For our first full day in California, Jason and I made the trek over the Tioga Pass, down to the eastern side of the Sierra, to visit Mono Lake. We had seen photos, thought it looked cool, and figured it was worth a visit since we were so close.
Once we exited the park, the mountains took it to a whole new level.
It’s amazing how quickly you can go from one environment to another. Just that morning, we woke up in 30-degree weather. By the time we made it to the Mono Basin, it felt like we had just entered the desert.
Mono Lake is a large saline lake, much like the Great Salt Lake in Utah. While no fish live in the lake, it is home to brine shrimp and alkali flies (which were just nasty). The lake also serves as an important habitat for migratory birds.
Because of California’s arid climate, water is at a premium. Starting in the 40’s, Los Angeles diverted excess water from Mono Basin’s streams. The lake lost half of its volume and doubled in salinity. Not good.
This became an even bigger problem for the birds, particularly the California Gulls who traveled to Mono Lake to breed. Their main nesting ground was Negit Island, a black cone island in the middle of the lake. Since it was cut off from the main shoreline, predators were non-existent. That is until the water levels started dropping. A landbridge emerged and provided access to the island from the mainland. Coyotes took quick advantage, and the gulls abandoned their primary nesting ground.
Restoration efforts began in the early 90’s, and gulls returned to Negit Island in 1999.
Other than the birds – which there are A LOT of flying around – the major feature is the tufa towers (too’-fah). The tufa make the lake look lake an alien landscape. Tufa is nothing more than basic limestone. It just forms a little differently.
Underwater springs rich in calcium (the stuff in your bones) mix with lakewater rich in carbonates (the stuff in baking soda). As the calcium comes in contact with carbonates in the lake, a chemical reaction occurs resulting in calcium carbonate–limestone. The calcium carbonate precipitates (settles out of solution as a solid) around the spring, and over the course of decades to centuries, a tufa tower will grow. Tufa towers grow exclusively underwater, and some grow to heights of over 30 feet. The reason visitors see so much tufa around Mono Lake today is because the lake level fell dramatically after water diversions began in 1941. (Source: http://www.monolake.org/about/geotufa)
The greatest concentration of tufa is in the South Tufa grove.
While the tufas were neat to see, there weren’t nearly as many of them as we thought there would be. I quickly grew tired of the desert-like climate. Neither Jason nor I were into the smell – it was stinky 🙁 For us, we likened the visit to our Mariposa Grove side trip last summer. In that case, the unexpected heat got to us and we weren’t that impressed with the trees. (Never fear. Our feelings on giant sequoias may have changed…)
I’m still glad we went to see Mono Lake. For one, we got to seek the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, which is way cooler than the western slope. We got to see the tufas. And I learned a lot about a special environment that reminded me of the importance of preserving our country’s delicate ecosystems.