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You can get a good bird’s-eye view of Mono Lake from Conway Summit, 12 kilometers north of the lake on U.S. Highway 395. At 2,482 meters elevation, it’s the highest point on Highway 395 that runs along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. You’re also looking at the western edge of the Great Basin, a region of desert mountain ranges that stretches from the Sierra Nevada in California through Nevada to Utah. Rivers and streams in the Great Basin have no outlet to the ocean; water that doesn’t evaporate in the heat or seep into underground aquifers collects in lakes. Along the way, the water dissolves salt and minerals from the soil. With no outflow from the lakes other than through evaporation, the lakes become salty and brackish as dissolved minerals accumulate and concentrate. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest and best-known Great Basin lake.
Mono Lake is three times saltier than the ocean. Concentrated carbonate and sulfate salts also make the water extremely alkaline, with a pH of 10. (The pH of drinking water is between 6.5 and 8.5. Mono Lake has no connection with so-called “alkaline water.”) That chemistry gives the lake a very unusual ecology, as only three species can thrive in in such salty and alkaline conditions: Brine shrimp (Artemia monica), alkali flies (Ephydra hians), and the halophile (Greek for “salt-loving”) algae both animals eat.
You’ll always have company when you visit Mono Lake, as you’ll be surrounded by black clouds of those alkali flies wherever you go. But you’ll quickly get used to them. They don’t bite, they don’t carry diseases, and they even obligingly move out of the way as you walk through a swarm. The flies’ pupae were a staple source of protein and fatty calories for the Kutzadika’a people, who gathered them during the summer months. Kutzadika’a means “eaters of kutsavi (fly pupae)” in their Northern Paiute language. The Kutzadika’a also apparently traded kutsavi with neighboring people, including the Yokut. Mono (“Moe-no”), the name of the county as well as the lake, is most likely the Yokut translation of “Kutzadika’a.”
When I was there, the staff at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center offered samples of dried kutsavi. As you might expect, they’re crunchy and salty. If I didn’t know they were flies I would have guessed they were roasted soybean “nuts,” a healthy snack popular in the 1970s.
Flies aren’t a reason for visiting Mono Lake, although birders make the trip to view the 79 species of local and migratory birds that feast on the flies (and the shrimp). What brings people to Mono Lake are its distinctive tufa formations.
What’s tufa? Start with the dormant volcanoes that surround Mono Lake. Though they haven’t erupted for centuries, there’s enough hot magma rumbling below to heat the rain water that collects underground (and to cause earthquakes). Some of that hot fresh water, which contains dissolved calcium, seeps from vents under Mono Lake.
When the calcium-laden hot water meets the lake’s cold salty water that’s saturated with carbonates, a chemical reaction creates calcium carbonate in the form of limestone. (Calcium carbonate is also the protean stuff of chalk, Tums®, eggshells, pearls, sea shells, alabaster, travertine, and marble.) The limestone precipitates around the vents, hardening and slowly growing into towering tubes of tufa.
At Navy Beach on the south shore of the lake, the volcanic hot water emerged into sandy soil. Cemented by the calcium carbonate, the sand around the vents hardened into sandstone capped with a layer of limestone. The delicate structures of “tubes” and “pipes” are called sand tufa formations.
For most of the twentieth century, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) piped prodigious amounts of water from the eastern Sierra region. That water allowed the burgeoning population of semi-arid Los Angeles to luxuriate in verdant lawns and full swimming pools. By 1941, the Owens Valley south of Mono Lake no longer provided enough water. So the DWP extended its aqueducts to divert the streams that feed Mono Lake. Starved of water, the lake’s level dropped rapidly. The formerly-submerged tufa created a scenic wonderland for human visitors. But it threatened an ecological disaster for the flies and shrimp, and particularly for the birds that depend on them.
The Mono Lake Committee organized in 1978 to save the dwindling lake from from becoming a dead chemical sump, too salty and toxic for even the shrimp and flies. Working with the Audubon Society and other groups, they won a series of court rulings that culminated in a September 1994 ruling of the State Water Resources Control Board. That decision severely limited the amount of water the DWP could divert to Los Angeles, and mandated a stable water level target of 1,948 meters above sea level for Mono Lake. (The water level was 1,956 meters in 1941.)
