Hauntingly Beautiful Mono Lake

One of the oldest lakes in North America, at least 760,000 years old, can be seen along Hwy 395 at Lee Vining, near the eastern border of Yosemite National Park. It is the enchanting, mysterious Mono Lake, one of the most productive lakes in the world.  Mark Twain dubbed this lake the “Dead Sea of California”, but he could not have been more wrong.  Not too many species can survive in this harsh environment but those that have adapted do so in prolific numbers.

Fed by five streams, underground seeps, and the Sierra snowpack, Mono Lake has no outlet.  Because of its inability to release water, it is three times saltier than the Pacific Ocean, an extremely alkaline condition.

If you were to swim in Mono Lake, and you can, you would be so buoyant you would bob up and down like a cork in water. As a comparison, below is the saline count of a couple of well-known bodies of water:

  • Lake Tahoe – 0.001% salt
  • Pacific Ocean – 3.5% salt
  • Mono Lake – 10% salt

To convert Lake Tahoe’s waters to that of Mono Lake, you would need to add the following to one quart of water:

  • 2.5 tablespoons table salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons Epsom salts
  • a pinch of borax
  • a pinch of detergent

Is it any wonder that fish cannot survive in these waters? It is amazing to me that anything can. However, brine shrimp and alkali flies seem to like these salty waters just fine.

During the early spring months, the lake is “as green as pea soup”, due to the microscopic algae bloom.   As the water warms, recently hatched brine shrimp and alkali flies feed on the algae. By summer they have consumed so much algae that the lake water becomes clear and returns to a blue color once again.

Mono Lake_150520-1200634

In the warm summer months, an estimate of 4-6 trillion brine shrimp swim in these waters. Alkali flies live along the shore and walk underwater, encased in small air bubbles for grazing and to lay their eggs. These two Mono Lake inhabitants are an important source of food for the millions of migratory and nesting birds who find their way to this salty sea.

Mono Lake_150520-1200681

Interesting chemical reactions occur when freshwater springs (calcium) meet alkaline water (carbonates).  Calcium carbonate (solid limestone) is the result, better known to geologists as a tufa. These hauntingly beautiful formations have their beginnings underwater and continue to grow as freshwater and lake water meet. There is evidence of Ice Age tufa at Mono Lake, which grew beneath the water nearly 13,000 years ago. They have a crystalline structure that differs from more recent tufa. Mono Lake’s “petrified springs” are a fascinating example of what nature can do with a few basic ingredients.

Many photographers come to the South Tufa to capture these unique limestone statues. The best time for photos is at sunrise, if the sun makes an appearance, and she has been a bit timid these past several days.

At its height, Mono Lake soared to a depth of 900 feet, but now its average depth is a mere 50 feet, with a maximum depth of 150 feet.   The lake is currently seven vertical feel lower than its targeted level. About 45” of water is lost annually to evaporation, so freshwater inflow is critical to its health. Although we have been less than enchanted with the rain, sleet, and snow flurries that have pelted this area during our visit, we are comforted knowing that Mono Lake is the better for it.

We begin our journey north in search for warmer temps, as we can’t seem to will the thermometer to move beyond the 50 degree mark yet.

Small Town with a Big Back Yard and New Friends ~ Bishop, CA

Bishop, largest populated city in Inyo County, sits at the crossroads of well-known Highway 395 and Highway 6.  It has a small town feel as you walk its streets, meandering among long-time locals, hippies with dreadlocks and weathered backpackers.   With all Bishop has to offer, it may well be the most popular stopping off point along the Highway 395 corridor.

When I think of Bishop, this is the scene I first envision.

When I think of Bishop, this is the scene I first envision.

We had planned several days in Bishop before we headed out for the summer as we wanted to experience this bustling little jewel in the spring, but our stay has been longer than anticipated as Mother Nature has decided she is not yet done with winter in the Sierras. So what is there to do in Bishop when you are waiting out storm fronts? Here are our top 3 picks:

1) Feasting

Bishop is the foodie paradise on the 395, with over 40 restaurants covering any type of meal a discerning palette could want.   We followed Nina’s lead on this one.

Any guesses whether we ate the whole thing?

Any guesses whether we ate the whole thing?

Bishop Burger Barn – offering a wide choice of burgers on homemade buns (even gluten-free) and grass-fed beef, the barn is a must if you love a good burger. Be forewarned, you could blow your daily allowance of calories in one sitting. We opted to bike out to the barn and felt just a wee bit comforted by the fact that we burned off a few extra calories, but definitely not as many as we consumed.

Mountain Rambler Brewery – new to town, with four of their own brews, one being a porter…yeah!  They are working on eight more taps and will surely improve over time.

