Vacation Day 4 – Mono Lake Basin

June 6th, 2015 by becky

After a cold wet night, we awoke to a nice sunny day. Since we both slept in Vance last night neither of us slept particularly well. We each kept waking each other up. Although it was sunny and I had a chance to start enjoying my morning cup of coffee, that was soon disrupted by screaming (literally) children. Oh the joys of state park campgrounds.

With the weather looking up, we decided to head south to Mono Lake. This is a spectacularly neat area with a saline lake that exists at over 6000 ft. Mono Lake is saltier than the nearby ocean. The lake is home to billions of tiny brine shrimp in the summer months. These shrimp are harvested for tropical fish food.

There is no output for the lake. Many of the fresh water streams that were feeding the lake were dammed to create reservoirs for places like the City of Los Angles. The lake was drained (through natural evaporation and the damming of the streams) more than 40 feet. When this happened, Tufa’s were exposed – rock formations that happen when calcium rich fresh water meets the saline water of the lake. They are pretty cool to see and remind us of the Grotto in Iowa and a bit like Cappadocia in Turkey but on a much smaller scale. There is an active preservation campaign to try to get the water levels back up to a level that will allow for healthy management of the lake.

Although we had hoped to avoid rain while going south, we ran into storms over Mono Lake, in Inyo National Forest:
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We did not, however, allow the rain to stop us from exploring the tufa at Mono Lake (1.36km walk):
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Mono Lake is an important stop for many migratory birds, who feed off the summer brine shrimp:

There is even a brass giraffe tufa!

We decided to try out “dispersed camping” – that is not camping at a formal campground. This is also known as Boondocking … back in Canada we call is free camping. The kind forestry ranger and the visitor center gave us some maps for good placed to go, as well as a great map and visitor guide for the area.

As we drove down highway 120, we were struck by just how odd this forest looks:
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Unfortunately, just as we pulled off the main highway to head towards a campsite, we discovered that we needed a California Campfire Permit in order to operate our camp stove. If the stove had been built into the van (like in RVs), then a permit is not needed; however, a permit is required for camp stoves. So, we returned to the ranger station to get a permit (free, good for one year, available online). We took that opportunity to renew our Interagency Annual Pass (for all national parks and forests – we find the name of these passes confusing but have found the passes themselves to be very handy).

For our first night of high altitude camping, we ended up at about 8,800 feet (2700m). It was very quiet. From the time we pulled off the main road, we didn’t see any other people. According to the ranger, there are vault toilets up here, but we have yet to find anything that looks like such. Fortunately, we came prepared. For an
yone wishing to camp off grid, I highly recommend the book “How to shit in the woods”. It is both humorous and informative.

Dinner at the campsite:
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After supper we went for a short trek to the top of the hill across from our campsite (1.22km). It involved first crossing a bog with a little stream, which with the help of hiking polls I was able to step across and only get my feet minimally wet. When climbing the hill, we noticed that the ground was more like volcanic ash or sand rather than dirt. When climbing the hill we certainly noticed the thin air!

Looking back at the campsite:
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On top of the hill was a forest with no undergrowth. Ancient trees (but not big ones, we are 8000 ft after all), were dispersed with deadfall. It was almost like someone had paved between the trees, except that it was a sandy-ash rather than concrete.

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