Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Place that Never Ceases to Amaze: The Spring Face of Mono Lake

Mono Lake South Tufa

Date: May 16, 2018
Place: Mono Lake, South Tufa Nature Preserve, Lee Vining, California
Coordinates: 37.938774, -119.027170
Kength: about 1.3 miles
Level: easy

My friend had been to Mono Lake before. And so have I, many, many times, including in the middle of winter. Still, we were traveling by it, and of course we were going to visit again this magical wonderland.
Coming down from Bridgeport where we had enjoyed the Travertine Hot Springs earlier, we first stopped at the Vista Point looking down over the Mono basin. Road 395 stretched like a silver line from below the hill we were on and onward to the lake, appearing to disappear in the water and reemerge on the far side.
I could imagine this lake much bigger, way before the city of Los Angeles claimed its water sources.
View of Mono Lake from the vista point on north
I suppose at some point in the future I might stop at a different location but as nearly every time before we went straight ahead to the South Tufa location.
Boardwalk at the South Tufa Nature Preserve
The tufa are these rock formation that precipitated and exposed as the lake shrunk and its water got more concentrated.
The sad story of Mono Lake I already wrote about in one of my previous posts about this place. Not much has changed since then. The issue is still being disputed.
Tufa Bay

Mono Lake is a fly-by sanctuary for birds migrating through the Eastern Sierra corridor. Around the year we get to see different species in and around the water.
Not having children with us on this visit, we took our time wandering around, giving closer attention to what we saw.
Tufa Bay
Like the light pattern shining in the ripples. It was very windy that day, and the lake was wavier than I usually see it.
Not many plants can live so close to the high-salinity water of Mono Lake. The Nevada bulrush was the closest plant to the water.
Great Basin Bulrush, Amphiscirpus nevadensis
They were there, between the bulrush and the water: the swarms of brine flies that are an essential component of the Mono lake ecosystem.
Brine Flies
The flies formed little waves of their own that rippled each time we approached. Still, it was quiet enough to get fairly close to them.
Brine Flies
Little stonecrop plants grew their pretty rosettes not to far from the bukrush. They too can tolerate the high salinity f the soil.

Some of the Mono Lake birds are year-round residents, like the osprey that also nest there. The osprey fled off site to fish in fresh water lakes and creeks nearby (like Convict Lake, which we visited later that day).
Other birds that make god use of this location are gulls that nest on the island in the midst of the lake. When the water level dropped so much that the island got connected with the mainland, coyotes walked over to the nesting colony and decimated it. Later, as the water rose again after L.A. was made to give up some, the gulls returned to nest on this island.
The gull island 
Other year-round residents of Mono lake are the cowbirds. We saw some, foraging among the bulrush.
Female Cowbird in Bulrush 
Killdeer are also a common sight there, although they are easier heard than seen.
Mallards are found pretty much everywhere, so why not in Mono Lake?
Mallard, female

My friend went ahead of me while I paused to admire each and every tufa formation. They all tell the story of the lake but with good imagination they tell others, more surreal stories as well. The one below, for example, is the thrown of the troll queen. You can see her green hair just below the main pillar.
Tufa thrown

