Waking up in the Eastern Sierra’s to a cold morning, we continued north on U.S. 395, stopping first about 25 miles north of Bishop at a vista point to look at Crowley Lake near the Long Valley Caldera. Long Valley Caldera is a depression that is adjacent to Mammoth Mountain.
The valley is one of the Earth’s largest calderas, measuring about 20 miles long and 11 miles wide and up to 3,000 ft deep. Crowley Lake is a reservoir on the upper Owens River. The lake was created in 1941 by the L.A. Department of Water and Power, as storage for the Los Angeles Aqueduct and for flood control, with a 126′ high dam.
Upon completion of the reservoir in 1941, strange columnar formations, some of which reached heights of as much as 20 feet, were spotted along the reservoir’s eastern shore. Some described them as stone cylinders connected by fortified stone arches that had been completely covered and obscured for millions of years but which had been gradually unmasked by the constant pounding of powerful waves that eroded the more soft rock at the base of the cliffs encasing these pillars.
The pillars were simply regarded as oddities until 2015, when geologists realized that they were the result of frigid water from melting snow seeping down into volcanic ash (the result of a catastrophic explosion more than 700,000 years prior), creating tiny holes in the hot ash, the byproduct being boiling water and steam, which then rose up and out of these same holes. Unfortunately to get close you need a 4 wheel drive vehicle, and from across the lake they were difficult to see.
Not far away, a rainbow appeared along the slope of the mountain. The rainbow seemed to end at the road so it seemed as if we drove through the rainbow and its moisture dropped onto our windshield. We saw the full arc of the rainbow from end to end with mountains flanked on each side of us at heights of 12,000 feet.
The landscape changed once again within ten minutes of driving from the desert at Crowley Lake at 4000 feet to a forest at 5000 feet along US Highway 395. Micro-climate changes occurred throughout our trip. Soon we reached the 8300 foot summit to a snowy setting but clear roads. Five minutes later the snow disappeared and we drove through a green forest as we dropped in elevation. We moved into a semi-desert area while still able to see the snow-capped mountains to our left.
We stopped at Mono Lake to see the eerie setting. When I first looked at this scenery, it struck me as an alien environment because it is nothing like anything I had ever seen. The white solid structures on land and in the lake were unusually shaped. We learned that in 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting Mono Lake’s streams south to meet the growing water demands of Los Angeles. Depriving the lake of its freshwater sources, the volume of Mono Lake was cut in half while its salinity doubled. Mono Lake became 2.5 times saltier and the lake dropped 40 feet.
The most unique feature of this area is the tufa towers. When the spring water meets the alkaline lake water, calcium and carbonate salts react to form insoluble calcium carbonate (limestone), which precipitates out, settling in mineral deposits around the spring. Over centuries, these deposits gradually grow into towering columns which can reach heights of up to 30 feet.
Tufa can only form underwater, so it is only if lakes are drained or dry out over many years that the towers are exposed. We walked among the tufa towers on the lakeshore when Dave recalled that a Pink Floyd album featured these tufa towers of Mono Lake on their album cover. The tufa towers were hard as rock and were irregular shapes and heights.
Mono Lake has its own ecosystem of gulls and grebes, thrush and plover that eat the brine shrimp. Brine shrimp that eat the alkali flies which eat the algae. Native tribes once lived in the Mono Basin and collected the fly larvae that they used in trade and also ate.
We wanted to explore Mono Basin a bit more so we ventured into a dirt path aiming for a look at the young Panum Crater. Our first attempt ended when we reached a road hollowed out from deep potholes so we tried a gravel road that was more direct. Once we made it to Panum Crater, we hiked the rim trail up to the top of the crater to see the center of the volcanic eruption.
The black shiny rock, obsidian, was strewn throughout the crater’s center. Sheaths of rock towered the area as we heard a guide talk about the history of the area to a group of school students. The Panum Crater is only one of a volcanic chain of craters, domes and lava flows in Mono County. The chain stretches 25 miles from the northwest shore of Mono Lake to the south of Mammoth Mountain.
Further north a 12 mile road up a mountain that ended up as a dirt road lead to the town of Bodie, which is now an authentic Wild West ghost town. The town was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and in 1962 it became Bodie State Historic Park. A total of 170 buildings remain. Bodie began as a mining camp following the discovery of gold in 1859 by a group of prospectors, including W. S. Bodey. Bodey perished in a blizzard the following November while making a supply trip to Monoville.
We decided not to enter the ghost town park since it was muddy and a chance of getting the car stuck, resulting in a posted $300 tow, so we made our way back to the main road with beautiful views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
We rolled into Bridgeport, California for lunch. Roast beef sandwiches and fries at Rhino’s satisfied our hunger but I suspected that Rhino’s might be more of a tough bar scene establishment. It was just a hunch on my part but there are slim pickin’s of restaurants roaming the small towns out West.
As our route continued up U.S. 395 it started raining making our plans for Lake Tahoe damp. Having been at Lake Tahoe many years ago where I remember seeing the bluest water of my life, it was disappointing that the view was obscured.
As we continued around the lake it continued to be overcast, cold, and crowded with tourist when we arrived at Inspiration Point.
Fortunately our route up the west side of the lake allowed us to pop out of the rain, and by the time we reached a marina the rain had stopped. Finally we had a beautiful setting with a mountainous backdrop for some photos.
A visit to Squaw Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, was our next stop. While it is radically different than 55 years ago, some of the original buildings still stand. The California Olympic Center was built in the Googie architecture style which is a form of modern architecture, influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age. Unfortunately it is now a Mexican restaurant so it bears little resemblance to its original form.
Being a hockey fan, I really wanted to see the open air hockey arena, but its roof collapsed in 1980 and the Squaw Valley Lodge stands in its place. In addition we were disappointed to find that it was too late in the day for us to ride the tram to the top of the mountain to see the Olympic Museum as the the tram stopped service before we arrived.
Arriving in Truckee about 4 PM, we wanted to see the Donner Pass Museum in Truckee but it was about to close so we moved on. All have heard the story of the Donner family and the other families that set off through the Sierra Nevada Mountains unprepared for the winter and stalled out in the deep snow. Only 48 of the 87 pioneers survived. Their story spoke of cannibalism of the dead to endure.
A statue went up at the site of the Donner camp in 1918. The stone pedestal is 22 feet high, the same depth as the snow that caused their demise. We skipped the museum and the park and drove on via I-80.
On our way back down the mountains our route took us through Grass Valley to see the Historical Mill at Empire State Park. Our luck ran out again when we arrived to find the park closed a half hour before we got there so we moved onward along California Highway 20; once again we continued. The next town was Oroville, where there is a 700′ high dam, but again to stick with the challenging day we couldn’t find it. Finally after passing some rice fields (in dry California???) our day ended in Chico. For a day that started out so great at Mono Lake, the rest of the day was challenging, but still the views of the drive made up for everything closing just before we arrived.