We’ve both seen a lot of weird and interesting things this year. Dinosaur bones in underground caves in the Netherlands. Huge granite slabs pushed upward into domes by the sheer power of natures’ forces. Giant Sequoia trees so tall that we couldn’t clearly see the tops without a zoom lens. A solar eclipse that blotted the sun out while sitting on top of a mountain outside King’s Canyon National Park. And now, add the tufa towers in Mono Lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains to that list. Definitely one of the weirder ones this year.
Tufas are crazy looking towers of limestone created when underground springs rich in calcium meet up with lakewater rich in carbonates (think baking soda). The calcium reacts with the carbonates and creates calcium carbonate – limestone. This can only happen underwater, and the only reason that so many of these are visible at Mono Lake is because the city of Los Angeles began sucking the lake dry in 1941, dropping it 40 vertical feet by 1995.
While these water diversions had the positive outcome of creating the visual spectacle that we see today, they had their share of negative outcomes as well. Islands that were previously safe migration and nesting spots for birds became accessible to predators. The reproductive rates of the brine shrimp in the lake dropped dramatically, resulting in other ecosystem strains. The air around the lake became polluted as more and more of the lake bed was exposed, releasing chemicals into the air.
Luckily, concerned activists got involved, and legislation was passed establishing protective zones and requiring restoration of the lake to pre-diversion levels. While this will take some time, if you’re planning on seeing the tufas without scuba diving equipment – we recommend doing it soon!
There are multiple options for camping in the area, including a few great boondocking spots on the southwestern shore that are easily accessible for big rigs like ours. The road to the southern tufa area is a long dusty washboard, and we wouldn’t recommend driving a RV down it if you don’t have to. The western shore is easily accessible, but it has only a fraction of the tufas that the southeastern shore does. It is also just a short, beatiful drive up through the Tioga Pass into the eastern side of Yosemite National Park.