Ski Mono Lake?
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake
Tufa State Reserve
It's winter. A family in a van pulls off Hwy 395 into
the town of Mammoth Lakes, headed for a rented condo
and a four-day ski vacation. Right now, the driver (also
known as "Dad") has only this simple motivation
to get the long drive over with, get the car
unloaded and kick back until dinner. But, first thing
in the morning, he plans to be on the slopes.
In the right-hand front seat is "Mom," who
has never really been much of a downhill skier. Cross-country
skiing flat cross-country skiing is more
her style. During the drive, she has been glorying in
the mountain scenery, and now she rolls down her window
to breathe in the mountain air as they slow down in
town. It tastes a bit smoky, but it's cool and crisp.
First thing in the morning, she'll be going in frantic
circles, finding lost gloves and hats, boots and ski
gear for her brood. Then she and the littlest one will
hit the bunny slopes.
The three antsy kids have been ready to be there ever
since they passed Mojave, several hours ago. The oldest
boy is anxious to do it all, do it fast, and see just
how much better he is than he was last year. This year
he wants to try a snowboard, too. He's the one who never,
ever wants to quit and never, ever wants to even stop
for food. Call him "Bro."
"Sis" has hand-me-down ski equipment, but
all new ski clothes. She also has a new camera, and
hopes to wander around and photograph the mountains.
Both she and Bro stop a moment as they get out of the
van to stare in awe at the fading sunset over the mountain
peaks and take a deep, deep breath of the crisp air.
"Baby" (actually 5 1/2, but the family still
thinks of her that way), fell asleep, finally, after
they passed Lone Pine. She wakes up when the car stops,
wondering where they are. This year she gets to try
some skiing, just like Bro and Sis. Mom promised. Baby
hates it when people think of her as a baby.
The family knows that, whether or not it's snowed much
yet this winter, they'll be able to do some skiing on
the slopes with man-made snow. But the high-point of
their vacation, and their not-so-secret wish, would
be if a major storm came in while they were there, so
they could actually see snow falling, and every slope
at Mammoth and June mountains would be a winter wonderland.
Scenario 1: By the middle of the second sunny day,
though they've been having a great time, some tensions
become evident. Mom and Baby just aren't able or willing
to spend all day, every day, out on the slopes. Bro
and Dad have already explored all the open runs. And
Sis is feeling the urge to go somewhere else so she
can do some nature photography.
Solution: That afternoon they drive north to Mono Lake.
Or, Scenario 2: The big storm arrives. (I like this
scenario, don't you?) We need that snow, after all,
not for skiing so much as for the water it will bring,
flowing down from the mountains to replenish drought-thirsty
reservoirs and end a six-year drought. This Southern
California family experienced local floods last winter,
and may be a bit confused about why the state's water
picture continues to be so grim.
But last winter's storms missed the Sierra, where the
snowpack is the most important water-storage "facility"
serving Southern California. Perhaps this big storm
will be the start of a drought-busting winter.
However, with this storm also comes high winds that
close the lifts. Bummer! After checking out the video
machines and the local theater, this family needs something
to do. What if the storm keeps them off the Mountain
the whole time before they have to go home?
Fortunately, in this nice scenario, the storm is not
so blizzardy that they can't drive. Solution: head for
Either scenario, or both together, could occur during
such a vacation.
At the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, winter is our
quiet season. But some of our busiest winter days are
the blustery days when it's too windy, in the higher
elevations, for skiing. Mono Lake, at 6,400 feet, is
lower in altitude than the slopes and can be relatively
calm when it's wildly windy higher up.
A winter trip to Mono Lake is quite different from
the busy summer season. Then the area is busy with people,
but even busier with wildlife brine shrimp by
the trillions feeding more than a million birds.
But this family will experience winter quiet
and the most awesome, unique scenery they might ever
see. A salty, inland sea covering 60 square miles. Strange,
alkaline water, nestled in a basin surrounded by desert
shrubs and snowy peaks. And tufa towers the most
unusual, most surprising element in the landscape.
Sis will agree with the thousands of photographers
who find that Mono Lake was seemingly created for cameras
and artists' canvasses. Gnarly towers in never-ending
shapes and textures; contrasts of snow and ice with
blue foamy water, volcanic cinder cones and the towering
If the family comes when the weather is calm, but when
snow from earlier storms lies on the ground near Mono
Lake, they will likely encounter a particularly beautiful
winter condition. Icy fog "pogonip"
to the local Paiute Indians, and still called that today
by the U.S. Weather Service forms in the lake
basin. And Jack Frost goes to work ice crystals
form on everything.
Though such fog is dark and very cold, it steadily,
quietly, decorates the landscape with frost. All of
the family may note the signs of animal life in the
snow: rabbit "freeways," where the snow has
been packed down through the brush. But this is a relatively
quiet time, animal-wise.
Mono Lake will raise many questions for these visitors,
because it is so strange. They will never encounter
another place quite like this.
We hope and recommend that they stop by the Mono Basin
Scenic Area Visitor Center in Lee Vining. This U.S.
Forest Service center, with hands-on exhibits and a
fantastic movie, tells the story of the Mono Basin's
natural and cultural history. See a brine shrimp up-close-and-personal.
Find out where the migratory birds went when they departed
this autumn, and when they will return. Go underwater
with the film to see tufa towers, shrimp
and flies in their natural element the salty,
soapy waters of an ancient lake.
The Visitor Center is normally open Friday, Saturday
and Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but it will add additional
holiday season hours and programs. Call (760) 647-3044.
And for families, or anyone else who would like a ranger-guided
tour of the South Tufa area at Mono Lake, walks are
conducted throughout the winter on Saturdays and Sundays.
The State Reserve and Scenic Area staff rangers
and naturalists take turns leading the tours.
Take Hwy 120 east from Hwy 395, following large brown
signs to "Mono Lake, South Tufa."
Dad, Mom, Bro, Sis and Baby that lucky family
were able to experience something very special
because of that big, big storm that rolled in. On the
last day of their vacation, the regular Mono Lake tour
became a guided cross-country ski tour. That doesn't
happen unless lots of snow has fallen, but when a foot
or more ends up near the lake, it's time to Ski Mono
Mom was thrilled. Baby showing early speed-demon
tendencies after her days on the bunny slopes
wished there were more hills. Sis kept falling behind
because she shot so much film. And Dad and Bro took
off, racing across the flats to the east. They have
yet to come back.
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