And of course there are the 'remains of the sunken ship' off shore. The image of tufa poking through the water surface is an inspiration for many.
Mono Lake
The entire are is volcanically affected. I turned around and gazed at the volcano cones south of the lake. There are hiking trails there too, but so far I had not hiked a singe one of them. It'll come.
I caught up with my friend. She was sitting by the water, trying to photograph the brine shrimp that live there. They are so tiny and translucent and it's very difficult to see them, so I never even tried to photograph them before. But my friend's focus and determination had inspired me so I sat down too and aimed my camera at the water.
Brine Shrimp
Of all days this was probably one of the harder ones to photograph the shrimp because the wind rippled the water, disturbing the surface and changing the focal point. Still, I got a few decent images of brine shrimp (put of a gazillion I took). In the photo above a small group of shrimp can be seen on the white stone background. Below is an enlarged image of another.
Brine Shrimp
Eventually we had enough shrimp photo shoots and got up, and getting the blood flowing back to our legs that got numb during the long sitting. We waked past the main tufa area and gazed down at the Navy Beach. On the water rested geese and gulls. Behind the lake stretched the wide Great Basin desert all the way to and into Nevada.
Geese and Gulls
The trail curved back toward the parking lot. We took the shorter route because we wanted to hike at Convict Lake that day still. Although we walked as fast as we could we did stop when seeing the two-color phacelia that was blooming in small clusters between the smaller tufa and the sagebrush bushes.
Twocolor Phacelia, Phacelia bicolor
In the parking lot we found the guardian - a mature western gull in breeding colors (the red spots near the eyes and the beak). I've seen him before, hanging by the cars, perhaps hoping for some man food to be left behind. We didn't leave him any.
California Gull
Just before getting into the car I turned around and took a last good look at the lake. The water was very green and ripple-run. Heavy clouds hang in the north where we came from: it was raining there now. Glistening like a gem in the gray-brown desert, Mono Lake did indeed look like unearthly beauty that graces the entire are with its presence. It should not be allowed to vanish.
Mono Lake
We drove away quietly. I had my gps set for Convict Lake and I hoped that the trail would be easy enough to find and follow, because I promised my friend a picnic lunch and a nice and easy afternoon hike. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Gem in A Treasure Box: Exploring Around Travertine Hot Springs

Date: May 16, 2018
Place: Travertine Hot Springs, Bridgeport, California
Coordinates: 38.245735, -119.204239
Length: just wandering around.
Level: easy+

The Eastern Sierra region is California's treasure box. It's an area that's hugely diverse in views (all of which are fantastic), plants and wildlife, (many of which is unique), fascinating history, and mind-blowing natural phenomenons. Any time I can I incorporate this area into my travel plans and every time I travel there I reach into the treasure box and find a new gem.
When I was traveling there with my friend Anenet last May there was no question about us exploring the Eastern Sierra. She has been there before with her family and did some exploration with them. It was due to her recommendation that I got to check out the ghost town of Bodie and the surrounding area of Bodie Hills. Now I was to treat her to something special: a dip in Travertine Hot Springs - the natural hot springs in Bridgeport. I had visited there several times already and knowing the pretty floral scene in this place I knew that she'd like also to look around and explore. And there's much to see there.

View west over Bridgeport

We woke up refreshed after spending the night in Bridgeport and took off to our first destination of the day - the Travertine Hot Springs. These hot springs are very accessible, and almost never deserted. I was hoping, however, that it won't be too crowded early in the morning. Indeed, there were only a couple of cars in the small parking lot. We were not alone, but not crowded. We changed to bathing suits under our clothes, grabbed the towels and cameras and started down the narrow path to the main pool of the hot springs.
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel 

Travertine Hot Springs is a fairly large area and has severals springs were the hot water seeps out of the ground. There are a few pools large enough to dip in, some arranged by people and some completely natural. Tire's one right by the parking lot, and is usually already occupied. It wasn't when we were there but I wanted to dip in the main pool that's bigger and prettier, only a short walk down. 
Trail to main pool
There were two guys in the water already, but they were getting ready to leave. We let ourselves into the hot water and allowed bliss spread through our bodies.
The main pool
Travertine is a rock formation deposited by running water. In this case - mineral-rich water heated by near-surface magma. The Eastern Sierra has quite a few of those, but not many that match Travertine in their beauty. (I haven't seen all of them yet, though).
We enjoyed the natural hot bath for a good, long time. Just as we were about to get out and go exploring the area a little, another couple came. They didn't bother with bathing suits, enjoying nature to the fullest. They were local and shared some interesting anecdotes about the place with us. One of these was the general location of another, prime location hot pool at the basin below us. After drying out and changing back to regular clothes I was ready to go look for that pool.
View down to the basin 
It wasn't difficult to find the narrow trail the guy in the main pool had told us about. We followed it along the cliff edge, looking for the way down. I specifically was also looking for pinyon trees because I wanted to sit a pinyon jay. I did find pinyon trees there, but not the jay.
Pinyon Pine
We did find a rabbit, though. The rabbit didn't seem to mind us. She was busy collecting straw.
In the high area where we were there were many little springs that collected in small pools, too small to sit in but big enough to mirror lovely reflections.
A small pool
The soil around these little pools was crusted with salt. It was so white it looked almost like snow. The little plants that grew there were clearly salt-tolerant. Very tolerant, apparently.
Salt-crusted vegetation
Some of these pools had the spring bubbling right from their bottom.
Active spring
Other springs flowed right out of their origin, forming little salty brooks. I dipped my finger in the water. Some was hot, some wasn't. None was cold.
Active spring
In a safe enough distance from the salty water grew plants that were more familiar to us, many of them in bloom. The desert paintbrush was so brilliant that it truly looked painted.
Desert Paintbrush, Castilleja chromosa
More modest, the tiny-flowered popcorn flower.
Popcorn Flower, Cryptantha sp.

