Monday, May 19, 2014

Bishop and beyond

Bishop is a great little town, all the stuff you need to get back into the forest and then some. Lots of bakeries, delis, and sporting goods stores. They have a beautiful city park where we spent some time, a good starting point for most places we needed to go. A few miles away  is a great museum called Laws Railroad Museum. They have a big steam locomotive, other RR cars, a depot and two long rows of old little buildings for the little "town". They have a very active crew of volunteers who work many hours rebuilding and refurbishing old railroad cars, mining equipment, and many kinds of machinery. We arrived on a day when a couple of busloads of 4th graders were visiting so we had the bonus of many volunteers sharing their knowledge about the exhibits.
Fill 'er up!
Laws Railroad Station

Sunrise over the Owen River
Laws RR Museum

Fresh snow in the Sierras

Not far from Bishop, in the foothills of the Sierras is a unique area called Buttermilk Country. It is similar to the Alabama Hills in that it is a world class boulder climbing and scrambling area. We spent two nights here, taking long walks, scrambling around and watching the real climbers on the boulders presenting interesting problems. The nights were lovely, bright stars, cool temperatures and the dramatic backdrop of the soaring mountains to the west. We even saw a few snow flurries but they were very short lived. We hiked to where the river plunges through a steep bouldery canyon, very scenic.
Scenic Buttermilk Country

Buttermilk Country views
Fun rock formations

Real climbers
Desert colors

Feeling pretty grungy, we headed into Hot Springs country. We stayed 2 nights at what we think is Crab Pot Hot Springs. Though not large pools, they are big enough for the 4-5 people that might show up. The water is heated underground by the hot magma that still exists after thousands of years of volcanic activity in this area. The ground is covered with pumice and small chunks of obsidian from the many explosive eruptions in the past. Talking to other folks, we learned about other springs in the area and ended up coming back to one called Sheepherder HS, also a beautiful pool overlooking a small lake. It felt really great to get cleaned up! Another short detour was to Hot Creek Geological site, with geysers and springs too hot for soaking and looking very much like Yellowstone.
If we could only fit all this into our backyard!

Hot Creek Geological Site

Sheepherder Hot Spring
Next up was Convict Lake, a pretty alpine lake carved by glaciers out of the ancient stone of the Sierras. There is a resort on one end of the lake and a nice trail going all the way around. We stayed one night most of two days so I was able to get in 2 laps around and then some. The path leading up to the pass was a bit too much but I did part of it. There was a nice beach and lots of sun for lazing around reading books and feeding chipmunks. The lake is surrounded by glacial moraines, one of the best examples of a glacier carved lake that I have seen. The lake is a fantastic shade of blue green. A typically colorful history involving escaped convicts, posse chases, murder and mayhem gave the lake it's name.

Convict Lake
Convict Lake

Yes, still cold at night around here!

Mammoth Lakes is a ski town, still open though I could not see where they could be skiing, just didn't look like enough snow to me. I took a longer hike to Sherman Lakes than necessary since I missed the second lake and walked way past my destination. Is it possible to get blase about continuously scenic beauty? I have so many pictures of towering, snow topped mountains, stunning trees and rocks, gorgeous lakes and sights that I've almost stopped taking pictures! We made a quick stop at Obsidian Dome, a large outpouring of glassy volcanic material, a source for the Native Americans. 
Sherman Lakes
Fantastic Western Juniper

Obsidian Dome

June Lakes Scenic loop is a short detour off of Hwy. 395, there are many resort and camping opportunities, some lakes and streams and cute little shops. We drove through all of that and ended up at Parker Lake, another dazzling alpine lake.... We spent two nights downstream on the creek, enjoying the sound of water rushing by and choruses of birds in the morning. The bugs started eating us however, so we moved along, counting the days til we have to actually be home.
Parker Lake

Views from Parker Creek

Panorama from Punar Crater near Mono Lake
Mono(MO-NO, not Ma-NO) Lake is a fascinating place, geologically, biologically, and historically. The lakebed is the remnant of a colossal volcanic eruption, certainly on the scale of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. it is riddled and surrounded by cinder cones, old craters and volcanic debris. We visited Punar Crater, a textbook example of a rhyolitic volcano. It had a huge initial explosion, then collapsed, sinking a mile into the ground. It then went through a period of cone building extruding loads of obsidian and glassy pumice. It is one of many craters in a chain stretching to the south of Mono Lake. Right on the edge of the lake are the Tufa formations, tall, intricate towers of limestone created by springs that used to be under the lake surface. As the lake level dropped the springs disappeared and the formations left behind are left to the forces of erosion. It was kind of like being outside in a cave, if that makes sense. A short distance away is Navy Beach, where there is another kind of tufa, called sand tufa. They are produced similarly to the other area but are much more delicate, constructed of thin walls of sand. They look like fantastic sand castles or Star Wars cities eroding into the sand.
South Tufa area
South Tufa area

South Tufa area

Sand Tufa, Navy Beach

Sand Tufa, Navy Beach

Sand Tufa, Navy Beach

The Mono Lake area has a very interesting history. The Paiute Indians lived prosperously and gently in this difficult environment for thousands of years, they were called the "fly eaters," because they ate the pupae of the tiny flies that line the shores.

The ecology of the lake is like no other on earth. Millions of birds use Mono Lake as a resting and feeding site on their migrations. There was a delicate balance in the populations of brine shrimp, brine flies and birds.  

In the 1930's the city of Los Angeles came along and secretly bought up all of the water rights in this great valley, called Long Valley. They started diverting the water to their aquaducts and sucking it dry, putting most of the farmers and ranchers out of business, and devastating the ecology of the watershed. The level of Mono Lake dropped precipitiously as the sources of it's water were diverted to the city. Creeks that used to flow to the lake dried up, killing the trees and plant life that fed the lake.  Since the lake has no outlet, similar to the Great Salt Lake, the salinity increased, changing the whole food chain of the lake and severely impacting populations of insects, brine shrimp, and birds. A staggering 80% of California's seagulls make their nests on an island of Mono Lake. As the lake level dropped the island was no longer an island, and predators were able to get to the nests and devour the eggs.  By the 1960's the ecosystem was on the verge of collapse.

About that time, a small group of dedicated people began to fight back, working to restore historic levels of the lake, improve creek habitat and rebuild a devastated ecosystem. It wasn't until 1994 that the state of California decreed that LA had to limit the amount of water they were taking and begin to raise the level of the lake. Drought in current years has made this very difficult but they are slowly making some progress.  There is an excellent visitor center in Lee Vining that relates the whole story and highlights the efforts of the individuals who made it happen. One that stuck in my head is the story of a LA Mother's group who spearheaded water conservation efforts in LA, providing low flush toilets to anyone who would install them. Because of this and many other efforts, LA has become a world leader in water conservation. There are massive educational programs for youth, trying to drive home the point that water is not free, it has to come from somewhere. Kids learn about the communities that are affected by their water usage and ways that they can protect this precious natural resource. Mono Lake is now one of the most studied places on the planet.

Lee Vining was our turning point to the west, we are on to Yosemite and the coast, the final push for home.


  1. Brings back memories from 1997. Looong ago!

  2. Oh, my - such loveliness! It's so hard to believe that this particular adventure year is coming to an end for you and Thayer. Thank you for providing us all the opportunity to enjoy your travels and learn about/see so many beautiful and interesting places. I'm sure this isn't the end of your travels, so I'm looking forward to more posts when you head out again. Looking forward to seeing you back in this neck of the woods!