s: “It is one of the strangest freaks of Nature to be found in any land, but it is hardly ever mentioned in print and very seldom visited, because it lies away off the usual routes of travel.”
Not much has changed in 200 years. Thousands of cars bypass this vast inland sea annually, yet Mono Lake is one of the most peaceful, serene getaways in the state.
Sitting in an ancient geologic basin, Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America, more than 700,000 years old. A saline terminal lake, it has no outlet. Cool High Sierra snowmelt flows down steep granite canyons to the lake, its bubbly final resting place.
The water’s so alkaline, you can dip the most soiled garment and it will come out clean. (I now own a spotless a pair of tennis shoes). As long as you don’t have open cuts or abrasions, it’s a delightful immersion experience. Be careful putting your face in the water. The salt will sting eyes and can irritate noes and mouths.
I slowly waded out of the lake, covered with a white, salty dust. After a quick freshwater shower, I was amazed at the softness of my skin. No spa exfoliation treatment can compare to a quick dip in Mono Lake. There’s a local saying: “A dip in Mono Lake will cure just about anything.”
Mono Lake is one of the World’s Living Lakes, lakes of extreme international ecological importance. Mono Lake is the United States’ sole Living Lakes representative. Its ecosystem, composed primarily of algae, brine shrimp and alkali flies, is one of the most productive in the world. Have you ever hatched sea monkeys? In summer, Mono Lake is full of them. Brine shrimp, technically named Artema Monica, are tiny crustaceans that birds regard as “haute cuisine.”
Nesting birds consist of snowy plovers and California gulls. The lake is home to 85 percent of the Golden State’s breeding population of California gulls; it’s the second largest colony in the world after the group in Great Salt Lake in Utah. Eared grebes, Wilson’s phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes and 79 other species of water birds migrate through the Mono Lake area.
Not only does the lake have a unique natural history, it has a political story. Before 1978, few people had heard of Mono Lake, yet millions in Los Angeles unknowingly were using water diverted from its tributary streams. If you lived in the West then, you probably saw “Save Mono Lake” bumper stickers.
About 40 years earlier, in 1941, Los Angeles obtained a permit to divert the streams feeding Mono Lake. Thousands of gallons of water were diverted, making Mono Lake three times as saline as the ocean. Toxic arsenic dust storms formed on the eastern edge of the lake as the volcanic lake bottom was exposed to the air. The delicate ecological balance was upset, and birds died as their food supply dwindled due to high saline concentrations.
In 1978, biologist David Gaines became concerned and formed the Mono Lake Committee. His crusade to end the water diversion brought the issue to the California Supreme Court in 1983. That resulted in the California State Water Board’s 1994 decision to order minimum and maintenance flows from all the diverted streams until Mono Lake reaches a water level of 6,392 feet above sea level. That is expected to happen in 2015.
Currently, the lake’s water level is at 6,382.8 feet. The lake’s annual average evaporation is 45 inches, and California experiences frequent droughts.
Seeing Mono Lake
On the canoe tour, my husband and I gently rocked as we glided past some of the most distinctive lake features, called tufa towers. These conspicuous mineral deposits are calcium carbonate formations created underneath the surface when freshwater streams and chemical lake waters meet. We glided over the creation springs, leaned over and scooped up thousands of sea monkeys.
Guided canoe tours are a great way to see the lake and enjoy a relaxing paddle. The Mono Lake Committee hosts one-hour-long weekend canoe tours at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. To make reservations, call (760) 647-6595 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Cost is $17 for adults, $7 children age 4-12. Children younger than 4 are not allowed. Special group tours can be arranged.
If being out on the water in a canoe or kayak isn’t your cup of joe, the tufa towers and brine shrimp can be seen via a handicapped-accessible trail at the Mono Lake Tufa Reserve. The Tufa Reserve is the best spot (on land) to see these amazing formations. As the lake has risen over the years, more and more tufa are being submerged, returning to the sea where they were formed. There’s a year-round self-guided tour, and during summer, naturalist-guided tours.
The South Tufa Reserve is 11 miles east of Lee Vining. Take U.S. 395 south, then California 120 east toward Benton. There’s a small sign on the left for the South Tufa Reserve, followed by a well-maintained gravel road leading to the reserve. South Tufa is a federal fee area: $3 for adults, free for those younger than 18. Bring drinking water, as the nearest services are in Lee Vining.
Summer lodging is available at many motels in town including AAA Best Western Lakeview Lodge, Yosemite Gateway Motel and El Mono Motel. Resorts include Tioga Lodge, just north of town; Lundy Lake Resort and Virginia Lakes Resort, both outside of town.
Including Yosemite in your trip? Tioga Pass Resort offers log cabin lodging nine miles west on California 120, Tioga Pass, two miles east of Yosemite. Popular summer eateries include Bodie Mike’s Barbeque, the walk-up Mono Cone and Tioga Lodge. Don’t miss the sunset dining at the Mono Inn, owned and operated by Sarah Adams, Ansel Adams’ granddaughter. The best spot to wait for your table is, of course, the adjacent Ansel Adams Gallery.
From May to September, the Mono Lake Committee runs many lake activities. In addition to canoe tours, it offers interpretive walks, birding excursions and field seminars.
With the first snowfall of winter, a whole new lake emerges. Tourist season is over, and a silent white wonderland transforms the Mono Basin. It is one of the most stark, yet beautiful times of the year. Motels open in winter include AAA Best Western Lakeview Lodge, Yosemite Gateway Motel and Murphey’s Motel. Nicely’s Restaurant, diner-style, is the only choice as cordial staff scurry around crowded tables.
The best way to experience Mono Lake in winter is on skis. The U.S. Forest Service offers cross-country ski tours when snow conditions permit. My brother and I were skiing at South Tufa when bright sun shone across new-fallen snow, giving the illusion of sliding across trillions of sparkling diamonds. Seeing the lake reflect the towering peaks of a snow-laden Sierra is a treat few people experience.
If you go
The Mono Lake Committee Information Center is where to start. The staff will show you where to swim, hike, locate a campsite, and sign you up for a tour. The information center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, year-round. Online, visit the Web site www.monolake.org. Details: (760) 647-6595.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center is one-quarter mile north of Lee Vining and is open daily in the summer and on weekends only during winter. Details: (760) 647-3044.
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