I topped the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California and caught my first glimpse of Mono Lake. From afar it looked like just another body of water, but up close it took on an otherworldly appearance. All along the shore and from its placid lake waters, immense pinnacles jutted skyward. These eerie spires, known as tufa formations, seemed fragile, as if a mere touch would cause them to disintegrate and crumble to dust in the surrounding moonscape.
Mono Lake, which is fed only by mountain runoff, has no outlet other than evaporation. During periods of high evaporation, dissolved salts in the water raise the lake’s pH level and salt concentration, making it 80 times more alkaline and 2 1/2 times more salty than the ocean. As the salt load becomes too heavy, it accretes out of the water, forming calcium carbonate deposits that over time have built up into the spires and pinnacles that today surround the lake and soar from its depths.
The tufa building process accelerated when the State of California began diverting water from the Mono Lake in 1941 to serve the growing population of Los Angeles. By 1982 it was reduced to 37,688 acres, having lost 31 percent of its 1941 surface area. Fortunately, by the mid-1970′s Mono Lake was identified as an important stopping point on the migratory bird route and various conservation groups – including the Audubon Society – mounted a successful effort to save it. Since 1994, Mono Lake has been protected and the amount of water that the State can divert strictly controlled. As a result its level has risen, although the current surface is still below historic levels.
During summer months trained naturalist conduct free, one-hour walking tours of the world-famous South Tufa grove, during which they explain how the million-year old ecosystem developed. Canoe, kayak, and motor boat tours are also available during the summer months. For those desiring in-depth knowledge of the lake, weekend classes on birding, wildflowers, photography, and hydrology are conducted by expert instructors.
Mono Lake is located 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park, just off US 395 between Lee Vining and Bridgeport. The US Forest Service manages the site, and a $2 fee is charged to visit the South Tufa site.
Article by Barbara Weibel of Hole In The Donut Travels