Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Drive North (part 2): Mono Lake

Looking at the Sierras
 This is a second part of my "drive north."  I spent the last two weeks of July in Nevada, Eastern California and Utah (In addition to my "drive north," I have already posted about mountain biking and watching the moon set in the early morning along Lake Tahoe),   I love this country!  Because of the beauty of the scenery, I've made most of these photos larger, so if you click on them you can enjoy them in a larger format.

On Friday morning, July 19, I had a decision to make.  Not being expected in Virginia City until late in the day, I had time to explore.  I could backtrack a little on US 6 and then take Nevada 360 back through US 95 (following the old railroad bed of the Carson and Colorado), or I could continue on California 120 to Mono Lake.  Although I had never driven the 23 miles of Nevada 360, I’d driven 95 up through Mina, Hawthorne and Yerington many times. I’d also been by Mono Lake many times, but only once had I spent time walking along its shore and that was back in 1988.  I decided to head to the lake. 
The roller coaster road bed on CA 120

Although I had also driven California 120 many times, heading from Utah to Yosemite, I had forgotten how much part of the highway is like a roller coaster.  From Benton Hot Springs, the road climbs the sage covered hills and once on top, it seems as if they forgot to grade the road and just laid asphalt on the rolling hills, with short pitches of roadbed followed by quick short drops that leave your gut hanging a 100 feet overhead.   You also worry about what’s on the other side of the pitch because you can’t see down into the trough until you're headed down.  Although there is little traffic on this road, this is open range and it’s always possible to find a cow loitering around at the bottom, something that wouldn’t do either of us any good.  However, I enjoy the drive and after about 30 miles, the Sierras began to loom in the distance and Jeffrey Pines begin to replace sagebrush and the occasional pinion pine. 

Young Jeffrey Pines at site of old mill
I stop at a new interpretative site for Mono Mills, a sawmill that stripped the largest forest of Jeffrey Pines in the world.  I have always liked this variety of pine and think of them as kin as we share the same name.  Today, the Jeffreys growing here, whose bark has the distinct smell of vanilla, are all second growth.  During the heyday in Bodie (a mining town north of Mono Lake), there was a short-line railroad that ran to this mill, but the train (which never connected to another railroad) was abandoned in 1917, as the mines died out and the forests were depleted.  You can still see a few railroad ties at the site of the mill.  According to the interpretative signs, when the railroad was abandoned, it was sold for scrap and brought in more money than the investors had originally paid to build the line.  I expect World War 1 and the high price of scrap metal had something to do with the bonus its investors received.  

Looking toward Yosemite from Mono Lake

A little further down 120, I take a right on a gravel road that leads out to the shores of Mono Lake.   It still feels as if I’m far from civilization, but as I am walking up to the ranger station to pay my three bucks for a day-use permit, I’m shocked with the ringing of my cell phone.  I didn’t even realize I was again connected to the larger world as I’d pretty much been disconnected since leaving Tonopah yesterday (yes, there are still places beyond the reach of a cell phone).  I take the call, but then turn the ringer off.  

Brine flies that line the lakeshore
Mono Lake is a unique place.  Nestled in a basin, the water runs off the backside of the Sierras and down from the Bodie Hills and from the volcanic craters to the south and ends up in an evaporating in the lake where the water leaves behind its mineral content.  As a result, the lake is extremely salty, as are similar bodies of water:  The Great Salt Lake in Utah, Pyramid Lake in Northwestern Nevada and the Dead Sea in the Middle East.  Although there are no fish in these waters, the waters are full of brine shrimp and flies, the later which do not bite but cover the shoreline and at times look like moving carpet as they make a way for you to walk through them.  The flies and shrimp attract birds and the lake is home for many species of birds as well as a stop-over point for many others during migration.   Also unique about the lake are tufas that line the shoreline, limestone statues created over the centuries as spring water laden with calcium percolate into the waters of Mono Lake.  The calcium in the spring water bonds with the carbon in the lake water to create calcium carbonate.  As the lake level falls (it has a history of rising and falling), it exposes these unique statues, giving the shoreline of Mono Lake an appearance that seems as if should be from another planet. 

For much of the past century, the lake has been falling rapidly as tributaries that bring water from the surrounding mountains have been diverted to Southern California to wet the thirst of those in the Los Angeles basin.  However, in the mid-90s, a lawsuit was settled that forced the water authorities to allow more water to drain into the lake, allowing the lake to rise to its 1963 level.  This level is still way below the 1930s level, but is significantly above the level it was in the early 1990s.  The ranger informed me that the lake has risen at least 10 feet since I’d walked along it’s shoreline in 1988.  When the lake reaches the 1963 level, the water authorities can again tap into the streams coming into Mono Lake, but must allow enough water to flow into the lake to keep it at a constant level.
Birds feasting on shrimp and flies
The next hour or so I spend walking along the lakeshore, watching the birds feast on the brine shrimp and flies and observing the clouds’ reflections on the water.   It’s warm, but not too hot and there is a breeze that’s keeping the temperatures down.  I spot a group of kayakers paddling on the lake.  There are signs warning people that the lake is subject to violent storms that can quickly rise, such as the one Mark Twain endured with his friend Higbie when they camped along the lake in the early 1860s.  Taking a rowboat to one of the islands, they came back in a violent storm.  Twain also noted how clean their clothes were in that camp, for the water was nearly pure lye and their washings didn’t require much scrubbing.