But the one plant I really wanted to show my friend - the desert mallow, was nit blooming yet. We were there too early in the season. We would see it blooming later on our trip, near Big Pine.
Every now and then we would look u to the west and enjoy the sight f the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. As I write these words, in February 2019, these mountains are covered with record amounts of snow. I honesty wish I was there now, sitting in the hot pool with lots of snow around. But this won't happen this year.
Sierra Nevada close-up
We didn't find an easy way down. I was ready to scramble down the cliff where it appeared that other had done so before. My friend, however, decided to stay at the high area and scout around there some more. We agreed to meet in half an hour and I climbed down the cliff in continued search of that mystery pool.
Trail down 
Almost immediately I found a blooming milkvetch plant. Knowing my friend's love for this genus I thought of calling her over after all, but then thought there should be some blooming closer to the parking lot.
Milkvetch, Astragalus sp. 
I had to climb down some more. The rocks are very pretty and very rugged, indicating relatively low annual precipitation.
Hole in the wall 
I came upon a lovely layered rock. My geology knowledge isn't good enough to tell if these layers are sedimentary or volcanic in origin.
I climbed down some more. Below me I could see the larger basin of the Travertine Hot Springs. The creek that collected from the pools above was flowing below me. I searched for visible steam but didn't see any. I had to get down and touch the water to feel its temperature.
The creek
As I climbed down the last rocky step I disturbed a pretty, blue-bellied western fence lizard.
Western Fence Lizard
Down at the basin I started searching for the mystery pool. As I walked carefully along the creek I looked at the special salt wetland created by the volcanic mineral water.
Volcanic Marsh
One of the plants growing there intrigued me very much. It looked like grass but its tiny flowers didn't look like those if any other grass I knew.
Arrow Grass, Triglochin concinna

I took a few close-up photos. While indeed a monocot, it isn't a real grass but belongs to a separate family with its California members thrive in salt wetlands.
Arrow Grass, Triglochin concinna 
I also found a strange-looking wallflower. It is a variant found mainly in the mono basin area. 

Pursh's Wallflower, Erysimum capitatum var. purshii
I looked at the time. My half an hour was almost over. Just as I was ready to give up I came upon a little trail and followed it further down. There, hidden in the bushes behind a rock was a little pool that was clearly organized for human enjoyment. I touched the water and it was hot! It looked much cleaner and clearer than the main pool in the high area. It was very inviting, but it was not to be in this visit. Next time I'm there I will find it again.
Lower pool
Satisfied, I started walking back up to where my friend was waiting. After a short walk I could see her sitting at the edge of the cliff. She waved me and I moved along the bottom of the cliff, trying to find a different spot to climb up than the one I climbed down on.
There were many strange-looking plants in that area, including what I first mistook as mistletoe, but it turned out to be a different plant altogether.
Green Ephedra (Mormon Tea), Ephedra viridis
I find a convenient place to ascend the cliff and joined my friend. She had made some cool sightings too, including the milkvetch and a jackrabbit. She was very satisfied with this place but was ready to move on.
I took a final look at the pinyon tree (no jays still) and opened the car. Soon we were on our way south to Mono Lake.
Pretty rock and Pinyon