March 27, 2017.
Somewhere in California, I rolled out of my tent and discovered a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. It was freezing cold, and even my tough constitution was rattled so much that I just made hot water for tea and ate my breakfast in the car. It was day 2 of a 2-week roadtrip and I was just getting started.
I drove straight through the morning to my first hiking stop at Mono Lake. The Visitor’s Center was closed for the season but a tourist info place in town was open and I picked up a map from the lady working there. She recommended backtracking to the county park before visiting the more popular stops, so I did.
Mono County Park
It was probably a few weeks too early to get much excitement from this little park. Everything was still dead and it was very windy. I strolled down the boardwalk, stopping every few feet to note the historical depths of the lake, which were printed on signs. Modern Mono Lake is recovering from an aggressive water diversion program by the LA Department of Water and Power starting in the 1940’s. The lake’s level dropped significantly, losing half its volume and raising its salinity by double. This rapid change in conditions threatened the fragile ecosystem as well as the local water and air quality. In 1978 the Mono Lake Committee has fought to bring back the health of the lake and restore the volume of the lake to a sustainable level. Today it is well on the way to recovery, and serves as an example of how to balance the needs of the growing urban population with the needs of the surrounding environment.
At the end of the boardwalk I pondered all this as I watched the sun reflect off the white-capped surface of the lake. Tall, alien rock structures called tufa rose from the area surrounding the lake and broke the surface of the lake itself. The only reason we can see these incredible formations is because the water level is so low. Tufa towers form when calcium-rich mineral water from lake bottom springs react with the carbonate in the lake water itself, forming calcium carbonate: limestone. The limestone creates tower-like shapes around the spring, and when the lake level drops, the tufa towers are revealed.
South Tufa and Navy Beach
To get a really cool view of these mineral deposits I headed next to the South Tufa day use area. A short trail dotted with interpretive signs taught me even more about the lake’s unique geology as well as the local bird and plant life. The wind blew frothy foam at the edges of the lake, adding to the layers of interesting textures at the water’s edge. I meandered along the trail as it passed by the tufa and played around a little with taking handstand selfie pictures. These were not easy to do, since my handstand skills were a little lacking. But with some patience and luck I nailed at least one of them, and then continued along my merry way.
As the trail looped back towards the parking lot I saw a sign pointing to Navy Beach. I decided to detour along this connector trail and ended up on a secluded beach with even more interesting geological formations: sand tufa. These extremely delicate structures looked like a stiff gust of wind could blow them into oblivion. But there they stood, far from the edge of the lake, sand castles created by nature. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a treasure, as there was no one else on this little beach.
I had time for one more stop so I drove to the trailhead for Panum Crater. There were two trails here: the Plug Trail and Rim trail. I began on the Plug trail, which was well-marked until it suddenly wasn’t. After several dead-ends in the crumbly lava I backtracked to the rim. I hiked halfway around to a lovely panoramic viewpoint of the lake and took a snack break. A couple came up behind me and decided to go back the way they came, but I wanted to see if the trail went all the way around (it did). There was a steep little climb on the other side but I still got back ahead of them.
To camp, perchance to dream
I had a lot more driving to do so I set a course for Bishop and looked for a suitable campground. It was windy as hell everywhere I went, so I just settled on the Tinnemaha Campground. No one was there. I chose a spot adjacent to a little stream with some trees and a view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. I parked my car on the windward side of the tent to try and act as a bit of a windbreak. On the bright side, the ripping winds dried out my soaking wet tent in about 10 minutes, so I had a cozy shelter to retire to after cooking up dinner.
Tomorrow’s journeys will take me all the way to Santa Ana, with some hiking stops on the way…