The Magnificent Tufa Towers of Mono Lake… The Highway 395 Series

It’s hard to believe that springs bubbling up beneath the surface of Mono Lake were able to create sculptures like the tufa towers you find at Mono Lake.

You’re stuck if you are a raindrop falling into Mono Lake— or anywhere else in the Great Basin. There are no convenient rivers to whisk you away to the sea. Evaporation is your only escape. Water tends to become a little grouchy under these conditions, or make that salty. In fact, Mono Lake is 2.5 times as salty as the ocean, and 100 times as alkaline. The good news here is it is really hard to drown. You can float to your heart’s content. Even sea gulls have a hard time keeping their feet in the water to paddle. The bad news is a minor cut or scrape will send you screaming for the shore.

There is magic in the water, however. Springs flowing underground from the surrounding mountains are rich in dissolved calcium. When they bubble up into the lake, the calcium bonds with the carbonates in the lake and together they make rocks, or what are known as tufa towers. In the past, when the lake was full, these towers hid out under the surface and happily continued to grow.  There were few or no tufa towers to see. Mark Twain camped out on the lake in the 1860s when he was searching for a lost gold mine and noted in Roughing It,“This solemn, silent, sailess sea­­— this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on the earth—is little graced with the picturesque.”

Obviously, the tufa towers weren’t there to greet him. We can thank Los Angeles’s formidable Department of Power and Water for their presence. Back about 1913, DPW had the challenge of supplying more water to the ever-thirsty Los Angeles with its desert environment and burgeoning population. It decided that there was plenty of water up in Owens Valley along the eastern side of Sierras. DPW didn’t bother to ask the local residents, farmers and ranchers whether they wanted their water to go to LA. It didn’t have to. It had the power to grab what it wanted. Things got nasty. Water wars in the West aren’t pretty. “Greed of City Ruins the Owens Valley” the headlines in the Inyo Register screamed. And it wasn’t far from wrong. Every stream of consequence flowing into the valley was tapped to meet LA’s water needs. What lakes that existed started drying up, including Mono Lake. Starting in 1941, DPW began taking water from the lake’s major tributaries, dropping the lake some 40 feet.

Building the pipeline that the LA DPW used to transport water from Owens Valley to LA.
Another perspective on the size of the pipeline.
Yes, this is me standing in a segment of the pipeline. And no, I wasn’t around when the pipeline was being built.

Environmentalists mounted a major effort starting in the 70s to save the lake. Fish can’t survive in the highly saline/alkaline water, but some four trillion brine shrimp, innumerable small alkali flies, and algae find the conditions perfect. The shrimp and flies, in turn, serve as a major food source for the two million birds that stop off to dine in the lake. The lowering water levels threatened to kill off the algae, shrimp and flies. The birds were in danger of losing their handy fast food restaurant. In 1994, The California Department of Water Resources stepped in to resolve the issue by requiring DPW to reduce the amount of water it was taking from the lake’s streams and repair some of the damage it had done to the riparian habitats along the streams. While the lake won’t return to the levels that existed when Mark Twain visited, the ecosystem is now being protected. Birds will be able to continue to stuff themselves while visitors can continue to enjoy the unique beauty of the tufa towers.

This handsome fellow is a male brine shrimp featured on a signboard at Mono Lake. Length would be about thumbnail size.
This provides an idea of how many alkali flies live around the lake.
I took this close up as further proof. The flies spend much of their life under water as eggs and pupae. When the adults dive under the water to feed and lay eggs, they travel with a bubble of water. Think scuba diver. Local Native Americans considered the fly eggs to be a delicacy.
While I missed the height of bird migration, large flocks were still flying in formation and feeding on the water’s surface.
Wilson’s Phalarope stop off at Mono Lake in the midst of a long journey. Mom arrives first in June, leaving Pop at home to finish raising the babies. Pop and kids start arriving later in June and through July raising the total population to around 100,000. The birds are around for 4-6 weeks while they molt and pig out on brine shrimp and alkali flies, doubling in weight. The extra weight is critical for the next segment of their journey: a 3,000-mile nonstop flight to Ecuador.

It was late in the afternoon when I visited the south end of the lake where the most impressive tufa towers are found so I was able to photograph the towers at sunset. The warm tones added to the beauty. I took lots of pictures. (Grin) To get here look for the signs that direct you to the South Tufa Towers south of Lee Vining off of Highway 395.

To provide perspective, these are the tufa towers on Mono Lake with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. Even without the towers I have a hard time imagining why Twain found the area “little graced with the picturesque.”
I divided my photos of the tufa towers into three categories for organization. First up was individual sculptures as shown below.
Next, are groupings of the tufa towers.
I will finish this series with several photos that place the tufa towers in their broader environment but first I wanted to show this picture I took from the north end of the lake looking south. This would have been more like how Mark Twain saw the lake.
I was enamored with this side channel in different light.
And took photos from both directions. Here, I caught a sea gull landing.
A final view as the sun slipped behind the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

NEXT POST: The ghost town of Bodie

37 thoughts on “The Magnificent Tufa Towers of Mono Lake… The Highway 395 Series

  1. Curt your photography here is stunning! Being able to capture the towers and the lake at sunset on a beautiful day really makes the colours and shadows vibrant. I enjoyed your poetic descriptions at the beginning too. Since we had talked about it, I was happy to spot the tufa tower that looked like a woman posing. One thing I noticed is how the scenery changes dramatically with the change in season. Compare the photos from my March trip there, in 2013.

