Friday, January 29, 2010

Beautiful Mono Lake


There’s no place quite like Mono Lake.

With its strange tufa rock formations, volcanic cinder cones and ultra-saline waters filled with brine shrimp and brine flies, Mono Lake is unlike any other lake in the western U.S.

An excellent place to learn about Mono Lake is the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center near Lee Vining. The center, which opened a few years ago, contains many informative, interactive displays describing the unique features of the lake and the region.

For instance, the first exhibit, entitled “Who Lives Here,” shows models of the various animals and birds found at the lake. Interactive lights spotlight violet-green swallows, deer mice, California gulls, gebes, weasels, owls, squirrels, and phalaropes.

An adjacent display details how Mono Lake is fed—it receives about 7 inches of water annually—by five streams as well as freshwater springs, rain and snow. Another display describes how the lake’s famed tufa rock was formed and offers examples of the different types of tufa.

Other exhibits describe the Native Americans who once lived around the lake, who were known as the Kuzedika. A traditional Kuzedika bark house, made of poles, grass and juniper bark, has been reconstructed in the exhibit room.

Mono Lake is 2 1/2 times saltier than the Salton Sea and 1,000 times more alkali than the ocean, which gives it unusual qualities.

In fact, in 1872, Mark Twain wrote: “Its sluggish waters are so strong with alkali that if you only dip the most hopelessly soiled garment into them once or twice, and wring it out, it will be found as clean as if it had been through the ablest of washer woman's hands.”

More than 700,000 years old, Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America. Originally formed by melting glaciers, the lake once measured five times its present size of about 60 square miles (at its peak the lake covered about 338 square miles and reached a depth of 900 feet).

In addition to having direct ties to the Ice Age, the lake has been the site of extensive volcanic activity, starting about 13,000 years ago, which helped shape its development.

For example, the rounded black hills to the south are remnants of giant, uplifted volcanic craters. At one, Panum Crater, easily accessible from Highway 120, you can hike to the dome and rim of a long-dead volcano.

The area’s volcanic heritage is also evident at Black Point, at the lake’s north end, which features large fissures you can walk through, and at various hot springs and steam vents found in the basin.

The lake’s trademark tufa formations, however, are its most impressive and unusual landmarks. At various places around the lake, you can find clusters of these towering calcium spires and plugs.

Tufa is formed when calcium-bearing freshwater springs bubble up through alkaline lake water that is rich with carbonates. When the two combine, limestone deposits form, which can over years grow into large towers.

Tufa formations can only grow within the lake. When the lake level falls and the tufa is exposed to air, it ceases to grow.

A number of interpretive trails lead to patches of tufa formations located around the lake. The most popular trails begin at the Visitor Center, near the Mono Lake County Park at the north end and from the South Tufa Area at Navy Beach (accessible from Highway 120).

The latter contains some of the largest and most impressive tufa. Dozens of the gnarled, knobbed, and rippled tufa towers line the southern lake shore.

Visitors can wander along the beach, wandering through the maze of formations, which, depending upon the light and your mood, can assume exotic and mysterious shapes.

While the lake appears dead, it is actually an alkali soup of unique lifeforms. Both the brine shrimp and brine flies flourish on its algae-laden waters.

Additionally, the lake is popular with many species of birds (who eat the shrimp and flies), including gulls, grebe and snowy plovers. In fact, 90 percent of the state of California’s population of California gulls is born at Mono Lake.

Swimming is permitted in the lake and, because it is so salty, you can float easily. However, rangers warn that you should keep the water out of your eyes or any cuts because it will sting.

Despite its unique qualities, it’s a miracle that Mono Lake continues to exist. In 1941, the City of Los Angeles began diverting water from four of the streams that feed the lake.

During the next few decades, the lake level dropped 40 feet and doubled in salinity. Fortunately, environmentalists and the city have worked out agreements protecting the flow of water to the lake that will help it regain some of its previous levels.

Mono Lake is located about two hours south of Carson City Fallon via U.S. 395. The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the warmer months).

For more information, call 760-647-3044, http://www.monolake.org/visit/vc.

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