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.

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Summer in Mammoth Lakes – A One Day Tour

I had planned on seeing a lot more of Mammoth Lakes than I actually did. Unfortunately, my flight from Los Angeles had to turn back – a severe thunderstorm prevented us from landing, and I wasn’t able to book another flight back until two days later.

Take heart if you’d rather fly than drive though – a flight attendant told us that that was only the second time in her 22 year career in which her plane had to fly back to its point of origin.

Mammoth Village – The Adventure Begins

The great thing about Mammoth Lakes is that there are free shuttle services just about everywhere. However, I opted to take the Reds Meadow Shuttle, which cost $7/adult.

The Reds Meadow shuttle has stops at hiking trails leading to Devil’s Postpile, Minaret Falls, Rainbow Falls, etc.  There are 10 stops for this shuttle, and passengers can freely hop on and off to their hearts content.

So hike a bit, sightsee, then hop back on the bus for a little break.

The Reds Meadow Shuttle is about five miles from town and if you want to see Devil’s Postpile, you have to take it if you’re visiting between June and October. There are a few exceptions for private vehicle access, but the shuttle keeps down traffic on the one lane road, thus protecting both the fragile environment, and lollygagging tourists driving on unfamiliar mountain roads.

Besides, you’ll have more fun as a passenger – the shuttle driver will point out various landmarks and mountain peaks and you can devote all of your attention to the scenery rather than navigating steep hairpin turns.

To get to the Reds Meadow Shuttle, continue along the 203/Main Street and make a right on CA-203/Minaret Road. Stay on Minaret approximately five miles.

You’ll emerge from the woods and see cars parked along the roadsides – these spaces are free. As you get closer to the scenic gondola, rock-climbing wall, etc. you’ll find parking lots where an attendant will collect $10 per car. Go early if you want free parking.

Devil’s Postpile a Rock of the Tectonic Ages

Devil's Postpile a Towering Rack of BasaltWhat is Devil’s Postpile? It’s a national monument established in 1911, a Mammoth Lakes tourist Mecca, and a geologist’s prime example of ancient, columnar basalt.

It’s what’s left of a lava lake estimated to be about 400 feet deep. As the lava cooled, it contracted and cracked, forming the vertical columns. Freezing and thawing cycles over the centuries have sheered off the columns, creating the basalt pillars we see strewn on the ground below.

Signs around the monument instruct you to keep off the rocks – presumably for the same reason you shouldn’t run with scissors. Though I think I’d worry about rattlesnakes too.

Rainbow Falls a Killer Trek for Non-Hikers

The hike to Devil’s Postpile is fairly easy. The trail to Rainbow Falls can be quite another story. Supposedly, this walk is only 2.5 miles from the shuttle stop but it can get pretty steep in some areas.

On my way down I spotted a woman on the trail returning from the Falls on crutches. Then I noticed she was missing a leg. Her group had stopped for a breath, and just as I was passing heard her rally, “Let’s go! The sooner we get to the top, the sooner we can have a beer!” And off she clumped along, her friends surrounding her like a protective posse.

Now who wouldn’t find that inspiring?

Rainbow Falls crashes down about 100 feet, but it had shed its rainbow by the time I got to it. There’s a scenic overlook above the falls where you can watch the massive movement of water and ponder the courage of the crazy souls swimming in the pool at the bottom.

From this overlook you can take a steeper path further down and join the swimmers if you like. I debated. Then I debated some more. Then a few raindrops fell and I took it as a sign from the universe that I should head back to the shuttle.

On the return path, the trail branches off. The path on the left was the trail by which I came: slightly challenging, more or less uphill, but not too bad. The upper trail on the right had a sign for some kind of general store and camping area. I opted for the new trail, which nearly killed me because it was much steeper.

A quarter of the way through it, I was cursing the woman on crutches and all of her beer-guzzling friends.

At the halfway point I figured a knee replacement was in my immediate future, and I had visions of suffocating to death as I could NOT catch my breath. I took many breaks and made it back to the shuttle reeking of sweat and gasping like a fish. You granola groupies would love it.

