Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Mono Lake County Park

Mono Craters and Sierra Nevada rise over Mono Lake
0.7 miles round trip, 70 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Mark Twain called Mono Lake- a large, salty, and alkaline body of water in the western Great Basin at the foot of the Sierra Nevada- the "Dead Sea of California," but if you access the lake on its north shore at Mono Lake County Park that descriptor might never come to mind. Mono Lake is an otherworldly and ethereal landscape of water in the desert, surrounded by bizarre rock pillars known as tufa, but at Mono Lake County Park, the landscape surrounding the tufa on the lakeshore is lush and packed with blooming wildflowers, grazing deer, and nesting birds. This secluded park is one of the best places to appreciate how this "Dead Sea" is actually teeming with life- and as a bonus, it has far fewer visitors than the more popular access points at South Tufa and Old Marina. 

Mono Lake is far from any major metropolitan area; the small town of Lee Vining on the lake's western shore is the closest place with services. I visited Mono Lake County Park during an August trip to Yosemite, although I've been to Mono Lake quite a few times, first visiting the area and falling for it in high school. From Lee Vining, I followed US Highway 395 north five miles and then turned right onto Cemetery Road shortly after passing Mono Inn. There were nice views overlooking the lake from Cemetery Road, which led down to the Mono Lake County Park on the right side of the road in less than a half mile. There's free parking at the park and there are clean and nice flush bathrooms here as well.

Black Point and Mono Lake County Park from Cemetery Road
The parking area of Mono Lake County Park makes it seem like a county park you might find anywhere else in America: flush bathrooms, picnic tables, a grassy lawn, a playground. Following the paved path down from the bathrooms, though, I quickly arrived at the start of a boardwalk that exited the manicured, grassy park and instead headed into the sagebrush landscape that defines the Great Basin. A sign here thanks the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for leasing this land to Mono County to build this park.

You might wonder: why does the LADWP own land along the shoreline of Mono Lake, over 300 miles from Los Angeles? At the start of the twentieth century, the expanding city of Los Angeles demanded increasing volumes of water, water that the arid mountains and desert of Southern California could not provide. Engineer William Mulholland, who led the predecessor agency to today's LADWP, looked to the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada- which naturally drains to the Central Valley and Great Basin- as a solution. Under Mulholland's direction, the LADWP constructed the Los Angeles Aqueduct along the Eastern Sierra, diverting the range's summer snowmelt to the growing City of Angels. An extension of the aqueduct started drawing from the creeks feeding Mono Lake in 1941. The land on which Mono Lake County Park is now established was among the tracts purchased by the LADWP to carry out this water diversion.

What would these water diversions mean for Mono Lake? Mono Lake is an endorheid lake- meaning it has no outlet- in the westernmost part of the Great Basin; while most of the other basins between the many mountain ranges of this area are dry seasonally or year-round, Mono Lake still exists only because of the steady source of snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada. The water diversions thus meant that the level of the lake quickly began dropping, as evaporative losses were no longer offset by snowmelt inflows. As I walked along boardwalk, passing a sign on the right indicating that I had entered the Mono Lake State Tufa Reserve, a small placard on the left indicated that I was passing the level of the lakeshore in 1941, just before the water diversions began.

As the water diversions continued, the lake level fell year after year, reaching a low of 42 feet below its 1941 level in the early 1990s. The saline waters of Mono Lake became saltier by the year and islands in the center of the lake that were nesting grounds for California gulls became connected to the mainland by falling water levels, leaving juvenile birds defenseless to coyotes and other predators. In response to this unfolding environmental catastrophe, activist David Gaines founded the Mono Lake Committee, which sued the LADWP to stop water diversions from the creeks feeding Mono Lake. Judges sided with the Mono Lake Committee and in 1994 the LADWP was ordered to release enough water into the lake to raise the water level 17 feet from its low point; the lake has now recovered by more than 7 feet. Frequent placards along the boardwalk marked the water level at different points in the 20th century as the lake shrunk, with one indicating the state-mandated level that the LADWP and the Mono Lake Committee are now striving for. 

The area around Mono Lake County Park is especially lush as this is where Dechambeau Creek flows into Mono Lake- hence the need for a boardwalk to preserve a rare slice of greenery in the desert. Wildflowers- including abundant paintbrush- bloomed in the recessional zone next to the boardwalk, fed by the waters of the creek. The high ridges of the Sierra Nevada rose to the west.

Wildflowers along the boardwalk
Throughout the 20th century, the falling level of the lake exposed more and more of the tufa formations that were once below the surface of the lake. These calcium carbonate pillars formed around underwater springs high in calcium that feed into Mono Lake's carbonate-rich waters. As the waters of the lake retreated, these tufa formations emerged from the lake; some were left high and dry on the recessional land. The boardwalk passed close to a small collection of these this tufa, which varied in color from chalk to grey; some looked like misshapen, bumpy smokestacks, while others exhibited flat grey caps. This hike doesn't offer as impressive an array of tufa as the formations found at the South Tufa area on the other side of the lake, but the small and scattered tufa towers here are still nice to see.

Tufa towers next to the boardwalk
The boardwalk ended in a marshy area by the lakeshore, where the viewing platform at the end of the trail was surrounded by tall grasses, about a hundred feet from the current shoreline of the lake. I arrived here late in the day, when the sun was hiding behind clouds that had built up on the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Scattered tufa towers dotted the shoreline and extended out into the lake. Black Point, a dark-colored plateau nearby, rose above the lake to the east, the result of an ancient underwater volcanic eruption. I also spotted, Paoha and Negit, two volcanic islands in the heart of the lake- one a light color, the other one dark. The Mono Craters rose to the south of the lake, a continuation of the volcanic chain that includes Black Point, Paoha, and Negit- this volcanic arc is associated with the Long Valley Caldera near Mammoth Lakes, a supervolcano that is one of the most closely monitored geologically active areas in the country. Paoha formed in eruptions just over 250 years ago, barely older than the Declaration of Independence.

Tufa rising above Mono Lake at the end of the boardwalk
In the distance to the south were the high ridges of the White Mountains, the tallest range of the entire Basin and Range. White Mountain Peak- at 14252 feet- is California's third tallest peak and was bathed in fiery alpenglow as sunset commenced. To the right of the Mono Craters were the jagged peaks of the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada.

Mono Lake is important not just for its role in California's water wars and its magnficent scenery: it is also an ecologically essential lake. The lake is the nesting ground for a majority of the California gulls in the state and is also a destination for migratory birds from all over the continent. The birds come for the lake's bountiful population of endemic brine shrimp, which crowd the lake's salty, alkaline, and fish-free waters by the trillions each summer. The only other visitor who I saw here was a birdwatcher from Minnesota, who pointed out Wilson's phalarope, American avocets, California gulls, and ospreys that were feeding in the lake and nesting on tufa formations. As the sun set, I watched as hundreds of birds flew by, swam along the lakeshore, and dined on the lake's brine shrimp harvest. The tall grasses near the boardwalk welcomed two deer for their evening meal.

Sunset on Mono Lake
If you haven't been to Mono Lake, you're probably better served visiting South Tufa to see Mono Lake at its showiest. But if you've been to South Tufa and want to see more of this otherwordly desert lake- or if your first or second or tenth visit wasn't enough and you know you need to return again to the vast open skies and tranquil waters and calling birds of Mono Lake- then the boardwalk at Mono Lake County Park is a wonderful short stroll to better understand this unique and moving landscape.

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