Terry, Tom, & Z at Mountain Rambler Brewery

Terry, Tom, & Z at Mountain Rambler Brewery

The best part of our time at the brewery was meeting new full-timers Zsuzsa (better known as Z) and Tom. Z is from Hungary and they are a delightful couple. We learned during our visit that it was their 5th-wheel that was parked next to Dragon Face Rock in the Alabama Hills when I was respectfully trying to capture a photo without encroaching on their campsite.   Facebook brought us together from there.

Great Basin Bakery – go for the cookies, especially the Sierra Mud and Molasses…amazing!

Thai Thai Restaurant – another meet-up with Z and Tom. We had eaten here during our last visit…tasty!

One last meal with Z & Tom before we leave Bishop.

One last meal with Z & Tom before we leave Bishop.

2) Window Shop or Contribute to the Bishop Economy

There are lots of little boutique shops in which to spend your hard-earned money.  Here were our top three favorites.

Mountain Light Gallery – If you are the least bit interested in landscape photography, you should not miss out on the opportunity to visit this fabulous gallery, a tribute to the magical, one-of-a-kind photography of Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara.  We spent hours here during our last Bishop visit and did so again this time.

Wilson’s Eastside Sports – fabulous products, wonderful clerks and Terry is the proud owner of new hiking boots.

Spellbinder Books – a quaint bookstore with a variety of new and used books.

3) Hiking, Bouldering, Rock Climbing (now we’re talkin’)

There are plenty of high elevation hikes to consider but since the winter storms keep rolling in, this has been out of the question. It has made for some beautiful mountain photos but is not conducive to hiking. We did get our high altitude fix in when we last visited in the fall, which you can read about here.

Bishop, unbeknownst to us, is one of the top rock climbing places in the world, offering over 2,000 bouldering “problems” for all climbing levels.

Gigantic granite egg-shaped boulders dot the landscape in the Buttermilks, challenging the very best climbers.   It is said that the open windswept nature of these mountains will freeze your skin before your muscles give out.   The vistas are breathtaking, the hiking wonderful, and we were greeted by some interesting characters on the way back to our camper.

In the Volcanic Tablelands, where we spent several days boondocking, the volcanic tuff of the Happy and Sad Boulders present countless bouldering opportunities. The “Happies” have a larger choice of boulders and the “Sads”, less visited, have a dense population of more difficult problems. We visited both and the rock formations were spectacular. We hiked from where we camped and took the long way home, making for a 7-mile day of hiking and bouldering…fun times.

As of this writing we are still in Bishop, hoping for a break in the weather further north. It looks like spring here, with temps hovering near 70 degrees but the snow-capped mountains all around us tell another tale of what to expect on the mountain passes.  If we stay here much longer, we might get to experience Mule DaysBishop’s week-long festival held since 1969 celebrating the contributions pack mules have made to the area.  It might be fun to see but fingers-crossed we will be heading north soon.

Blue hour in the Volcanic Tablelands before the storm

Blue hour in the Volcanic Tablelands before the storm

Trekking on Hallowed Ground ~ John Muir Wildnerness

“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where.  Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars.  This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”  ~  John Muir 

Some of the finest alpine hiking in this county can be found in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.  Looking up at the peaks I am drawn to discover her secrets whispered on the wind; smell her intoxicating scents of pine and sage; listen to the thundering of crystal clear streams cascading down her slopes; walk on these hallowed grounds named in honor of the father of American environmental consciousness, naturalist John Muir.  To immerse yourself in these many wonders means your mind and body must embrace high altitude hiking, something in the past that has been a little challenging for me.  But my desire to embrace all this wilderness has to offer surpasses my concerns.

We were planning on two hikes while in the Independence and Big Pine areas, but the forecast wasn’t looking good, with snowstorms predicted in the mountains and rain in the valley.  We decided to camp outside Independence, up at the 6000′ level and get an early start on a hike that began at Onion Valley, the Kearsarge Pass Trail.  We arrived at the trailhead the next morning to a chilly 38º at an elevation of 9200′.  We layered-up and hit the trail.  Unless you have hiked in the mountains, you cannot imagine how breathtaking the alpine lakes can be and there were five that we encountered on our way up to the pass, some still frozen over, awaiting the spring thaw.

Once we cleared the tree line, the howling wind was our lone companion on the barren, windswept trail that switchbacked the remaining 1.5 miles to the pass. Snowflakes swirled around us as we continued our upward trek, but quite frankly, I did not notice their beauty until I stepped onto the pass.  The view down into Kings Canyon National Park, dotted with alpine lakes, was breathtaking.  And the sign indicating that we had arrived at an altitude of 11,760′ put a smile on my face that seemed frozen in place until we began our descent.  Snowflakes danced around us as if to the pulse of Nature’s heartbeat.

Our hike back down seemed colder than earlier in the day, as the winds picked up speed, bringing in a storm that would dump a foot of fresh snow in the mountains that night.  It was a beautiful 10-mile hike, albeit a bit frigid.

