Based on the eerie, otherworldly photos everyone has seen of Mono Lake, I was really looking forward to witnessing it for myself, and attempting to take some photographs as well. We arrived at The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor's Center at midday - not great for taking pictures, but we were excited to see it any time of day. There is a smallish section of the shore near the Visitor's Center on 395 just north of Lee Vining, sporting the tufa towers that are the focal point of most photos of Mono Lake.
We drove down to the picnic area on the northwest shore and ventured out toward the tufa. It looked unusual and interesting from a distance.
Our hosts at Meadocliff KOA in Walker had told us that the best place to view the tufa was on the south shore, and they were certainly right. Called the South Tufa area, it is accessed via Rt. 120 about 6 miles south of Lee Vining. There is a fee to access the area, collected by the National Forest Service at the parking lot. (National Parks Senior Passes apply!)
A boardwalk and a nature trail lead to the shore where there are acres of tufa, ranging from these mini-mushroom types, about a foot tall…
…to towers almost two stories tall.
Tufa is created when spring water rich in calcium emerges under a body of water rich in carbonates, resulting in underwater towers of calcium carbonate. (They remind me an awful lot of those multicolored magic rocks we used to get as kids, that you dropped into a small plastic tank, and they bubbled up and created little multicolored mountains. I wonder if its a similar chemical process. The result are sure similar, except for the color and size of course.)
The trails wind around among the tufa towers and along the shore. The towers in the water are the most recently exposed, while there are acres of towers in amongst the grass and sage brush that have been exposed over the years as the level of Mono Lake has declined.
Yes, the water level is down, as Los Angeles taps the streams that would normally maintain the level of the lake.
An environmental movement led by the Mono Lake Committee has achieved a miraculous agreement with the California State water-powers-that-be to restore the level of the lake to it's 1982 mark. This will take time, and the drought is making restoration slow.
I went back to the lake at sunset another day, still trying for some of those magical photographs. It was a full moon night too. When I arrived, the shore was completely colonized by the largest flock of photographers I have ever witnessed in one place. Every photogenic spot was already staked out with tripods. I wandered around feeling left out, uninspired and considered packing it in.
But I just kept wandering and looking, hoping for inspiration and a clear shot of something - anything!
Luckily I found a little out of the way corner of the shoreline and saw some interesting light and formations, and started snapping. I wrangled with the tripod for awhile and then gave up. The low light is obviously a challenge, and a tripod would have helped a lot.
You know, the tufa is not beautiful, it's kind of gnarly and crumbly and frankly, ugly, but it does make for some unusual focal points in contrast to the water and sky.
I'd say the results are not inspirational, but they're at least memorable and will give you a sense of what its like at Mono Lake.
I think I was the last photographer in the area, without even a flashlight! Fortunately there was just enough ambient light in the sky and from the full moon to guide me back to the parking lot.