A very special and unique place.

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 Mono Lake.

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 Sierra crest.

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 Lake!

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