August 16, 2014

South Tufa Trail at Mono Lake

I am writing this blogpost in the midst of a social media "Ice Bucket Challenge" to draw awareness to the neurodegenerative disease ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.) The nurse in me is celebrating; the water conservationist in me is dying over here. I just spent the week in Northern California filling water buckets while taking a shower -- every DROP is precious. I think it's a tribute to how messed up our world is that I'm living in the Sonoran desert, and there is less pressure on me to conserve water than those folks that are living in the shadow of 14,000 foot alpine Sierra Nevada peaks or among the temperate rain forests of coastal California.

So on the topic of water conservation, I thought I'd share a short hike (really a walk) that I did along the southern portion of Mono Lake. I have been to Mono Lake several times over my lifetime, and whenever I mention it to friends (even those that live in California), I am presented with a blank stare. Lake Tahoe -- check. Mono Lake -- huh? Those two lakes are just a little more than 100 miles apart, but worlds different in terms of fame and fortune. Usually, if I say, "Have you ever seen the movie Chinatown with Jack Nicholson?" there is some vague recollection of Mono Lake. That movie is based on the water disputes that drained California's Owens Valley to build up a thirsty Los Angeles. There is a lot of history behind Mono Lake, much more than I will include here, but there is now signage all along the South Tufa Trail explaining the history behind the water wars.

After years and years of diverting Mono Lake's source, the lake began to dry up and expose the tufas. The tufas are formed from underground calcium-rich springs that combine with the alkaline lake water to create calcium carbonate limestone precipitate. The tufas only form underwater so we are seeing these particular tufas because the lake has been drained for so long. There are many other characteristics that make Mono Lake quite unique, and they are explained along the way, as well. This is the far western side of the area known as the "Great Basin." It's kind of spooky out here, and it kind of looks like how I imagine living on Mars would be. Perhaps if the drought in California continues, we can anticipate more of California looking liking this.

Length: 1 mile loop
Elevation gain: none
Time it took us: 1 hour with stops to read the display signs
Dogs allowed: Yes, on leashes, but please keep them away from the tufas.
Fees: $3 self-pay per person, kids under 16 are free.
Directions: From US 395, take Hwy 120 east for 5 miles to the turnoff for the South Tufa Trail. Closest town is Lee Vining, California.

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