Mono Lake part of High­way 120’s unique charms

Escalon Times - - LIVING - By DEN­NIS WY­ATT 209 Liv­ing

LEE VIN­ING — Walk along the shores of Mono Lake 160 miles east of Man­teca via High­way 120 and you’ll be struck by two odd­i­ties of na­ture you won’t find any­where else in Cal­i­for­nia.

First, there are the brine flies. Each step you take, they swarm up from the ground and buzz your an­kles without ever mak­ing land­ing on you.

The other is per­haps the most eerie thing you’ll see — tufa tow­ers.

The tufa (pro­nounced (‘toofah’)

are what forms when the car­bon­ates in the salty lake water com­bine with the cal­cium on fresh spring water that forces its way up be­neath the lake’s bot­tom. They com­bine to become lime­stone. Tufa is found in other al­ka­line water but the quan­tity and va­ri­ety of tufa tow­ers found at Mono Lake are un­like any else­where on earth giv­ing you the feel­ing you’re gaz­ing at a half hob­bit, half Star Wars land­scape with a whim­si­cal touch.

Some of the tow­ers on the south shore are be­tween 200 and 900 years old while those high above the cur­rent lake bed are es­ti­mated at 13,000 years of age or older.

Make no mis­take about it. The ap­peal of a stay in Lee Vin­ing — the only east­ern gate­way to Yosemite Na­tional Park — is Mono Lake and the vol­canic scars that Mother Na­ture has carved into the land­scape.

Since Mono Lake is 2.5 times saltier than the ocean and eight times more al­ka­line, a swim in the waters is an ex­pe­ri­ence un­par­al­leled any­where else. The buoy­ancy you ex­pe­ri­ence in a swim gives you a strange yet re­lax­ing feel­ing of calm. Just be care­ful to keep the water out of your eyes and any cuts as it will sting.

The 60 square miles of­fer am­ple op­por­tu­nity for boat­ing and ca­noe­ing but you are ad­vised to stay close to shore un­less you are fa­mil­iar with the lake since shortly af­ter mid-morn­ing breezes kick up and of­ten turn into se­vere winds.

A must for any week­end visit are the sum­mer ca­noe tours ($25 per per­son with no pet or kids un­der age 4 owed) that de­part Satur­day and Sun­day morn­ings at 8, 9:30 and 11 a.m. to ex­plore groves of tufa spires and take in birds and the vast scenery of the Mono Lake Basin. Reser­va­tions are re­quired and must be made through the Mono Lake Com­mit­tee In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter and Book­store that dou­bles as the Lee Vin­ing Cham­ber of Com­merce. The cen­ter is open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week and can be reached by call­ing 1-760647-6595.

The in­for­ma­tion cen­ter on High­way 395 and Third Street is a mecca of sorts for those who joined the Save the Mono Lake cam­paign in 1978 to greatly re­duce the Los An­ge­les Water Depart­ment’s di­ver­sion of fresh water flows into the lake in a never-end­ing bid to quench the thirst of the L.A. Basin. Mono Lake, which has no out­let had been steadily shrink­ing the lake which to half of its 1941 lev­els. Seven streams at one time pro­vided 65 per­cent of the fresh­wa­ter flow into Mono Lake. By 1978, they were pro­vid­ing 17 per­cent of the water sup­ply for Los An­ge­les. The di­rect re­sult was a drop of 40 feet in lake el­e­va­tion and dou­bling the salin­ity.

The shrink­ing lake threat­ened to cre­ate a land bridge to two is­lands in the mid­dle of the lake to al­low easy ac­cess for preda­tors to where many birds nest. Al­to­gether 98 species of water birds thrive at Mono Lake.

It is at the in­for­ma­tion cen­ter that you can browse per­haps the most di­verse book se­lec­tion on Cal­i­for­nia water pol­i­tics in one spot (at least what is pri­mar­ily a tourist at­trac­tion) as well as find out more about the com­mit­tee’s on­go­ing ef­forts to save one of North Amer­ica’s old­est lakes as sci­en­tists put its birth at 700,000 years ago.

To prop­erly ex­plore Mono Lake, you need to start at the in­for­ma­tion cen­ter.

You’ll find out about the Mono Craters on the south shore off of High­way 120 that range from 600 to 40,000 years of age. Sev­eral are eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble by car, oth­ers by short hikes.

Most roads pro­vid­ing ac­cess near the shore are clas­si­fied as four-wheel drive in­clud­ing the ac­cess to Navy Beach which is the best place to launch a boat even though there is no ramp. Slow driv­ing al­lows you to reach many points on the south shore as long as your ve­hi­cle has fairly de­cent clear­ance.

There is ex­cel­lent ac­cess at the Mono Lake County Park just north of Lee Vin­ing that in­cludes plank path­ways that take you by high and dry tufa tow­ers and to vista points where you can see oth­ers in the water. The north­east side of the lake is where you can ac­cess a fairly de­cent dirt road to take you to the amaz­ing Black Point fis­sures where the power of the earth is re­vealed in tor­tured layer af­ter layer of rock.

These seven streams, by the way, are home to some of the best trout fish­ing you’ll find in the east­ern Sierra. The lakes at Tioga Pass along­side High­way 120 are just 12 miles away.

If fish­ing isn’t your bag, a 45 minute drive north of Lee Vin­ing takes to Bodie — the best and most well-pre­served, his­toric ghost town in the coun­try bar none.

There are nu­mer­ous camp grounds in the Lee Vin­ing Canyon, June Lake Loop and else­where main­tained by the For­est Ser­vice and Pri­vate con­cerns. Lee Vin­ing also has mo­tels,

The first time I came across Mono Lake I was headed on a fully loaded bi­cy­cle tour­ing trip with an­other bi­cy­clist from Sacramento. We climbed east­ward up High­way 120 some 12 miles gain­ing 4,000 feet in el­e­va­tion un­til we reached Tioga Pass — the east­ern en­trance to Yosemite — at nearly 10,000 feet. It is the lofti­est seg­ment of state high­way in Cal­i­for­nia.

I sub­se­quently bi­cy­cled twice from Man­teca over the pass on loops back up Mon­i­tor Pass through Jack­son be­fore tak­ing my first trip in a car that af­forded me the chance to ex­plore the lake.

The trip — ei­ther by bi­cy­cle or by car — is my fa­vorite for sev­eral rea­sons. You pass through the Yosemite high coun­try which I pre­fer to the Yosemite Val­ley and then en­joy the alpine beauty near the sum­mit be­fore plung­ing to­ward’s the des­o­late beauty of the Mono Basin through a glacier carved canyon.

And if you come back, you’ll be able to see the state high­way sign giv­ing di­rec­tion to Man­teca that’s the far­thest away from the Fam­ily City as you turn off High­way 395 and start the climb back up Tioga Pass.

Photo con­trib­uted

Vis­i­tors ex­plore Mono Lake and its tufa tow­ers dur­ing Satur­day and Sun­day morn­ing tours.

Photo by Gar­ri­son MacQueen

Den­nis Wy­att is on the sum­mit of Mt. Dana at 13,061 feet with Mono Lake be­hind him. The photo was taken in July of 2016.

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