“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds. This solemn, silent, sail-less sea–this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth –is little graced with the picturesque. “
– Mark Twain
My first glimpse of Mono Lake was late at night. We had just driven up and over Sonora Pass, which had opened for the season a few days earlier. The road had been descending out of the snow covered mountains for quiet awhile when I caught a glimmer out of the corner of my eye. I glanced out of the window and saw nothing but thick darkness. A few minutes later we rounded a bend and there far below us was a glistening moonlit lake. The road continued down and ran alongside the lake. From this viewpoint the lake seemed to go on forever and it was impossible to tell where it began or ended. Then we rounded another curve and it was gone and we were left to stare into the inky blackness of night.
A few days later we made it back to Mono Lake, this time in daylight. Even in the light, we still felt a moment of surprise to round a corner and come upon the lake. A shimmering mirage in the middle of a dry, dusty landscape.
Mono Lake is flaked in the distance by mountains. The Sierra Nevadas rise dramatically from the lake’s surface and small volcanic ranges surround it to north. But the land right around the lake is vast and barren, full of sagebrush and little else.
We turned off the highway and drove down a dirt road toward the lake creating a large plume of dust behind us. The road ended at a parking lot. We got out and walked the rest of the way to the lake. As we stood staring out on the water, a warm dry wind buffeting us in gusts, it felt as though something was off. Something just didn’t feel right. Then I realized what it was; no one was there.
The lake was empty. No boats full of families enjoying a bright sunny day on the water. No sunbathers lying on beaches. No grills going preparing a lunch of burgers and hotdogs for hungry picnickers. No one fishing in the coves hoping to catch the big one. A body of water covering 65 miles just a few miles away from Yosemite National Park and no one there to enjoy it. Instead all was quiet and still. I thought of a quote from Mark Twain that I had read earlier when researching the area. Mono Lake really does feel like the “loneliest spot on earth”.
But not too long ago the lake was a lot less lonely. People came to Mono Lake. Speed boats raced up and down the flat waters, excursion boats took families on guided tours, and the town of Lee Vining, which sits above the eastern shore of the lake, offered vacationers placates to stay and eat. It was a destination, a place to stay and play until a need for water over 300 miles away changed everything.
In 1941, the city of Los Angeles began diverting water from Mono Lake to meet the growing water demands of the city. So much water was diverted that evaporation soon exceeded inflow and the water level of the lake began to fall rapidly while its salinity doubled (its now 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean). By 1990 the lake had dropped 45 feet and lost half its volume.
As a result, the lake’s ecosystem began to collapse. Gull nesting sites were abandoned due to now easy access to predators, alkaline sands became exposed, the photosynthetic rates of algae were reduced which effected the rest of the lake’s food chain, and nearby streams dried up altogether. Mono Lake was dying.
Then, in 1994, after over a decade of litigation, the California State Water Resources Control Board issued an order to protect Mono Lake. Water stopped being diverted and the levels began slowly rising.
The ecosystem is now recovering as well. Each spring the lake becomes green with algae blooms. This algae serves as the food source for the trillions of brine shrimp, no bigger than a thumbnail, that live in the lake. These shrimp and tiny alkali flies that also make the lake their home, serve as a food source for millions of migratory shorebirds. Mono Lake has also become the second largest nesting population of California gulls. Things are looking up for Mono Lake.
But one of the most interesting and unique results of the dramatic water level drop was the exposure of the tufa towers. These towers are calcium-carbonate spires and knobs that formed where freshwater springs bubbled up and interacted with the alkaline lake water. They were hidden deep underwater until the lake began losing water. Then they slowly became exposed. Majestic limestone, or tufa, pillars that now rise high from the waters, keeping watch over the lake. It’s these towers that are bringing people back to Mono Lake.
We came back for the sunset and Mono Lake no longer had the feel of the “loneliest place on earth”. People scurried about, camera in hand, taking pictures of the tufa towers and knobs. The water has receded so much that many of the towers were far back on dry land. They were beautiful in the light of day, but at sunset the towers became otherworldly. They took on a magical glow as the setting sun bathed them in light. We snapped picture and picture, every angle, every change in light, more wonderful than the next.
I wandered in and out of the tufa pillars taking pictures, marveling at their size and number. As I stopped to take yet another picture, I thought of the irony of it all. If the lake water had not been diverted causing the water levels to drop, then these towers would have remained hidden, deep underwater. But they had been exposed and created a very unique environment that people come from all over to see. I imagine the slowly rising waters will cover some of the tufa pillars, taking them back to their home in the watery depths, but many will remain exposed and continue to create a new life for Mono Lake.
You can learn more about visiting Mono Lake and Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve here.
You can see more historical pictures of Mono Lake here.