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A lake for birds and artists.

Artists and birds have always seen the beauty in the harsh moonscape of Mono Lake. On placid days, Mono's glassy surface throws back mirror-sharp images of the snaggled, snowcapped Sierra Nevada to the west, black volcanic cones to the south, and gnarled white tufa sculptures around the shore. Sunsets can paint the waters sapphire or lilac. That's what draws artistic souls.

The birds appreciate what's on the menu here--brine flies and brine shrimp--and the feast is sufficiently beautiful for them.

But for others, seeing loveliness in this forbidding landscape may take time. Give it a chance. Glide over its briny waters in a canoe, hike among weirdly contorted mineral towers, or venture into volcanic fissures--all part of the 118,000-acre Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area.

This month you'll see thousands of migrating Wilson's and red-necked phalarope, along with avocet, killdeer, and gulls. Along lake-feeding creeks, look for wildflowers in bloom--buttercup, lupine, penstemon, shooting star.

The lake is easily accessible from U.S. Highway 395, about 100 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe and 300 miles north of Los Angeles. From San Francisco, it's about 190 miles east via Tioga Pass Road (State 120) through Yosemite.

TROUBLED PAST, MURKY FUTURE

For a fishless lake, Mono feeds a surprising number and variety of migrating and nesting birds, including nearly a third of North America's eared grebes. Preserving their habitat has been the crux of water rights controversies for years.

Court battles over the right of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) to divert water flowing into Mono Lake have raged over much of the last dozen years. These waters have accounted for up to 17 percent of L.A.'s supply water and are the city's cheapest source.

Finding a long-term solution soon is critical, since the lake has dropped to within 2 1/2 feet of its all-time recorded low. As it shrinks, more alkaline shore is exposed, causing choking dust storms east of the lake; the water becomes more saline, threatening the lake's web of life.

Diversions have been on hold since 1989, creeks that were almost sucked dry are flowing again, and court-ordered stream restorations are under way. A lasting solution may be ahead--the California Water Resources Control Board is about to review the DWP license for diversions and may make its decision by the summer of 1993.

IMMERSING YOURSELF

In Roughing It, Mark Twain called Mono Lake the "Dead Sea of the West" and claimed that even a drop of its water in a swimmer's eye would cause blindness.

Take that claim with a grain of salt. The brine stings but doesn't blind. It does have more than 2 1/2 times the salt of ocean water, so a swim can be a buoyant experience. You can wade in at Navy Beach, off the road to South Tufa. But rinse off as soon as you can or risk crusting over.

For a drier perspective, glide in a canoe past Mono's big calcium carbonate tufa towers. The Mono Lake Committee, a conservationist group, gives hour-long canoe tours at 8, 9:30, and 11 on weekends, June 13 through September 13 ($10 adults, $5 ages 4 through 12). To reserve, call (619) 647-6595.

Daily nature walks start at the South Tufa parking lot. The free walks, led by rangers at 10 and 1 or Mono Lake Committee guides at 6, last about 1 1/2 hours.

MONO'S SCENIC BASIN

To see what's at stake with creek diversions, hike up into the Mono Basin. One trail leads along Parker Creek, once again flowing into Rush Creek and the lake. It's a moderate 2-mile walk out and back over two ridges. You follow the creek partway, climb through rocky sagebrush terrain, and pass wildflower meadows (iris, lupine, Indian paintbrush, larkspur), ending at jewellike Parker Lake in a steep moraine.

From State 158 (June Lake Loop) near Grant Lake, take unpaved Parker Lake-Walker Lake Road southwest 1/2 mile to a fork; go straight 2 miles to the Parker Lake Trailhead.

To place the lake in its volcanic setting, hike to the Black Point fissures. This basaltic point was created by a volcano that exploded under Mono's waters in prehistoric times. The narrow fissures, some of them 40 feet deep, formed as the lake--then much larger--cooled the lava.

From the small parking lot, it's a hot, strenuous mile-long walk on a faint path to a volcanic cap. Look for the fissures cutting down into the cap, running north to south. It's rugged exploration from here--use caution and carry plenty of water.

At the new scenic area visitor center (see below), you can pick up maps of the area and get details on the weekly guided walks here.

GETTING ORIENTED

The large Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center commands a superb view of the lake. Displays tell four stories--Mono water and its chemistry, tufa formations, life in the lake, and the area's cultural history. Free talks and evening slide shows run throughout the summer. The center is at the north end of Lee Vining, off U.S. 395. Hours are 9 to 8 daily. For a schedule of interpretive programs, call (619) 647-6572.

A visitor center run by the nonprofit Mono Lake Committee offers an array of guidebooks, posters, sweatshirts, and water conservation information. A slide show continuously presents the conservationist group's point of view. The center, on U.S. 395 in the middle of Lee Vining, is open 9 to 9 daily.

Lee Vining has a handful of basic motels and eateries; call (619) 647-6629. Nearby June Lake has a wider variety of restaurants and lodging; call (619) 648-7584.

Campsites ($8) are available on a first-come basis next to Lee Vining Creek (we liked these sites for privacy and scenery) and along State 158 (June Lake Loop).
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Mono Lake, California
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:967
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