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.

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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.

Oh Yeah ~ Oh! Ridge NFS Campground, June Lake, CA

June Lake

We have taken the drive into the Eastern Sierras on US 395 and it is simply a breathtaking slice of California!  Although a slow starter, Autumn is finally announcing her arrival. Once again we have met up with our buddies Nina and Paul at the Oh! Ridge NFS campground overlooking June Lake and, oh yeah, this is something special.  There is so much to do here that a month would not suffice.

Parker Lake Trail fall colors

Nina and Paul have been here a week so they, being the ever-so-gracious hosts, have given us multiple ideas and a number of trails to set off on for viewing fall colors.

Parker Lake

Given that I have a bit of an altitude issue, I am working on acclimatizing myself to hiking at higher elevations.  This campground sits at roughly 7600 feet above sea level so we opted for a nice 4-mile hike to Parker Lake, with an easy 680 foot elevation gain, a great starter hike for me.  Parker Lake is a sparkling little lake nestled into a small canyon at the base of some 12,000 foot peaks of the Sierra Crest.  It is a lovely little prize at the end of the trail.

Next up was a sunrise visit to the Mono Lake Tufa Towers, which Nina said was a must-see and oh yeah, she was not kidding.

Sun breaching the mountains over Mono Lake

Mono Lake is a large, shallow lake that formed more than 760,000 years ago.  Because it has no outlet to the seas, high levels of salts have accumulated, resulting in waters that are 2.5 times saltier and 1000 times more alkaline than the oceans.  With such alkaline waters you would not expect a thriving ecosystem but you would be wrong.  Interestingly enough, brine shrimp and alkali flies are prolific here, and the flies seem happy to live both above and under the water, feasting on the algae that grows in large number here.  The alkali fly larvae were a source of nutrition for the native peoples long ago and continue to be the food choice for the two million annual migratory birds that grace these shores.

Sunrise warming the mountains overlooking Mono Lake

So, what the heck is tufa you ask?  Here at Mono Lake these strange rock formations, which have grown since the existence of this lake, are basically  limestone (calcium carbonate).  The lake water and the calcium in the underwater springs combine to create a chemical reaction, that over centuries lays down layers of limestone to create these bizarre towers.  Had it not been for the water level of the lake dropping precipitously over the past 70+ years, photographers from around the world would not have the pleasure of capturing these odd yet beautiful spires, some reaching heights of over 30 feet.

Tufas awaiting sunrise

Tufas grow many places around the world but Mono Lake has the most active formations and some of what we were viewing in the early morning light have been around since the last Ice Age, when Mono Lake was five times her present size.

Although it was rather brisk at 6:00 am, I cannot tell you the excitement I felt as the sun breached the mountain peaks.  Her fingers first tickled the lake, casting stunning colors and reflections, only to have her reach out minutes later to cast a golden glow on the tufa.  Wow, what a sight!

Almost there!
The sun finally reaches the tufas ~ gorgeous!

After many, many photos, we headed back to the warmth of our vehicle and straight to Silver Lake Cafe for a yummy breakfast and a chance once again to marvel at what we had just witnessed.

Lundy Canyon Overlook
The whole gang at the Lundy Canyon Overlook

From here a quick 3-mile hike up the Lundy Canyon Trail, to a striking overlook showcasing golden aspens and a cascading waterfall, rounded out our day.  Oh yeah, life is good. 🙂

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