In the early afternoon, I leave the lake.  I wished I had more time to explore but I was getting hungry.  I continued on west on California 120, toward the Sierras that were now looming over me.  Reaching US 395, I turned north and drove to the small community of Lee Vining.  I have to resist the temptation to take a left and head up Tioga Pass and into Yosemite.  Not seeing anyplace that I want to eat in the overly touristy town of Lee Vining, I continue on to Bridgeport (again, resisting the temptation to turn, this time to the right and climb up into the heights and visit, once more, the town of Bodie—a ghost town turned state park).

In Bridgeport, which I’d always considered a cow town, I stop at the Burger Barn, where I enjoy an Elk Burger.  While there, I talked with a northbound thru-hiker along the Pacific Crest Trail.  She gives me her trail name, but for some reason I don’t record it in my journal so I won’t be able to look and see if she makes it by the end of the hiking season.   She’s waiting at the Burger Barn for a promised ride back up to Sonora Pass (this is quite a drive and she's lucky to have someone going that direction).   Leaving Bridgeport, which I found to be busier than it was the last time I’d been through here in the late 1980s, I drive on up 395, through the Walker River Valley, amazed at the number of new businesses that have popped up since my last time in this part of the country.  Also amazing is the growth south of Carson City.  The towns of Gardnerville and Minden no longer seem separate from the state capital.  In Carson City, I take a right on US 50.  One last surprise was at Mound House, just east of Carson City and my turn on Nevada 341 for the drive up the mountain to Virginia City.  Above the highway was a trestle for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad which now extends all the way from Virginia City to the Carson River. 
Kayakers on the lake
I arrived in Virginia City around four, in time for dinner and some music and to make plans for my Saturday’s adventure.  Stay tuned.  The next installment will tell about my trip in the cab of a 1914 steam train.  


  1. You have the best adventures!! Looking forward to the next one.

  2. wow...some pretty cool structures left in the draining down of the lake...i am glad they allowed it back up a bit and did not just kill off this whole ecosystem...brine flies...sounds a bit nasty...ha...i like the shot of yosemite....

  3. Water may well be the cause of the next civil war. My guess is the development of Nevada is directly related to the majority population county of Las Vegas long barren stretches and now almost everywhere that has people sounds like a tourist spot for souvenirs.

  4. I think a fellow could travel around all his natural life and still not see all there is to see here in the continental U.S. Makes me realize that I need to do the best I can with the time I have left.

  5. What a great travel log! I've never been to Mono Lake but have put it on my "Go There" list.

    I do wonder about the expansion of we humans and the demand it puts on water resources. The desert can be a dangerous environment and the high desert perhaps even more so because everything dehydrates so rapidly. Perhaps the desert rats who persist will develop a tough hide like the snakes, lizards and plants that inhabit this area.

    Look forward to your next installment. You certainly know your Rail lines!

  6. Beautiful. So many wonderful geographical features in our world.

  7. There is a serious difference between the two States. Space age-Stone age sort of contrast. Even the village of Mono looks healthy and there isn't 40 houses in the place. Does Vegas and Reno/Carson metro area suck the life from Nevada.
    That area is truly lovely.

    That lake has another 36ft X 16 sq miles to go before it get to a level to hide the beach lines. :-)

  8. Looks like a great drive, lovely photos and Mono Lake sounds fascinating.

  9. I began to read your post and the first sentence of your second paragraph has stayed with me somewhat. I also love your country! :-) If there's a dream I have is to travel the entire US, from east to west and south to north. I know it would take me a couple of years at least to accomplish this feat. Mainly because, knowing myself, I wouldn't just stop in a place for the night and drive off the next day without finding out as much information about is history and culture first. I loved your post and your photos. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

    PS: By the way, one of the ads that came up at the end of your post was for Chelsea Football Club, the team I follow in the English Premier League. Thanks for the "blue" welcome! :-)

  10. Lovely scenery! It sounds like a great drive!

  11. So pretty!

    I have a friend that says Mono Lake is like her favorite place on earth. I can kinda see why in that big picture :)

  12. I love a meandering drive like that.

  13. You should seriously write some traveling memoirs :)

  14. FANTASTIC post! Your photos and narrative are riveting. I remember the first time I saw Mono Lake as a kid. I was amazed and have been felt that way every time I've been there. I'm happy to see that it is still amazing.