EASTERN SIERRAS IN THE FALL #1 – Mono Lake
EASTERN SIERRAS IN THE FALL #1 – Mono Lake
Map – Palo Alto to Mono Lake
CA-108 & US-395
In September of 2016 we took a long weekend trip to the eastern side of the Sierra’s to take another look at the ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake and the fall color on the eastern slope of the Sierra Mountains. There are several routes over the Sierra’s from the Bay Area all of which are about the same driving time and as we’d prefer to avoid I-80 over Donner Summit as well as US-50 that goes through the Lake Tahoe congestion we decide to go over on a road we had not taken across the mountains before (at least we couldn’t remember taking it). This is RT-108 which goes through Jamestown and skirts the edge of Sonora in the gold country of the lower western edge of the mountains. From there it climbs up over the western divide at Sonora Pass which is the 2nd highest pass in the Sierra’s at 9,623 feet (321 feet lower than Tioga Pass).
Once you beat your way out of the San Francisco Bay Area, and cross the Central valley into the Sierra Foothills you are in Gold country. This is the area made famous by the Gold rush in the late 1840’s and resulted in hundreds of boom towns springing up. Most of these towns were abandoned and have decayed into oblivion over the years. However, a few towns have persisted such as Jamestown, Sonora, Placerville, Columbia and Angels Camp to name a few. Most of these retain much of their historic charm with old timey saloons, candy shops, and old hotels. Jamestown, where we grabbed lunch is one such town. We wanted to get to Mono Lake before sunset so we didn’t spend any time exploring Jamestown again and instead just ate at one of the fine old hotels and headed into the mountains.
The road over Sonora Pass is quite a nice drive. Although it’s only a 2 lane road, it is not well traveled as most GPS devices route tourists over the more popular routes. Also it was mid September so the summer folks were gone already. The road snakes through verdant pine forests, along burbling creeks and up through massive Granite rock formations. Although the road is curvy the drive really isn’t bad as it doesn’t get real twisty till you get near the summit on the west side and through much of the descent into the Walker River Valley on the east side.
RT-108 ends at US-395 which is the main North-South route through the valleys along the eastern edge of the Sierra Mountains. US-395 was created during the gold rush way before such roads were numbered. In those times it had names like “El Camino Sierra” among others. It is currently nearly 360 miles long with its northern end at the Oregon border near Goose Lake and the southern end at I-15 just east of LA megalopolis town of San Bernardino. When I was growing up in LA in the late 1950’s San Bernardino was a totally separate place, now it has just sort of melded with LA. US-395 used to go all the way down to San Diego but now the numbering stops at I-15.
Many rate the scenic beauty of this road among the top in the country. Couple that with the ease of driving and its relatively light traffic load (at least compared to I-5 which parallels it on the West side of the Sierra’s) and one can see why many love it. Based on our experience on this and other trips, US-395 is one of the more popular routes for motorcyclists, probably second only to old Route 66. I don’t know how crowded it gets in the summer tourist season, but in September it was lovely with very little traffic.
After checking into our motel in Bridgeport, CA we continued south on US-395 to catch Mono Lake at dusk. We picked up a map at the visitor center near Lee Vining and then made our way to the South Tufa area.
Mono lake is quite alkaline but some call it salty. It ranges in depth from 158 feet with an average of about 56 feet and geologists think it is one of the oldest lakes in North America. One of the things that makes this lake unusual, but by no means unique, is that it has no natural outlets. Plenty of streams feed into it from the eastern slopes of the Sierra mountain range but none lead out. Another such lake that you may be more familiar with is the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
As all such lakes are somewhat isolated from each other ecologically speaking each one has tended to evolve its own eco system. In the case of Mono Lake this ecosystem is based on brine shrimp, algae and alkali flies. These edibles attract all sorts of birds, including California gulls of which Mono Lake hosts the 2nd largest colony in the world (the first being at Great Salt Lake). In fact, 85% (50,000) of such birds in California call Mono Lake home. There are many other species of birds living at Mono Lake, some year round and some just pass through a couple times a year.
