Summer 2018 Tour – Mono Lake

We headed out on the road again a month after our Alaskan Cruise. With the truck and trailer in tiptop shape after regular maintenance, we had the State of Colorado in our sights. Before leaving California, though, we headed up to June Lake, California, on July 21 for altitude acclimation before meeting our family at Mammoth Lakes for a week.

It was sad to see that smoke from the Ferguson Fire, which had started on July 13, had filled Yosemite and surrounding areas. Smoke followed us through Yosemite on CA-120 until we transitioned onto US-395 toward June Lake where blue skies and cottony clouds prevailed.

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View from Vista Rim of the World Overlook on CA-120

Although we took it easy while in June Lake, we did manage a trip to Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. A few years ago, we had visited the south side of Mono Lake taking the trail to the tufas. This trip we stopped in at the visitor’s center, too.

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Mono Basin Visitor Center

Outdoors is a display of huge boulders of the types of rocks that are found in the area ranging from obsidian to granite and a trail around the center with information signs pointing out the views and discussing the types of birds that visit each year during their migration.

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JT takes a look at the obsidian boulder

Inside, we watched a movie on Mono Basin, which summarized the history of Mono Lake from the Paiutes to Los Angeles stealing water in 1941 and ruining the ecological environment.

Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in North America, is estimated to be at least 760,000 years old. With no outlet, minerals carried into the lake by streams and evaporation of fresh water has created a lake that is 2.5 times saltier than the ocean with an alkaline content of 100 times more. No fish can survive in the lake but brine shrimp and alkali flies thrive in the sodium chloride and baking soda enriched water, providing food for migratory birds.

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California Gull

The efficient food chain in Mono Lake is the key to keeping the migratory birds healthy for their long trek. Bacteria break down decaying matter providing nutrients for algae. Trillions of brine shrimp, along with the alkali flies, eat the algae. Then the millions of birds that stop at Mono Lake during their migration, eat the shrimp and flies.

Designated as an International Reserve in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, thirty-five species of shorebirds, totaling nearly 2 million water birds, stop along their migration route. Each year, 44,000 to 65,000 California Gulls fly into Mono Lake to breed on the islands. Unfortunately, after a couple of days, smoke had pushed its way over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, shrouding the islands in a haze.

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Negrit and Paoha Islands

The larger island, Paoha, formed about 300 years ago when magma rose underneath the lake and pushed sediments above the water level. Volcanic eruptions occurring between 300 and 1,700 years ago, formed Negit, the smaller island on the left.

On the south side of the lake, a trail leads to the tufas. Along the way are signs that indicate the level of the lake at certain points in time and one sign shows where the water’s edge will be once the level of the lake reaches its mandated 6,392 feet, the elevation in 1963. Some of the tufas may no longer be visible when the lake achieves its goal.

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Trail to tufas

A few wildflowers lined the sides of the trail in addition to the tall grasses.

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Blazing Star

Up close the tufas look pretty gnarly. I wouldn’t want to get scraped by one.

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Tufa formations

Those black spots in the photo below are the alkaline underwater flies. The flies were a delicacy for Native Americans who also traded the food with other tribes. The many birds that fly in during their migration also feed on the flies. When I heard there might be flies I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to the water’s edge. I had nothing to worry about. As people walked by the pools, the flies would hover above the water for a few seconds before settling back underwater. They had no intention of bothering us humans.

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Alkaline underwater flies

The tufas come in all shapes and sizes. Freshwater springs bubbled up through the carbonate-rich lake water to form the tufa shapes under water. They are composed of calcium carbonate, a whitish limestone deposit that forms the basis of the tufa formations. In 1941 Los Angeles diverted the streams that entered Mono Lake causing the lake to decrease in size revealing the tufas.

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Strange tufa formations

The hazy cloudy skies made conditions perfect for picking up mirror images on the smooth-as-glass water surface. I could have sat for hours watching how the light changed across the surface of the water and played with the tufas. I couldn’t pick just one, so here are four.

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Reflections 1
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Reflections 2
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Reflections 3
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Reflections 4 – Can you find the peregrine falcon’s nest at the top of one of the columns?

While traveling along US-395 each year on vacation during the 1980s, we watched Mono Lake decrease in size and wondered about the white formations that stood like sentries at the south end of the lake. In 1982, the lake was only 69 percent of its 1941 surface area, and by 1990 it had lost 50 percent of its volume. While the tufas are interesting to look at and photograph, I’m glad to see the lake recover and continue as a stopover for migratory birds and a breeding ground for the California gulls.

What would have happened had universities not performed studies to sound the alarm that LA’s diversion of the streams had caused significant ecological damage? Where would all of the migratory birds have gone? It took over a decade of litigation for the California State Water Resources Control Board to issue an order to protect Mono Lake and its tributary streams on September 28, 1994. A lake level of 6,392 feet above sea level is the goal for restoring the lake. On August 1, 2018, the lake’s level was 6,382.1 feet according to Monolake.org.

Safe Travels

3 thoughts on “Summer 2018 Tour – Mono Lake

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