    • Thanks, Crystal. It was fun seeing your photos. The towers are impressive at any time of the day but early morning and late afternoon really does bring out the colors. BTW, one load of logs left today and another is being loaded as I write. I never dreamed that I would be in the middle of a logging operation, at least on my own property. I’ve backpacked through a few. –Curt

      • They must be getting to the end of the logs soon. I’m surprised the workers are still there. It’s going to look scarred all winter, but I’ll bet you get that park-like look in the Spring.

      • Wednesday, tomorrow, Crystal, the last of the debris is supposed to be cleaned out. We’ll see. And the scars really aren’t as bad as I thought. For one, we had the stumps cut off at ground level. We will be out repairing some of the damage over the next few weeks and your are right: rains this fall and spring bringing new growth will make a difference! –Curt

  2. I’ve heard in the past about similar water wars for San Francisco, I think. Good that the environment is now somehow protected to save whatever can be saved. Great shots, Curt!

    • Thanks, Christie. It’s a fun area to photograph.
      As for water, you’re right. San Francisco decided it wanted tasty Sierra Nevada water so it flooded one of Yosemite’s beautiful canyons with towering granite cliffs and created the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

  3. I remember the fight over city water demands and areas like this lake, but had never seen actual pictures. Towers and natural architecture (remind you of Gaudi/Barcelona?) With the light and the seasons, a photographer would never run out of fabulous images to capture here.

  4. I saw the lake back in the late 70s and learned of the water source issues then. I didn’t know they’d come up with some resolutions in the 90s. Good to hear.

    • It was a long, drawn out battle, Dave, but the Mono Lake folks never gave up. Taking on LADPW is always a challenge. I innocently rattled its cage in the late 70s and ended up on the front page of every major paper in California. Teach me. 🙂

  5. Well what do you suppose Mark Twain would think if he happened to pop by today! I’ve never heard of Mono Lake and so delighted to have read your article. Not only are the formations a bit like looking at Rorschach ink dots but to see a bird barely able to keep itself in the water is mind boggling. I think this one will have to go on the road trip agenda!

    • Highway 395 absolutely has to be on your road trip agenda, Sue! 🙂 I think Twain would have a totally different attitude, not only about the lake, but the area in general. He was having a rough time of it at the time, trying unsuccessfully to strike it rich by finding silver or gold. –Curt

  6. Such interesting history and scenery, Curt! My husband worked on western water rights for a year in Washington, DC, in 2016, so that part of your story was especially fascinating to me.

    • I’ll bet your husband was in the thick of it, Lexi. See my comments to Linda for my own brush with the issue! Water rights are strange. We live along the Applegate River but don’t have water rights, which are handed down with the family and the property. It makes an incredible difference with the value of the property. 🙂 The good news here is that I could afford to buy it! –Curt

  7. We’ve got water wars developing here in Texas: irrigating (not irritating) rice farmers vs. Corpus Christi and the Lower Colorado River Authority. I’ve been reading about another water issue in Cali — the Salton Sea. Some of these water issues can be just plain odd: they’re certainly far more complicated than simply supplying drinking water to cities. It’s good to hear that Mono Lake has some protection, now. I just don’t know enough about the Salton Sea to know whether it’s worth protecting or not. Clearly, opinions differ.

    I do wonder what colored Twain’s view of the place. I almost wonder whether his connection to the rivers was involved. I have a prejudice against lakes over rivers and oceans myself. You can go places on the ocean, on rivers. It’s interesting that he referred to the “solemn, silent, sailess sea.” There’s the clue, I’ll bet.

    • Not sure about Twain’s reaction to the lake or the countryside, which I find beautiful. He’d had a number of misadventures: wandering around unsuccessfully looking for silver, getting lost in a snowstorm, burning down a portion of the forest around Lake Tahoe that he had planned to turn into a logging operation, etc. Maybe those colored his attitude. And then there is the whole part about writing amusing stories, which all writers understand.
      I was once caught in the middle of California’s water wars, which is not a comfortable place to be. I was the newly minted executive director of one of California’s main environmental organizations and the organization was supporting a project called the Peripheral Canal. It was part of a plan to ship more Northern California water to LA. The canal was a compromise that would protect sensitive delta lands in the Bay Area that my organization had worked out before I came on board. I agreed with the concept of protecting the Delta but was concerned about LA taking more and more water from our region leading to building more and more dams. The folks who were leading the battle to protect Mono Lake had been sharing their fight with me and the environmentalists from the Bay Area who should have been most supportive of the Peripheral Canal weren’t. A reporter from the Sacramento Bee had come to do an interview with me about general directions of our organization and I had spent the whole interview talking about that I hoped to have the organization be more aggressive tackling urban environmental problems such as air quality, transportation, recycling, etc.. (It was the 70s.) At the end of the interview the reporter had thrown in a question about the Peripheral Canal. I had responded off the cuff that I had some questions about it. Big mistake. Not that I had questions which were legitimate and needed to be reviewed, but that I mentioned it to a reporter instead of dealing with it internally. The next day: my whole discussion about urban environmental issues was a footnote: Front page headline in the Sacramento Bee (and the LA Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Fresno Bee, and in every other newspaper in California: “PCL Considers New Position on the Peripheral Canal.” Not quite the way for a new executive director to impress his board! I will note that the project wasn’t built.

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