A very special and unique place.

Take a Tour: An Overview from a Ranger Guide
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

When they say, "Ooh!" — with the exclamation point, I know things are going well.

A visit to Mono Lake can generate a lot of "oohs" and "ahs." This place is so different, offers such startling and unusual scenery and sights. Some of the discoveries are immediate and obvious — like the tufa towers on the south shore, with their variety of shapes and textures. Or the amazing contrast of miles of blue water surrounded by desert shrubs, with the snowy Sierra crest as a backdrop.

But some of the discoveries are more subtle. I know, from talking to thousands of visitors, that fascinating details can be missed during a casual, quick stop. We put up exhibit panels and provide brochures to try to fill in the gaps. And every summer day, rangers and naturalists conduct guided walks.

We call this part of our job "interpretation." Our kind of intepreter translates the information about the area into a language that visitors can understand. If you only come to Mono Lake once in your life, it would be a shame to miss some of the easy, important discoveries. If you are lucky enough to be able to explore this area frequently, our staff members hope to give you helpful background information for your own self-discoveries.

Would you like to go on a tour? Here are some of the things you might do and see:

A Forest Service or State Reserve naturalist will greet you at the South Tufa Area parking lot. That is the main visitor site at Mono Lake; it is part of the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. The two agencies share the schedule of tours.

You'll walk down a trail toward the center of the tufa grove. What's a tufa and why does Mono Lake have them? You'll have to learn about the lake's unique water chemistry to understand the tufa towers. You may find yourself participating in making some tufa, on the spot, by mixing lake water — with its high carbonate content — into freshwater — containing calcium, like the springs which enter the lake. The end product is calcium carbonate — tufa — a solid produced by the mixing of waters.

In fact, you'll find that everything at Mono Lake is influenced by the salty, alkaline character of the water. Rub some of it between your fingers. It will feel like soapy dishwater. That's the carbonates, the dissolved baking soda. It makes the water harsh, helps form tufa towers, and makes it impossible for fish to live here.

But you won't have trouble locating the life which has adapted to the lake's harsh conditions. Alkali flies crowd the shore in the summer. Don't worry, the alkali flies are shy. They don't like people and they won't bother you. Look under water, near shore, and you'll see them walking, enclosed in air bubbles.

The ranger will show you the fly larva and pupa stages on the submerged rocks. Birds eat the adult flies and the larvae. The Paiute Indians used to harvest the abundant pupae, too. Would you like to taste one? It's a new experience you may not want to miss. This was a staple of the local Indians' diet, and a valuable item for trade to other Indians.

Have you heard something about the water problems of Mono Lake? Who hasn't, by now?

As you start to look at the life in the water, realize that much of the controversy surrounded the likelihood that the lake's creatures would not be able to adapt to greater salinity levels as the lake shrinks. The flies were already showing the effects, and research was done to predict the levels where the falling lake would no longer provide suitable habitat for their survival.

Brine shrimp — the other animal found in large numbers — were also at risk. You can easily catch them in containers provided by the tour guide. The lake teems with the half-inch long shrimp in the summer, adding up to millions of pounds of the tiny creatures. They are a species unique to Mono Lake, a species which has adapted to the unique conditions of this ancient chemical soup.

As long as the flies and shrimp survive, they will be important food for over a million birds that visit the lake each year. California gulls come here to eat the "shrimp soup" and nest on islands in the lake. Even more birds migrate here from nesting grounds in Canada. This lake is their rest-stop and "gas station" on long migrations between Canada and Central and South America.

Which birds will you see on your tour? The gulls are almost always easy to find; you can watch them feeding. The young born this year are easy to tell because of their brown color, though they look as big as the adults.

Thousands of phalaropes are here mid-summer, but the lake is big and it's a matter of luck whether they'll be hanging around the south shore on any given day. The eared grebes start to arrive in late August.

Watch for kildeer, violet-green swallows, Brewers blackbirds, sandpipers — any of more than 100 bird species found around the lake.

Volcanoes will be mentioned during your tour. Mono Lake is ringed on three sides by volcanoes, has volcanic islands, and you'll be walking on volcanic pumice and obsidian chips along its shore. If the lake's chemistry is the controlling factor for so much found here, volcanoes are one of the primary factors behind that particular blend of chemicals.

There is a lot of variety on the tours. Some of my favorite moments have been totally unpredictable. Several times an osprey, a fish-eating hawk that nests on a tufa tower, has flown right over my group, holding a fish in its talons. Fish at Mono Lake? No, but it is only a few air miles over to Rush Creek and Grant Lake.

One day, a weasel put on a wild show for us. Occasionally we'll see one of the sleek little hunters streaking past, running from tufa-shelter to tufa-shelter. But for some reason, this day, the weasel kept popping back out, racing again and again between one tufa and another, and now and then pausing to look at us, as if to make sure we were admiring his performance.

Mono Lake is a very special place. Understanding and appreciation of those qualities is the overriding objective of our tours. We have some other sub-themes. Destroying the false image of a "dead sea" is easy, once people learn about the super-abundance of life the lake supports.

We hope people incorporate what they discover here into their own personal conclusions about the water-issue questions. After visiting the lake, they should have a clearer idea of what's been at stake. We know that Mono Lake sells itself as a place to care about. And that, perhaps, best explains why there is a plan now in effect to raise, and to protect, Mono Lake. (The State Water Board adopted a plan in September, 1994.)

Join us for a tour. Don't be surprised if you find yourself "ooh-ing" and "ah-ing" as you explore the mysteries of tufa towers, catch a few brine shrimp, float bits of pumice rock in the lake, and maybe even take a fly-pupae snack break along the way.

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Mono Lake Committee
The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center
Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve
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