Mono Lake | Finding Tranquility in Half-Baked Calcium Carbonate

Who knew a million year old, salt lake without an outlet could seep into your soul like a halcyon balm?

Just reading about the alkalai flies inhabiting the shores, I wouldn’t have thought Mono Lake could provide such peace. But it did. And the flies won’t bother you—they’re too busy feasting on other things.

So if you’re anywhere near Mammoth Lakes (which is only about 30 miles south of Mono Lake), the entrance to Tioga Pass/SR 120 on your way into or out of Yosemite (about 13 miles north) or chasing ghosts in Bodie (about 25 miles northeast), you MUST take time to walk the South Tufa Trail at Mono Lake.

The Visitor’s Center, which is closer to the town of Lee Vining, is full of interesting information about the formation of the lake, the ecology, the history, etc. But even the signs there will tell you to get back in the car and head for the South Tufa.

There’s an access road a few miles further south from the Visitor’s Center off US 395.  State Road 120 west will take you west, young man…it’s the Tioga Pass Road to Yosemite. State Road 120 East is the access road you’ll be looking for. You’ll soon see signs for the Mono Lake tufa and shore.

This hike to the tufa is easy—it’s all flat. Yes, you can take your grandma.

Great Towering Tufa | Mono-nificent Sights

Tufa TrailMono Lake is about 65 square miles in area and less than 60 feet deep in most spots (though one spot measures 159 feet deep). It is one of the oldest lakes in North America, and it is three times as salty as the Pacific.

You’ll see evidence of ancient volcanoes when you visit…the islands in the middle of the lake as well as the Mono Craters around the lake are all remnants of volcanic eruptions.

Tufa forms underwater when calcium from underwater springs mixes with carbonates in the lake water.

Watery Wildlife

This is not a fishing lake, since the water is too alkaline to support our gilled friends. However, trillions of brine shrimp live here, billions of alkalai flies feed on the algae, and millions of birds migrate and nest here, feeding on flies,  shrimp and each other.

Believe it or not, the flies are kind of cool. First you’ll notice that the shores of Mono Lake are black by the water. It isn’t until you step towards the edge and a black, buzzing blanket lifts and resettles with every step you take, that you realize the you’re not looking at sediment, but at billions of insects.

The flies lift and settle about a foot away from you, not wanting to be parted from their algae dinners for very long. The buzz is incredible. The seabirds waddling the beach as you walk are amusing – beaks open, they skim for flies as the blanket lifts, with your every step. Instant, easy grazing for the fowl.

Mono Lake’s Alkalai Flies may be the only flies on earth that won’t annoy you.

Many of these birds nested on the islands, until the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting fresh water streams from the Sierras, and the lowered level of Mono Lake turned the islands into peninsulas, which created land bridges for bird and egg-eating predators.

Mono Lake restoration and conservation began in the late 90s. The water level still hasn’t reached it’s old depth, before the draining off of fresh water. But the ecology is reviving.

The Road to Vegas Begins With Peggy Sue’s Diner

Frank Sinatra Lives!

Frank Sinatra impersonator at THEhotel.

I have a love-hate relationship with Vegas. As far as weekend escapes go, Sin City provides all you can stand for great food and entertainment. But beyond those things, I especially like it when east coast family and friends come to visit .  . . it’s kind of fun then to watch the looks on people’s faces when they first experience:

  • The scratchy neon blanket of lights smothering the Strip,
  • The sheer numbers of people walking around zombie-like in the face-melting heat, and
  • Those annoying card flickers, handing out pictures of women who promise to be at your door within 20 minutes, no matter who you are, or where you came from.

I’m sure I had the same blank stare of disbelief the first time I visited Las Vegas. But like most Southern Californians my disbelief quickly turned to disdain and finally, a strange kind of acceptance.

Sin City definitely has some fun aspects to make up for the downsides if you don’t go in the height of summer to get pummeled by the 120-degree temperatures, though. It’s all a matter of finding your balance and choosing the best times for your visit.

So last December I planned a trip back to Las Vegas with a certain amount of trepidation and misgiving. But it seemed like an ideal way to entertain a visitor, and besides, we had a mission in mind: to ride the thrill rides topping the Stratosphere.

But before we get to that crazy, misguided portion of our jaunt, let’s take a little detour via the Mojave Desert along the historic Route 66.  Believe it or not, there’s a lot to see:

World's Largest Thermometer in Baker, CA

This monument to heat measurement is right next to a Bob's Big Boy--not nearly as much fun as Peggy Sue's!

  • The World’s Largest Thermometer in Baker, California
  • Calico, an old silver-mining ghost town
  • Peggy Sue’s Diner

My friend and I stopped at two out of three (we’re saving Calico for another day). And let me just say that Peggy Sue’s just might be one of the highlights of the four hour drive between the City of Angels and the City of Sin.


Deep-fried pickles for a start. They’re crispy, tart, and loaded with fat and salt. Who can ask for more?

Aside from the old-fashioned comfort food menu though, there’s also a lot of Hollywood memorabilia decorating the place, and a little “Dinersaur” park in the back, giving Vegas-bound drivers an opportunity to stretch their legs.

Peggy Sue's Diner on Route 66You just can’t get that kind of opportunity at any old gas station in Death Valley.

Sure, it’s all pretty cheesy and not for everyone. But it’s a FUN kind of cheesy, and definitely a must see. Diners stuck in the 50s aren’t all that easy to find, after all.

Peggy Sue’s Diner is located in Yermo, CA. You’ll need to take the Ghost Town Road exit from Interstate 15:

In my next blog I’ll fill you in on how we discovered the world’s largest underpants!