We almost missed it.
After reaching US-395, we drove straight to the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center. I was able to appreciate the grandness of the lake while waiting in line to talk to one of the rangers.
“The Tufa Reserve is about 5 miles from here,” the ranger said while marking with a yellow pen the route on the map.
We got into the car again as quickly as possible. We felt thin raindrops falling over our faces before we were able to enter our vehicle. During the entire day, the sun kept playing hide and seek with the clouds.
Later during the day, a thick layer of haze was covering the entire sky. We aimed to make it to our destination before the downpour.
But, the Eastern Sierra is full of scenic sights. After driving only one mile south, I saw the signs pointing to June Lake.
“Uh,” I said to myself, “I have never been to June Lake.” One second after that thought, I asked my husband to turn right.
Well, we stopped at all the lakes in the loop and got out of the car to eat in the small town which bears the name of the area.
It was obvious that my husband was done for the day. I kept mentioning Mono Lake but he consciously, or unconsciously, decided to ignore me.
To make things more frustrating, I couldn’t find any information about closing hours. A quick search on my phone’s browser revealed zero information. Rain kept threatening the entire experience.
Finally, we made it to the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve at 5:00 p.m. (don’t asked me how I convinced my husband to move!)
There is nobody monitoring the reserve, so, I guess it is open from sunrise to sunset.
What I saw left me speechless. There was a reason (a hunch) why I wanted to stop by this place so badly.
A Story of Survival
Mono Lake is ancient. It was formed at least 760,000 years ago as a terminal lake on a basin that allows no outflow to other external bodies of water. The lack of an outlet causes high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake. These salts also make the lake water alkaline.
This desert lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp that thrive in its waters, and provides critical nesting habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp and blackflies (that also feed on the shrimp).
Even with all the unique characteristics that describe the lake, the City of Los Angeles started to divert its water in the ‘40s. So much water was diverted that evaporation soon exceeded inflow and the surface level of Mono Lake fell rapidly.
In 1974, graduate student David Gaines studied the Mono Lake ecosystem, and he became instrumental in alerting the public of the effects of the lower water level. Gaines formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978. He and Sally Judy, another student, led the committee and pursued an informational tour of California.
In was not until 1994, that the California State Water Resources Control Board issued an order to protect Mono Lake and its tributary streams. Other lakes in the area have dried up after years of water diversion.
That is why in my opening statement I said that we almost missed the lake.
Tufa forms under Mono Lake’s waters. When freshwater springs rich in calcium bubble up through the carbonate-rich lake water, the calcium and carbonates react to form a salt deposit, which is called a tufa. This solid, limestone-like material continues to develop, eventually forming towers.
A lot of the formations we see nowadays were uncovered when the water level dropped due to the water diversion the lake experienced.
The tufa creation process continues under the surface and, sometimes, it can be appreciated from the shoreline. The fresh water will look like oil over the salty water. When the lake is calm, new crystals can be observed close to the areas where the springs are located.
Those clouds that felt so threatening during the entire day proved to be the perfect complement to the tufa formation. Just take a look at the photos.
I was impressed at how tall some of the formations were. The lake was still like a mirror. That made the reflections on the surface crisp and clear.
I find funny that my husband was very impressed with the surroundings. He kept repeating: “I can’t believe we almost passed by.”
Importance to Birds
Mono Lake is a vital resting and eating stop for migratory shorebirds. Nearly 2,000,000 water birds, including 35 species of shorebirds, use Mono Lake to rest and eat for at least part of the year.
Do Not Miss It
This is a highly recommended place. Do not miss it if you are in the area. By the way, the Eastern Sierra is full of treasures. The different visitor’s center in the area provided information on what to do and where to go. You can always search for information about Mono and Inyo counties.
- The State Reserve can be visited during day hours.
- It is difficult to find exact directions to the Reserve using a GPS. The GPS will direct you to the Visitor’s Center but that is not where you want to go. To go to the reserve, you need to take CA-120 West (sometimes called Mono Lake Basin Rd, located south of the 395 / CA-120 East junction). Then, turn left at Test Station Rd (you are going to see signs). Be careful since you are going to be driving on unpaved roads.
- You can ask for exact directions at the Visitor’s Center.
- Nobody seems to monitor the entrance of vehicles and people. Therefore, you can visit late if the sun is still up.
- Payment is on the honor system ($3) per person. You put your money on an envelop and deposit on a box. I urge you to pay your fees. This fragile ecosystem depends a lot on us.
- RESPECT the environment. It is obvious that the tufa formations should not be climbed or damaged. There are signs all over the place instructing visitors what NOT to do. However, some people do not understand that they are visiting an unique place. I saw teenagers rupturing the formations and playing with the pieces. Their mom watched them in action and didn’t say anything. You have no idea of how angry I felt.
- Authorities and protecting organizations take note. Maybe specialized personnel should be on site taking care of the area.
What do you think of the Tufa Towers?
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