To California’s Eastern Desert
Posted on October 24, 2014
A few weeks ago Eva and I had a very enjoyable vacation on the east side of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountain range. In its desertness, it’s a world away from the coastal regions of California, where most of California’s population centers are found.
To get there, we drove through Yosemite National Park, along the Tioga Road that leads across the high country of the park. It’s a landscape of exposed granite rock, shaped by eons of grinding glacial action, and clear lakes formed behind piles of glacial moraine.
From Tuolumne Meadow it’s a gradual climb to Tioga Pass at 9943 feet, then a long steep grade down to the bottom of the eastern side of the Sierra. The road is quite an amazing engineering feat and goes where no road was meant to go.
The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada is in a so-called rain shadow, because all the moist air that streams in from the northwest is wrung of its moisture over the mountains, and nothing much is left for the eastern side. This is the western edge of the Great Basin, which extends across Nevada to Salt Lake City, nearly 600 miles away and has no outlet to an ocean.
Our destination for the night was the hamlet of Lee Vining, which is the gateway to Yosemite for travelers coming from the east. There’s not much there except for a string of motels and a few RV sites. Still, it has a Western atmosphere in tune with settlements across Nevada and elsewhere in the Great Basin.
Mono Lake is the big attraction in this area, a saline sea with no natural outlet that is so important as it supports millions of migratory birds. We had time before darkness fell to pay a visit.
A special feature of Mono Lake is the variety of tufa formations. These are calcite deposits formed under water when the lake level was higher. Mineral-rich hot waters bubbled up from underlying volcanic regions and precipitated this material in the cooler waters of the lake.
For the past 75 years Los Angeles, over 300 miles away, has tapped Mono Lake and surrounding tributaries to help supply its city with drinking water. The lake level has been seriously drawn down. Understandings have recently been reached to raise the lake to a more environmentally satisfactory level.
We don’t do road trips very often these days. Part of the problem is in dining out. Restaurant menus typically are laden with standard high carbohydrate dishes, food we try to avoid. Down the street from us was a right attractive place with a Western theme and an outside dining area – Bodie Mike’s, named for a nearby mining ghost town.
Next morning we were off early, driving down the highway that led through miles of deserted countryside. We came upon a deserted cabin.
Beside a fence, we found the remains of a well-pecked over deer.
We turned off onto a side road that led to the southern end of Mono Lake.
Along the way, we passed a few recent volcanic cinder cones, some about 500 years old.
Near lake’s edge we could more clearly see tufa formations. Before Los Angeles sucked the water out of Mono, these formations lay under water. Now they are dead.
Further south, we turned inward toward the Sierra and began to climb in elevation. We passed several sparklingly clear natural lakes.
As we climbed higher into the Sierra, we left the desert and found ourselves in yellow pine country. The bark of yellow pine has a distinctive odor of vanilla.
Eventually we found ourselves at the highest point of the highest road that penetrates into the Sierra Nevada range, Mosquito Flat, gateway to Mono Pass at 12,000 feet elevation. The seasons were changing here. Native aspen trees were turning yellow and golden color. It was the first week of September.