We sat out the storm and luckily the days following were warm, so after checking with the rangers and a couple of locals we decided to head out to Big Pine to hike the North Fork Trail.  Originally we thought we would hike to Black Lake to get a view of the Palisade Glacier, the largest in the Sierras and the southernmost in the U.S.  When we came to the fork in the road, we opted for Third Lake, which is fed by the glacier, and was reported to be a milky turquoise color. The hike was the same distance and the lure of several more alpine lakes was too much to pass by.

This hike begins at 7700′ and unlike the many switchbacks on the Kearsarge Pass Trail, it has a grueling long stretch of upward climbing.  You can almost forget about how tiring this first section is by looking at the beauty around you. You catch a glimpse of the Middle Palisade Glacier on this stretch, and some lovely waterfalls.  Once beyond the uphill slog the trail begins to zigzag through a slope of sagebrush, manzanita, and Jeffrey pine, before reaching Second Falls.  And once again you are bewitched by the tantalizing smells and sounds enveloping you.

At the 3-mile mark you come upon a cabin built by movie actor Lon Chaney, now used as a wilderness ranger camp, a beautiful setting along a lovely stream.

Lon Chaney cabin

Lon Chaney cabin

Continue upward and you arrive at First Lake, a lovely blue-green oasis sitting in a bowl, then on to Second Lake a short distance later.

First Lake

First Lake

Second Lake

Second Lake

Third Lake with Temple Crag looming overhead

Third Lake with Temple Crag looming overhead

Third Lake, where we planned to stop and have lunch, was a bit of a disappointment, but still a handsome gal with Tempe Crag looming over her.   Given the lack of snowfall these past four years, glacial runoff has not been occurring at the normal rate so her coloring was, shall we say, less than spectacular.  It was still “lunch with a view” as John and Pam would say, and at 10,400′, the air was crisp and the sun was shining.  Once we lightened our load by consuming a few calories we headed back down the trail, making for an exhilarating, but bone-weary 11-mile trek.

There is another storm predicted but we are hopeful to do a few more hikes before we leave the Sierras.  To quote John Muir, there is nothing like hiking in the mountains to “wash your spirit clean”.

Next Stop:  Bishop, CA

Back to the Wild West ~ Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA

Since our travels down Hwy 395 in the fall of 2012 we have reminisced and daydreamed about following this route north again in the spring. What better time than when planning a trip to the Northwest.

Welcome to the Alabama Hills!

Welcome to the Alabama Hills!

A drive up the 395 is not complete without a stop in Lone Pine, where, when you lay eyes upon the uniquely stacked boulders of the Alabama Hills, you are immediately drawn back to the wild west.  For those like me who think that this is an unusual name for a California landmark, the explanation lies with the old prospectors who staked claims in the hills.  It seems they were sympathetic to the Confederate cause and named their mining claims after the C.S.S. Alabama, a Confederate warship that wreaked havoc during the Civil War.  The name eventually stuck.

Alabama Hills_150502-1190532

Gazing out over this barren, sagebrush dotted landscape, it is easy to envision a “shoot-‘em-out” scene from back in the day. Since 1920 there have been 400 movies filmed here. Movie stars such as Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and The Lone Ranger hunted down outlaws in these hills and more recently Star Trek Generations, Iron Man, and Django Unchained were filmed in the Hills.  A great little movie museum in Lone Pine carries memorabilia from these movies.

Our interest goes beyond the many movie sets you can check off on your drive through the Alabama Hills. Standing in stark contrast to the rounded, oddly shaped boulders are the glacially chiseled Sierra Nevada mountain range and there is no finer backdrop for exploring the myriad trails that snake through these parts.

A nice reminder that we are treading on his territory.

A nice reminder that we are treading on his territory.

Although the Alabama Hills and Sierra Nevada Mountains could not look more dissimilar, they are composed of a similar granite rock uplifted about 100 million years ago. The Hills were subjected to a different type of erosion known as “chemical weathering”, scientists believe at a time when the region was moist and the hills were covered in soil.

Pulling into Tuttle Creek Campground just outside the Hills, we saw big signs reading “WWW”. Thinking there may be no availability due to the arrival of a large group, we were pleasantly surprised to find a few empty sites. We soon learned that “WWW” stood for Wild Wild West Marathon and Ultra, held the first Saturday of May, weaving through the Alabama Hills and the Mt. Whitney foothills. All three races, a 10-miler, marathon, and 50k began at the campground, a rugged course run in sandy soil, up and down long grades, in 80 degree temps, on a blustery day. Made our day seem like a walk in the park.