I took these pictures in September 1994, two weeks before the Water Resources Control Board ruling. The lake’s water level was 1,943 meters, revealing islands, land bridges, and tufa formations. The restoration plan mandated by the ruling succeeded in raising the lake’s level by 3 meters, putting at least some of the tufa formations I visited and photographed back under the water. Unfortunately, the prolonged drought in California has taken its toll on Mono Lake. As of January 2016, the water level had dropped to 1,944 meters.
The ghost town of Bodie, in the mountains northeast of Mono Lake, was one of “boom-and-bust” towns built around gold mining in the 19th century. It began as a mining camp founded in 1859 by Waterman S. Bodey after his group of prospectors discovered gold nearby. Bodey came west from Poughkeepsie, New York, as one of the many seekers of adventure and fortune in the 1849 California gold rush. (Bodey’s last name was also spelled “Body,” and his first name is also variously given as “William” or “Wakeman.” Could he have been an early identity thief?) The gold deposit Bodey discovered turned out not to be very significant, and Bodey himself died in a blizzard later in 1859.
In 1876, prospectors discovered a new gold deposit near Bodie that was economically viable. That discovery set off a gold rush that turned Bodey’s nearly-forgotten mining camp into a full-fledged Wild West town. By 1879 the population of Bodie numbered somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000. (The townspeople intentionally misspelled the founder’s name to better reflect its pronunciation, which rhymes with roadie.)
Like many gold rush boomtowns, Bodie had a reputation for vice and lawlessness. The products on offer at 65 saloons encouraged frequent brawls and street fights. Stagecoach robberies and murders were daily occurrences. Bodie had the obligatory red-light district, as well as a Chinatown with opium dens. Two churches, Catholic and Methodist, were greatly outgunned in their battles to save souls from pervasive licentiousness. The oft-repeated story of a girl whose family was moving to Bodie writing “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie” in her diary may be apocryphal, but it’s entirely plausible.
Built on a mountain plateau 2,554 meters high, Bodie also suffered from a harsh climate. Winter temperatures can descend to -40° (where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales coincide), with winds up to 60 km/h and as much as 6 meters of snowfall. It’s often bitterly cold and windy even in summer.
Bodie’s moral climate improved after 1880, when thousands of single male fortune-seekers decamped to Arizona and Utah, to get rich quick in the latest gold and silver booms. By 1881 the population had dropped to 3,000. In 1910, the population was 698, mainly families with breadwinners employed in the town’s stamp mills. The inevitable decline of the town’s mines was well underway. The Standard Consolidated Mine, Bodie’s largest, closed in 1913; and the railway that brought firewood and supplies to freezing Bodie shut down in 1917. A few families remained until 1942, when a wartime order that shut down all nonessential gold mines in the country forced Bodie’s last mine to close.
Bodie became a state historic park in 1962. About 5% of the original town remains preserved in a state of “arrested decay.” That means the 110 structures are maintained just enough to protect them from further deterioration. Visitors can walk around the ghost town on a self-guided tour, and experience Bodie as it appeared when it was abandoned in 1942. The nonprofit Bodie Foundation took over the park’s administration from the California Department of Parks and Recreation in 2011, in response to a state budget crisis that threatened to close the ghost town to the public. The Bodie Foundation also took over the administration of Mono Lake’s visitor facilities in 2012.
Travel Note: The main access to Bodie is via State Route 270, which begins on Highway 395 11 kilometers south of Bridgeport. From there it’s 21 kilometers east to Bodie, of which the last 4.8 kilometers are rough unpaved “washboard” gravel. The entire road is usually closed in winter due to snowfall, and Bodie is accessible only by snowmobile or cross-country skis. But the rest of the year it’s readily passable in a normal passenger car if you drive slowly and cautiously.
If you’re renting a car, the fine print of the rental agreement will almost certainly include a clause prohibiting operation of the vehicle on unpaved roads. That means you’ll risk significant expense if the car gets damaged on the unpaved section of Route 270. You’ll need to decide whether visiting Bodie is worth that risk.
While I in no way advocate violating any of the numerous terms and conditions car rental corporations dictate to renters, you can minimize any risk by making the trip only in reasonable weather, making sure the car’s tire pressure is correct before you set out on Route 270, and then exercising extreme caution. (That’s good advice even if you’re driving your own car.) I’ll also note that when you do get to the parking area at the end of Route 270, many if not most of the cars parked there will be rental vehicles. And if (as is most likely) your car is unscathed after you return from Bodie, there’s no reason to mention the violation to the agent when you return the car.