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.

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.