PLACES: Mono Lake on Sierra East Side

September and October are one of the best times of year to visit Mono. The crowds are gone but the nearby High Country is still open for hikes and photography, and it is always a joy to the eyes.

Mono Lake covers 60 square miles: 13 miles east-west by 8 miles north-south. The lake, located near the little town of Lee Vining, is ancient. In existence for more than 760,000 years, it's one of the oldest lakes in North America. Water in Mono Lake is 2.5 times as salty as seawater, which makes swimming a delightfully buoyant experience. But a person has to get over the slimy mud and muck along the shoreline and lake bottom as he or she enters the water.

The lake has high salt concentrations but it is teeming with life. There are no trout or sport fish in Mono Lake, but the brine shrimp and alkali fly larvae are an important part of the food web for millions of birds as they pass through on their migratory flights along the Eastern Sierra.

The Native Americans who lived in the Mono Basin, the Kutzadika'a (Mono Lake Paiute), collected the abundant fly pupae that thrive there as a food source. Other tribes, who traded acorns for the nutritious larvae, called the Kutzadika'a the Monache, meaning "fly-eaters." Yum! Monache was shortened to Mono and applied to the region and the people living there by the early explorers in the 1850s.

Another interesting aspect of the lake's unique landscape is the tufa towers that have formed there. The strange spires and knobs are formed when fresh water springs containing calcium bubble up through the carbonate-rich lake water. The combining of these waters forms calcium carbonate, a whitish limestone deposit that forms the basis of the tufa formations.

The tufa formations can tower 15 feet or more due to historic lake level fluctuations. Although the setting is spectacular (the lake is surrounded on three sides by volcanic formations), Tufa is not unique to Mono Lake. It is found in many alkaline lakes throughout the world.

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