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Mono Lake's photographic winters

Lake's tufa formations and the Eastern Sierra's other scenic wonders draw sightseers along with skiers and ice climbers.

March 01, 2009|Dan Blackburn

LEE VINING, CALIF. — In summer, thousands of visitors converge on Mono Lake to see its tufa formations and enjoy its remarkable scenery. Motels and restaurants are jammed, and the small town of Lee Vining, which sits at the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park -- bustles.

But in winter, when the area is sugarcoated with fresh snow, the experience is much more serene, a good time to enjoy the beauty of the lake and the near solitude.

Besides, getting to Mono Lake is easy. It takes less than six hours to drive north from Los Angeles to Lee Vining, and most of it is along scenic U.S. Highway 395 as the Sierra's snowcapped summits urge you onward.

Mono Lake was formed about a million years ago, making it one of the oldest lakes in North America. The lake is 6,382 feet above sea level and sprawls across more than 45,000 acres. It's almost three times saltier than the Pacific Ocean. This inland sea contains brine shrimp, algae and alkali flies, which provide food for the thousands of birds that gather here during much of the year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 05, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Mono Lake: A March 1 Travel story about Mono Lake included a photo of the lake and mountains, and the caption said the lake is surrounded by the Sierra. The Sierra Nevada range is west and southwest of the lake.

Mark Twain once said of Mono Lake, "There are no fish in Mono Lake -- no frogs, no snakes, no pollywogs -- nothing, in fact, that goes to make life desirable." But then, Twain was known to be a bit grumpy, and he probably never visited the lake in winter.

My longtime partner, Gloria, and I were undaunted by Twain's comments and decided to explore the wintry aspects of Mono Lake for ourselves in February. After cruising through Lone Pine and Bishop and continuing on past Mammoth Mountain, we arrived in time to see the afternoon sun glinting off the lake's surface.

We stopped first in Lee Vining at the office of the Mono Lake Committee, where an extensive collection of guidebooks, maps and other information is available about the lake and the region. The office is open seven days a week, and visitors are encouraged to ask questions. Geoff McQuilkin, the committee's executive director, told us, "Mono Lake is an exceptional experience any time of year. But, in winter, you get a sense of the lake's entire water cycle and how the system works. And you get the fabulous scenic views, because the lake highlights them."

Indeed, the lake does highlight the surrounding scenery. At sunrise and sunset, the snowy mountains glow red, yellow and orange at their most intense. Those colors also are reflected on the lake's surface and on the multifaceted tufa formations that rise up like otherworldly sentinels.

In fact, this winter setting has become a draw for nature photographers who sign up for special winter tours designed just for them. These increasingly popular photo expeditions are usually headquartered at Murphey's Motel in Lee Vining, where managers Bill and Nancy Boman answer questions and post some of their images on the office walls. We chose to stay there too, because we were told "that's where the photographers all hang out." The fact that the rooms were snugly warm, well-equipped and comfortable didn't hurt either.

However, the biggest draw for most people are the tufa formations. The most often asked question at the Mono Lake Committee's office is, "Where is the South Tufa grove?" Tufa is rock composed of calcium carbonate, or common limestone. It is formed when calcium-rich underwater springs in the lake combine with carbonates, known to cooks as baking soda, in the water. The result is calcium carbonate, which settles around the springs. Decades or even centuries later, these tufa formations slowly grow into towers that may climb to more than 30 feet tall. All this takes place underwater. So, if you had visited here before lake level plummeted following water diversions in 1941, you would not have seen them.

Today, they are a source of visitor amazement. In fact, they are so popular that, in 1981, the California Legislature established the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve to protect these somewhat fragile towers.

The tufa towers are even more striking in winter when snow clings to their rough surfaces. The snow does not last long around the lake because the water is so salty. But while it lasts, it creates a very unusual scene.

Our first morning in Lee Vining, there was almost a foot of fresh snow on the roof of our car. We forgot about breakfast, hurriedly threw on our parkas and headed over snow-covered roadways to the county park on the north side of the lake. There, a boardwalk provides access to one section of the lake. Because of its design, we were able to walk among some tufa towers on our way to the water's edge. Our warm breath hung in the chill air, and the fresh snow squeaked beneath our boots. After a round of picture-taking, I happily stepped into a pair of cross-country skis and glided off to view other parts of the lake.

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