Add the preponderance of algae, alkali flies and brine shrimp along with lots of bird poop to hot summer temperatures of July and August and lots of stagnant water and you have a steaming mess making a lake side visit less than pleasant. However in cooler weather it is quite pleasant.
Mono Lake Vista Point
Lee Vining is the only community at Mono Lake and is where the Tioga Pass road from Yosemite National Park intersects with US-395. Coming from Bridgeport to the north, you are in a higher valley than where Mono Lake is. As you approach the Mono Lake area you have to go over a small ridge line before dropping down into the Mono Lake basin. Just past the crest of this ridge line is a view point called the “Mono Lake Vista Point” which true to its name offers a grand view of Mono Lake as well as the entire Mono Lake basin.
As this viewpoint is quite a bit higher than the Mono Lake basin it offers a broad view of the area from the giant Sierra Mountains on the right, Mono Lake dead ahead and additional mountains way off to the left.
They say that Mono lake is 760,000 years old and was formed as a terminal lake in a basin. The first known peoples who populated the area were a band of the Northern Paiute called the Kutzadika’a. The origin of that name is obscure but may have stemmed from their main food source. Ok, hang on to your gag reflex here. The main diet of these natives was, in their language, Kutsavi which is alkali fly pupae. I guess you get used to what you have available.
Anyway the name “Mono” does not refer to the English word mono – meaning single or one – but rather it is derived from “Monachi” a Yokut term that refers to tribes that make their home on both the east and the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains – bet you didn’t know that bit of trivia. And indeed the tribe inhabiting Mono Lake had one band living here at Mono Lake and another band living on the West side of the range at Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite and along the Merced River. Each year the Mono Lake group trekked over Tioga Pass to visit their cousins where they collected acorns and other plants not readily available on the east side.
Mono Lake with US-395 heading into Lee Vining
Mono Lake from Mono Lake Vista Point
Mono Lake Water Wars
One of the things that Mono Lake is best known for is its modern history. As we know, all of California - except the Sierra Mountains and extreme northern section of the state - is a desert and no place more so than the Los Angeles basin. Over the decades as LA got bigger and bigger, finding water for the growing population became more and more problematic. In the late 1800’s, after exhausting all the local sources of water LA went looking for another source of water and set their sights on the valley’s on the eastern side of the Sierra’s.
In 1913, LA began sucking water out of the Owen’s river into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. As the need for water in LA increased, they kept extending the LA Aqueduct farther and farther north up the eastern side of the Sierra’s tapping more and more of the rivers coming off the range. By 1941 this system made its way up to Mono Lake. As the water in Mono Lake was quite salty and brackish they never actually tapped into the lake but they did dam and divert virtually all the streams that lead into the lake.
With this now diminished inflow into the lake it wasn’t long till the natural evaporation surpassed the replenishment rate from rain and what little water still flowed in through streams and the lake surface level started dropping like a rock.
By 1982 the lake had lost nearly 30% of its surface area and by 1990 the lake surface had dropped 45 feet from its prior level and had lost 50% of its volume. This was not good. Alkaline sands and formerly submerged Tufa Towers were now exposed. Alkaline dust started blowing all over the area damaging crops hundreds of miles away. What had been Negit Island became a peninsula allowing coyote’s access to the former island which decimated the native bird population.
In 1974 a couple of Stanford University graduate students studied the Mono Basin ecosystem and wrote a scathing report. Other studies followed from the National Science Foundation, University of California at Davis and Santa Cruz, and Earlham College most of which were published by 1977. In 1978 several of the authors of these studies got together and formed the “Mono Lake Committee” whose purpose was to stop the destruction of the lake.
