Our first visit to Mono Lake was on a day trip from Yosemite National Park more than 30 years ago. We drove east on Tioga Pass and wound up on the east side of the pass looking at this brilliantly beautiful lake. This was my first encounter with the many colors of Mono Lake.
So this year we planned to return and spend some time there with the intent of watching sunrise over the lake, and of course photographing her. When we arrived in the area, our friends Nina and Paul and Russ and Todd had saved us a spot next to them overlooking the lake.
They too were planning to drive out to the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve (SNR) before sunrise. So all of us drove down to the lake in the dark. She shone like a jewel from below us as we approached. That morning we saw her colors change from blue, to light green, to gold, to orange and lilac and to silver.
And of course what makes her so outer-wordly are the tufa towers. These towering formations are mineral structures formed by calcium from freshwater springs that mix with carbonates in the alkaline water, causing limestone, which solidifies around the springs. Over many, many years, the limestone towers grow underwater.
The tufas are visible because the water level fell significantly since the Los Angeles Aqueduct began to divert the creeks that fed the lake in 1941. Mono Lake has no outlet, as it is part of a basin formed by the surrounding mountains. As the water evaporated, the water level in the lake continued to fall.
Also, with this continual evaporation, the lake became more than twice as salty as the ocean. And also highly alkaline, all from the salts and minerals and occasional volcanic ash that have washed into it over its long existence.
The next morning, we returned before sunrise once again. That morning was a bit cloudy and the lake turned orange, then the clouds turned a peachy color. The clouds were reflected on a silvery blue lake which later turned light green and then bright blue.
We noticed quite a lot of bird life around the lake. We are not birders but really enjoy watching birds and learning about them. There was a large osprey nest on a tufa, and the ospreys were busy building up the nest. We also saw yellow-headed blackbirds, least sandpiper and others.
Over a million birds stop here to feed and rest along their migration. Amazingly, there are only two forms of animal life in this extremely salty and alkaline lake: tiny brine shrimp and alkali flies.
The brine shrimp hatch in the spring, adult alkali flies emerge from the water in summer. They both feed on algae that grows in the spring and the migrating birds in turn feed on the shrimp and the flies.
That next morning we were lured once again to watch sunrise over Mono Lake. It was also a bit cloudy and the water was the stillest of all three days. The sky turned orange and was reflected in the lake, then for a fleeting moment, a bright red sky was reflected in the lake. Somehow some bright blue shone through the red. Beautiful.
Mono Lake’s ecosystem suffered over many years as the reduction of fresh water into the lake and the evaporation of the existing water caused the water level to sink more than forty feet under her original level. Her salt and mineral content continued to increase.
By the 1960’s, wetlands bordering the lake were gone, and algae in the lake declined, causing the brine shrimp population to decline. Some birds disappeared from the area. Continuing decline in the shrimp population could disrupt the migratory pattern of thousands of birds.
After a number of suits, the State Water Board mandated a twenty-year restoration plan for the lake which was implemented by the Los Angeles Water and Power Department. The water level has risen from all time lows, but the three-year drought has halted progress.
Someday I will go back and compare them to these. There is no lesson better learned than one you witness for yourself. I am thankful to all of those who have fought for this mesmerizingly beautiful lake and the life she sustains.
On our last day in the area, we returned to the visitor center. I had seen a photo of a Great Horned Owl on a tufa and asked the ranger about the owl. He told me there was a resident owl in the county park, which has a little boardwalk that goes out towards yet another side of Mono Lake.
After bushwhacking a bit on the fringes of the park, Hector found the owl. A real beauty. We watched her for awhile, and she did not seem to mind although she kept her big eyes on us most of the time. Finally, she flew away.