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Monday 7 Oct 2013
Mammoth Lakes, USA

Mono Lake tufa towers

Back in 1988, I came to America for the first time on a brilliant family holiday.  My parents took us to Yosemite National Park and the scale of it overwhelmed me.  I had never been anywhere so big or dramatic and I have wanted to return ever since.  While planning this trip, I had two main concerns about getting back to Yosemite.  First was our plan to drive in across the Tioga Pass which, at over 10,000’ is usually closed by snow before the end of October, if not sooner.  The second was the Rim Fire which, when we left the UK, had been raging out of control on the western side of the Yosemite wilderness area and Stanislaus National Forest, threatening the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.  At one point, news coverage had described it as 7% under control, which to me sounded a little like saying you had control of a crocodile because you had three fingers on its tail. 

Thankfully, the Rim Fire had eventually been contained, although we were aware there were pockets of fire still burning within the perimeter.  We were also relieved to find the Tioga Pass still open and no snow forecast for the next few days at least.  We were good to go!

Of course, neither of us had anticipated the obstacle that would ultimately prevent us from enjoying Yosemite.  The (insert expletive here) Government Shutdown (now into Day 7).

We left the crisp mountain air of Mammoth Lakes – such a contrast from yesterday – and continued north up Highway 395 to Mono Lake.  Unlike Yosemite, I know we drove up this way as a family in 1988, but I have no recollection of the actual Mono Lake.  (In fact, I discovered later in the day that the place I remembered as Mono Lake is actually Mirror Lake.)  The two could not be more different.  We visited the South shore of the lake to see the incredible tufa columns.  The lake has no outlet to the sea, so accumulates high levels of salinity.  In the 1940s, some of the lake’s key tributaries were diverted to provide water to Los Angeles.  So much water was diverted that the water level fell to almost a third of its surface area over the next 40 years, drastically increasing the salinity and threatening many of the unique species that lived there.  It also exposed the peculiar tufa, columns of limestone created by the precipitation of carbonate rich springs bubbling up into the alkaline waters of the lake.  After years of campaigning, the LA Board of Water and Power was ordered to restore the water flow to Mono Lake and the water level has been recovering slowly ever since.

We spent an hour walking the trail along the lakeshore and marvelling at the tufa.  They rise up in groups, some of them easily 10’ tall and scattered some distance from the water’s edge, showing just how far the lake still has to go to reach its original water level.  Even though the information boards explained how they were formed, it was still hard to fathom.  Yet another place I expected to meet a Star Trek landing party.  America really has some fabulous places to discover.


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