1998 - To Mono Lake, Tioga Pass, and Yosemite
DAY TWO (Wednesday):
Up with the dawn, I fix myself a breakfast beneath blue
skies and granite mountains then, surprisingly, throw myself in the car
and head back down the 120 towards Mono
You see, I've been by
Mono Lake lots of times.
But that's all I've ever really done - gone by
it. So today, I
plan to explore it and the town of Lee Vining (a place I've only ever stopped at for gas before) - if only a little bit. So, thirty minutes later
Lee Vining and once again pulling into the Mono Lake Visitor's
Center parking lot - with the Center open
The Center is brand new (within the last few years) and
is perched on a high bluff, overlooking Lee Vining Creek and the lake itself.
wander around the exhibits, wish I could have seen Mono Lake during the
Ice Age (when I would have been about four hundred
where I was), and learn the local Indians considered the Lake's ubiquitous
"brine flies'"larva a delicacy.
(You think they could have at least provided a tasting
for tourists then)
At the Center I get a map of the Lake area and...map out
my future travels. Next stop is the site of the old Marina, abandoned since
the 50's when the lake level started getting too low. It"s a short drive
north along the 395 and I pull off onto a dirt track to an equally dirt
parking lot a hundred feet further on, park, get out of the car, and wander
towards the lake.
With the water levels coming back up, Mono's two islands
are once again islands. At the minimum point (when last I saw them), the
smaller - Negit - was a peninsula, rather firmly attached to shore and
the larger - Paoha - was just barely
qualifying as an island.
to it, if you didn't mind getting your feet slightly wet.
Big trouble if you were a bird, because that"s where they nested.
The Marina itself is pretty much gone: A few concrete
foundations and an old boat launching ramp - still one hundred or so feet
from the shore of the lake - are all that remain. Of more recent vintage
is a plank walkway down to the water's edge. I stroll down it to the water
and kneel down to get a closer look at Mono Lake's two primary life forms.
The first one was easy to spot - be work to avoid it,
really. All around the edge of the lake, forming a band about ten, fifteen
feet wide, are what"s called "brine
drifting on the top of the water. Fortunately (very
given their numbers), these flies don't bother people (as long as you're not algae)
and in fact drift slightly away from you as you come close. Apart from
that, well, they're flies, notable only due to their vast numbers.
into the water itself you see, along with the larva of the flies, Mono"s
other life form, "brine shrimp." Tiny, smaller than the flies in fact,
they seem to be everywhere in the Lake's waters. Like the flies, though,
they are otherwise visually unimpressive apart from their numbers.
(From a biological/ecological standpoint they're a great
deal more interesting, but that's not something you can see
Having my fill of tiny wildlife for the moment, I'm off
again, this time heading for the "South Tufa Area." It's back south to
Lee Vining, then a further five miles south to the 120 going east (as opposed
to west, back to the campground) though some of the many volcanic craters
in the area (the land south of Mono Lake is a veritable lunar landscape
of volcanic craters). Yet another five or so east and it was time to turn
off to the "area's" parking lot, along an apparently infrequently maintained
It's hard to describe tufa if you haven't seen it. In
some ways, it reminds me of those African termite mounds. In others, it's
like those "magic rocks" that grow into stalagmite thingies when you add
them to water, abet bleached dirty white.
I showed the guy at the entrance booth my Visitor Center
ticket (it gets you in free to the Tufa Area) and headed off down the self-guided
trail to the water, and the tufa. Soon you start passing small tufas, looking
more like low rocks than the "towers" you see in most pictures. You also
pass signs saying "Here was the lake level in (such and such a year)."
I pass the lake level from my birth year, still firmly on dry land. About
halfway along, I pass the court-mandated
that the lake is hopefully rising to. Now the tufas are
rising on either side of the trail and just a minute or two later I hit
the water's edge, while they continue out into the lake.
Actually, the water's edge has been moving up a great
deal lately (the lake's doing pretty good this year, thanks to El Niño)
and large chunks of the trail are muddy, or even under water. With luck,
in a few more years, much of what I was walking through will be under water,
and the only way to see some of the tufas I saw that day will be by boat.
are actually the result of freshwater springs rising up though the briny
lake waters, so all that I was seeing today had
been actually below
water when it formed. Then, towards the end of the walk I actually got
to see a couple of brand new tufas, just beginning to form.
A small arm of the lake had drifted in next to trail,
and at the bottom, beneath the sheet of the inevitable brine flies, were
two small (bowl-sized) mounds, like miniature volcanos, with just the occasional
streams of bubbles coming from them as the spring that fed them coughed
up a bit of gas. Judging by how recently this area must have been dry land,
I deduce from this that tufas must form pretty quickly once they get started.
It's getting towards noon now, and I leave the "area"
and head back towards Lee Vining. The plan is to wander around the town
a bit, and get something non-water to drink.
Lee Vining is like most mountain tourist towns: A few
motels/hotels, a few restaurants (usually western themed), and the inevitable
general store which tries to have a little bit of everything, all of which
is priced about fifty percent higher than home. That includes sodas, of
which there are only small bottles, weakly chilled, at somewhat frightening
prices. So after my wander I decide to find a 7-11...
...after all, there's got to be a 7-11 around somewhere...
Well, not in Lee Vining anyway. I knew there was one back
in Bishop, but that was nearly seventy miles away, quite a trip for a Dr.
Pepper. Farther up the 395 to the north, though, was the town of Bridgeport,
which sounded like it should be a bit bigger than Lee Vining, was only
miles away, and had the advantage of being through brand new (to me) territory.
So it's off to Bridgeport, climbing the mountains north
of the lake, then dropping down the other side, the road sharing a narrow
canyon with a stream. Rather scenic, really.
But Bridgeport while slightly larger (by a couple of hundred)
than Lee Vining, and possessing a very nicely historical court house
, was no more convenienced-marted than Lee Vining. With no larger
towns within sight (indeed, with few towns in sight period
) I sighed,
settled for a can of soda from a gas station, and headed back.
I got back to the campground about three-ish and, as is
my way, once again resumed various walkabouts. First back down to the resort,
then up past the campground to the top of the pass and the back entrance
to Yosemite National Park, marked by a big stone gateway and a $20 fee
if you want to enter by car (ten, if you're on foot!). Well, I wouldn't
be doing that today. Tomorrow, yes, but not today, so it was back to the
campground with me.
Once there, I wandered around the lake through the lumpy
meadow that surrounds its western shore, then returned to make supper and
relax with a bit more of the dinosaur book (actually, it's a book on bird's
dinosaurian origins The
but I digress).
And, darn it, clouds were coming over Mount Dana again!
Fortunately, unlike the previous evening, this night's
rain proved to be a short spatter that departed as quickly as it arrived.
I didn't even put the sleeping bag in the car; just covered it with the
, more of the clouds hung around for
the evening. There were therefore fewer stars (and satellites) for my viewing pleasure, but it was still a pretty night, even with half the sky opaqued by the clouds.