WWW runners on the 50K course

WWW runners on the 50K course

As a prelude to hiking again at high altitude, we ventured out from the Tuttle Creek Campground where we camped, over to the Arch trailhead at Alabama Hills.  This is home to the famous Mobius Arch that countless photographers have used to frame photos of Mt. Whitney, highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,500’.  From there we ventured out onto the trails in search of more arches, but eventually the wind gusts and blowing sand drove us back to the campground.  We clocked 11 miles and Terry is now thinking he might have a drill sergeant for a wife like someone else we know. ;)

Note: For those interested in “arch scouting”, there are over 200 arches in the Alabama Hills, although many remain elusive and unnamed. You can read more about them here.

From Tuttle Creek our plans were to camp at the Whitney Portal Campground, sitting at the base of Mt. Whitney but the Ranger at the Visitor Center discouraged us with weather reports that sounded less than promising for high altitude hikes.   And they had not received word that the Whitney Portal campground had opened, most likely because of the projected storms.  Since we had done the Whitney Portal Trail in the fall, we opted for Plan B, heading for the hills, where we spent the next two days bouldering and hiking the myriad trails that snake through the rocky outcroppings.  I was on the lookout for arches, but most remained hidden from view.

The best part of our stay was the campsite, with views out our windows of Mt. Whitney and the White Mountains…sweet!  Reverently gazing up at this jagged mountain, I had a sense that the same cool breeze caressing our faces has just rolled down the face of the mountain from high above. Yep, this crazy, otherworldly landscape has a hold on us and we will be back.

Lovely sunset over the White Mtns

Lovely sunset over the White Mtns

Beer Sommeliers Invade Jojoba Hills!

We have begun winding down our time at Jojoba Hills, turning our attention to organizing our 5th-wheel and preparing to wedge, cram, and squeeze all “travel must-haves” into our truck camper, so we weren’t expecting to meet any full-timers until we hit the road again.  Much to my surprise and pleasure, a female solo traveler whose blog I have followed for some time dropped me an email.  She had remembered that we were wintering at Jojoba Hills and let me know she was heading our way…yes!  It was none other than the lovely Suzanne from Take to the Highway!  Before we knew it a few of her other friends also descended on the park, and we had ourselves a regular mini bloggerfest goin’ down at happy hour.

L-R: Terry, Judy, Debbie, Suzanne, Jim, Gayle.  Note that Jim’s sole focus is on the beer!

Judy from Travels with Emma is also a solo wanderer, traveling with doggie Emma and Jim and Gayle write the engaging blog Life’s Little Adventures.  Terry and Debbie live the leisurely life reading other bloggers’ musings.  My apologies to Suzanne as I snapped the photo above when she was enjoying some yummy snacks, but that’s the way it goes sometimes when candid shots are taken.  In fairness I have posted a lovely image of her below enjoying a few of her favorite craft brews.

As the number of brews continued to grow, I felt I was watching beer sommeliers in action, with words like full-bodied, caramelly, and creamy mouth feel being tossed around.  Beer drinking just got elevated to another level!  Unfortunately I was on a restricted diet at the time and beer wasn’t on the list but you can bet I was taking copious notes for a later date.

 Suzanne and her many friends

After our little gathering Terry headed east to assist his mother with moving into new living  arrangements and I was entrusted with preparing our rigs for departure, a daunting task but I was up to the challenge.  First item on the agency was to take a break from all this planning and head for the hills to hike with the gang.  A girl needs exercise too, right?

Jim and Gayle’s friends George and Tina, who have a beautiful home nestled into a canyon outside Hemet, invited the group for a hike in Simpson Park.  We enjoyed a rolling 7-mile hike on the Fireman Trail, with lovely views of Diamond Valley Reservoir and citrus orchards providing a brilliant verdant backdrop to the surrounding mountains.

Fireman Trail with Diamond Valley Reservoir in the distance

L-R: George, Jim, Tina, Gayle, & Suzanne

Suzanne happily capturing wildflowers still clinging to the trail’s edge

A brilliant splash of green provided some captivating views

A couple more happy hours rounded out our time with the gang.  We are thankful they included us in their little group and feel certain we will all meet up again somewhere down the road.  When we do, I better have a notebook handy as I’m sure there will be brews to add to the list.  I see some homework in my future. :)

The past several months have sped by for us while we were busy establishing a new winter base, making new friends, and developing new interests.  Although it is difficult to say goodbye to such great folks, we leave with the knowledge that we will all gather back at Jojoba Hills next winter with lots of tales to share.  Our travels will take us to the Northwest this summer and we’re looking forward to reconnecting with many friends who are heading the same direction.  It’s shaping up to be a great summer.  Hope yours is too!

Spring brings new life to the ponds at Jojoba Hills

We are heading up the 395, something we have not done in the spring.  Tips for places to stay, things to do, and trails to hike are always welcome.

Next Stop:  Lone Pine, CA, where the Alabama Hills are calling.