Ansel Adams Wilderness Razed by Fire

Ansel Adams Wilderness, Mammoth LakesIf nothing else, the trail to Rainbow Falls and the Falls themselves are visually worth the aggravation. I can see why Ansel Adams was so smitten by his muse. But I have to warn you, you’ll see a lot of downed trees everywhere along the Reds Meadow shuttle road, and when you stumble across Adams’ Wilderness you’ll find even more.

The burned stumps and leveled trunks are victims of a forest fire that blazed in 1992. You’ll spot some new growth, but the devastating fire really took a toll on the landscape.

And that concludes my one day tour of Mammoth Lakes. I loved it, though my knees are still berating me.

Next up: a trip to Mono Lake, home of surreal beauty, a soul-soothing stroll, and billions and billions of curious little flies.

Attraction Rides in Vegas (a.k.a. Hell) – Adventures at 900 Feet

It’s not that they made me nauseous. Some do, but that’s not the problem with the attraction rides topping the Stratosphere in Las Vegas.

And it’s not that I’m not normally a thrill ride seeker, even though I probably haven’t been on one in 10+ years before last December.

It’s the fact that I nearly lost my mind in the Stratosphere Tower. Seriously, the three attraction rides atop that particular Vegas landmark are from hell.

Attraction Rides at Stratosphere

Insanity by Michael180, Wikimedia Commons.

Well ok, maybe you can consider one of them somewhat tame, if you’re not too squeamish about heights. We saved that one for last, and it turned out to be ok despite the fact that we were cranked out over 60 feet from the safety of the ledge, tilted in our chairs so that we were facing down on the Strip from 900 feet above, and spun around pretty fast.

Thankfully, no need to vomit.  And after a minute or two, it was almost fun.

That particular thrill is called Insanity – The Ride, and yeah, it was pretty insane considering all of the above factors. But to get the most bang for your thrill-seeking buck, I recommend you do Insanity first, BEFORE you lose your mind on the other rides, and are rendered mentally numb.

Big Shot is the ride that gave me heart palpitations. I didn’t really enjoy being launched 160 feet up in the air like a roman candle. I had visions of not stopping, and hurtling down 160 feet, plus the total length of the Strat, to be smashed into a million itty bitty pieces on the pavement below.

What’s the newest attraction in Vegas? Stupid Tourist Smoothie, running in chunky rivulets into the gutters. Live on Channel 7.

Yeah, it scared me. Particularly those few seconds of lag time at the top when you don’t know when you’ll be shot down again. Or back up. Nice mind game, thrill ride designers! I recommend making this thrill second of the three attraction rides on the Stratosphere.

Save X-Scream for last. This is the one that made me lose my mind. You’ll be harnessed into your seat, a coaster-like compartment hugging a rail. The rail lifts above the platform, you’re tilted down, and then mercilessly shot over the edge of the Tower.

Thrill Rides at Stratosphere

X-Scream by Michael 180, Wikimedia Commons.

Again, visions of not being able to stop.  And more seconds of lag time to ponder stupid fate.

The Stratosphere website compares this thrill ride to a teeter-totter, but the description couldn’t possibly be any further from the truth. It absolutely SUCKED, and I’m never going anywhere near another ride like that again.

What makes this ride so much scarier than other attraction rides or hare-brained thrills I’ve ever ridden or participated in? I suspect it’s the tilting at some unknown speed not listed on the Strat’s website. Whatever the case, it was time to get off the Tower and have a cocktail…

Tip #1: You’ll be asked to stow away purses, hats, etc. in compartments before boarding these ride attractions, for very good reason. It’s all kept safe but if you’re worried about that sort of thing, have a friend who’s not riding hold your stuff.

Tip#2: The 20-somethings on the rides with us could not get enough…they laughed joyously every time I had to re-swallow my heart. I wanted to cut their legs off. But there ARE some crazy people in the world who will love these rides. Maybe you’re one of them?

Thrill Rides Death Grip

My white-knuckled X-Scream reaction...

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.

Why?

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: http://www.peggysuesdiner.com/.

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