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Up The Road: Eastern Sierra Tour: Magical Mono Lake

Ron Reiring

Just south of Bodie is Mono Lake. You could mistake this pale gray inland sea and its ghostly tufa towers for an eerie alien swimming pool on some other planet.


Back in the day, Mark Twain had much to say about Mono Lake—then known as the Dead Sea of California. “One of the strangest freaks of nature found in any land,” was one of his kinder comments.


“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert,” he wrote. “This solemn, silent, sailless sea—this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque.


It is an unpretending expanse of grayish water, about a hundred miles in circumference, with two islands in its centre, mere upheavals of rent and scorched and blistered lava, snowed over with gray banks and drifts of pumice-stone and ashes, the winding sheet of the dead volcano whose vast crater the lake has seized upon and occupied.”


Mono Lake is much, much smaller these days, thanks to relentless water predation by LA and its Metropolitan Water District. But it’s far from dead. The lake actually overflows with life. It’s the prime rookery for California Gulls: 85 percent of that species hatch and fledge right here, before migrating to the California coast in winter. It’s also a stopover along the Pacific Flyway for millions of other birds every summer and fall.


This “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert” easily feeds these multitudes thanks to the lake’s unique ecology. In spring, winds stir the lake, so nutrients feed algae growth that supports large populations of both brine flies and brine shrimp. Brine-fly larvae, or grubs, are bird delicacies, rich in protein.


By mid-summer some four-trillion brine shrimp reach maturity and become the birds’ second major food source, about the time fledgling gulls and other young birds first take flight and go foraging.


This highly alkaline lake, with its craters-of-the-moon look and surrounding day-old stubble of sagebrush, is protected both as the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area and the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Due to this summer’s lightning-caused wildfires, many Sierra Nevada wilderness areas and other parts of Inyo National Forest are now closed to the public—including the popular South Tufa and Navy Beach areas at Mono Lake.


Get a good “big picture” view of the lake from the Black Point fissures near the county park, reached via Cemetery Rd. northwest of the lake off Hwy 395. Pick your way carefully up the volcanic-cinder terraces to the top.


Call the Mono Lake Committee for ideas on what else to do in and around the lake, or stop by if the pop-up info stand is open outside the bookstore in Lee Vining.


Closed right now, sadly, due to coronavirus concerns: the impressive national forest visitor center overlooking the lake just north of Lee Vining—though maybe its decent bathrooms will be open if you’re in need. 


I’ve discovered all-time-favorite nature exhibits here. Many are interactive and “hands-on,” like the Guess Your Weight in Brine Shrimp display. If you’re 150 pounds, say, you weigh 450,000 brine shrimp.



Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel


Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:


 Photo Credit #1

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.