Through political activism, and with the help of many other groups, fight after fight ensued, many of which wound up in court cases and dragged on for years. This culminated with a California Superior Court case settled in 1983. This was officially National Audubon Society v. Superior Court but is generally referred to as “the Mono Lake Case”.
This case is now viewed as a landmark environmental case which transformed water law in California and the relationship between “public trust doctrine” and “water rights”. The crux of the matter was this. The public trust doctrine protects navigable water ways (including Mono Lake). But the LA Water company was not taking any water from Mono Lake. Rather they tapped the rivers the flowed into Mono Lake and as those rivers are not navigable they claimed that the public trust doctrine did not apply. On the environmental side, they claimed it did apply as it directly affected the lake which was covered under the doctrine.
The court sided with the environmental side. They decided that the water rights held by Los Angeles were granted without thinking about the affect it would have downstream. They went on to state that the state of California has a duty to protect the common heritage of stream, lakes, marshlands and tidelands. The court ordered the two sides to work out a solution, which they did. The upshot was that the amount of water LA could take was reduced by about two thirds until such time as the lake level recovered to its 1964 levels which was expected to take around 20 years. So far the progress has fluctuated. From 1980 thru 1985 things were looking good as the lake level was rising. Then it started falling again through the first half of the 90’s. From ‘93 through 2000 it was on the rise again reaching a high in 2000 of 6384 feet (target is 6392) after which it wavered but stayed in that neck of the woods till 2012. Since 2012 it’s been dropping like a rock and is now down around 6378 feet – about where it was in 1997.
Mono Lake Tufa Towers
Tufa Towers are very strange geologic formations which Mono Lake has become famous for. The conditions required to get Tufa Towers is pretty unusual so you don’t find them in many places. Tufa forms in several different ways but the Tufa most people see are the towers.
Tufa is essentially just limestone. What makes it weird is how it forms into these strange towers. What happens is that there are some underground (well, in this case under-lake-bed) mineral springs on the lake bottom that that have lots of calcium. When this calcium laden water hits the carbonates (the stuff in baking soda) in the lake water the two react chemically forming calcium carbonate--limestone. The calcium carbonate is a solid so builds up in a column around the underwater spring – sort of like lava building up a mountain as it flows out the top. Over time these towers get taller and taller – some over 30 feet tall. However, they can only do this under water.
What then happened at Mono Lake, as described in the prior section, is that the LA Water District started pulling water from the rivers flowing into the lake and without this inflow the evaporation caused the lake level to drop and thus exposed many of these Tufa Towers. Before 1941, they were all pretty much all underwater and out of sight. But as the water fell they seemed to rise up out of the lake like an apparition.
Once out in the open air through the process reverses. Now the spring water never makes it up the towers and even if it did there is no lake water there to supply the carbonates so the limestone stops forming. But, now being exposed to the elements, erosion from weather starts tearing them down.
Tufa Tower with Approaching Storm
Tufa Towers in the lake
Tufa Towers on dry land as lake surface dropped
Rainbow over Tufa Towers
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I hope you are enjoying reading the Fall in the Eastern Sierra’s travel log. The next installment will be Bodie State Historic Park.
- Images of this trip can be found on my website at.
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Keywords: Blog, CA, California, Dan Hartford Photo, DanTravelBlog, DanTravelBlogEastSierra, Esatern Sierra's, Fall Color, Fall in the Sierra's, LA Water Wars, Mono Lake, Mono Lake Court Case, Sierra Mountains, South Tufa Area, Tufa Towers
You write well. It is a nice history of the struggle to Save Mono Lake.
Dan, very nice and informative write-up on Mono Lake. Lots of detail history that I found enlightening. Makes me want to go there next September! Looking forward to the next installment of your trip.
Great post, Dan, thank you! Was not aware of the story of rise and fall (or fall and rise) of the lake. Would be good to see few images from the road toward the lake, since you touch that and history too. Anyway, good combination of history, facts, and information.
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