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US 395, Part 8: Mono County (Mono Lake to Bridgeport)

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[Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd (1975)] Lee Vining (population 398 [2000]) is the gateway to Mono Lake, Mono county's most recognizable geological landmark. Its otherworldly fragile tufa spires have graced photographic studies and even record albums (Pink Floyd's haunting Wish You Were Here is the most famous, featuring a shot of a diver submerged for so long that the ripples stopped; a scan from the album is at right), but the park actually has far more than the tufa: it is still a water park and it is actually legal to swim in Mono Lake, though the water is unbelievably salty; it's teeming with life, despite its apparent inhospitality; and there are numerous other unusual formations and volcanic structures, including the Panum Crater. This is a nice description of the lake's history, ecology and indigenous peoples by the Mono Lake Committee.

Modern geology believes that the Mono Basin was a consequence of three or four million years of westward tilting and sinking from the surrounding faultline and volcanic activity we have already borne witness to in Mono county. As the western floor further sank, the southern and northern borders tilted into the centre, forming a "basin" into which water could settle. It is estimated that the lake itself formed somewhere around one million years ago, and in the twilight of the last great Ice Age ca. 12,000 BC, Mono Lake even overflowed its banks to depths of 900 feet and a volume some five times greater than today. Its briny quality and soapish, alkaline waters are due to a constant evapouration process that removes fresh water from the lake, leaving behind only the salt and sediments brought into it by feeder streams. Thanks to the cumulative aeons over which this process has occurred, Mono Lake is nowadays over twice as salty and eighty times as alkaline as the ocean. As a component watershed of the Great Basin of the western United States (to be discussed more in Part 16 and on), it has no outlet to the sea.

Mono Lake was also the site of a minor gold rush when an Army patrol led by Lt. Tredwell Moore pursuing a Miwok Indian band and their leader Chief Tenaya discovered the lake -- and gold flakes nearby -- in 1852. It was Moore, in fact, who gave the lake its name having been told the name of the local tribe by his Yokut Indian guide. Mining activity would persist into the 1860s.

In 1941, Mono Lake's surface stood at 6,417' above sea level. This was the point at which the city of Los Angeles started diverting some of Mono Lake's feeder streams off as another source for the Los Angeles aqueduct system, eventually taking over four of the five to augment the city's water supply. Starved of its water sources, the lake's level precipitously dropped nearly 40 feet, revealing 17,000+ acres of "relicted" lands on which the most famous of the modern-day tufa structures stand (these southernmost tufae off CA 120 are somewhere between 200 and 900 years old, but there are other tufae surrounding the lake basin along Mono Lake's ancient Ice Age shore dating back some thirteen millenia). Eventually, sixteen years of research, court battles and legal wrangling between local preservationists and the city culminated in a 1994 compromise ruling from the State Water Resources Control Board mandating a 17-foot rise program to restore the lake to 6,392' over the following two decades. This process is, as of this writing, half complete. The compromise means not only the continued survival of a fascinating natural relic but also of its unearthly and beautiful underwater structures, now brought to terrestrial climes for generations more to see.

North of the Conway Grade, US 395 returns to one-lane-per-direction with occasional passing lanes. It is mostly identical to its earliest alignment, hemmed in by the gorges and tight valleys through which it wends.


Lee Vining, named for Leroy Vining, who established a sawmill in 1852 in the vicinity. Vining was part of the group who emigrated to the site after the discovery of gold nearby by the Army. While the lake was not a terribly rich source of the precious metal, the nearby hills were, and thus was founded the mining town of Aurora in 1860, Mono county's first seat ... which later turned out to be part of Nevada (see Part 16). This was of little consequence, because the Aurora mines produced their last only five years later; fortunately, nearby Bodie -- we will discuss it presently -- was desperately in need of lumber and Vining's indefatigable sawmill was still in business, so gold really did make Vining a rich man even if only indirectly. Vining died a few years later of an accidental gunshot wound from his own derringer, drunk to his gills, and the town -- originally named Lakeview -- was named for him instead.

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[Lee Vining, 1950s, 77K.] Today, Lee Vining is primarily a tourist trap for Mono Lake. It is also a repository for some of the priciest gas I have seen anywhere in these United States, probably for the benefit of Yosemite gawkers who were trying to get in the back way. Not a lot has changed from this Burton Frasher postcard at right probably from the early 1950s (click for a larger 77K image).

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Detour: Mono Lake

So, let's look at this lake. Here's a view from US 395 itself just outside of the northern limits of Lee Vining, with the visitor's centre. Negit Island, one of its more recognizable volcanic landmarks, is dead-centre and one of the most recently geologically active (less than 2,000 years old -- only Panum Crater, a plug-dome volcano, is younger at around 700 years old).

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The shores of Mono Lake, along which the highway can be seen and has always run.

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The state park is directly accessible north of Lee Vining and directly borders the highway, so we'll do that one first.

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Sign in, please!

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The plank walkway at the lakeshore.

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Okay to shoot goats, but not climb the tufa.

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This sign explains where the small clumps of tufa originated from -- they didn't start as tufa at all, but rather pumice blocks from an eruption about 1,700 years previously that floated onshore and were covered with a tufa coating as the lake receded.

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The ancient, almost otherworldly, shoreline in the state park. There are large numbers of birds, especially various grebes, gulls and pharalopes, feeding on the alkali flies and brine shrimp.

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Looking back towards the mountains. The brackish stagnant water and the mud are a bit of a hazard here -- watch your step.

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These spires on one of the visible islands from this shore are about the tallest these particular tufa structures get. We'll look at some more spectacular ones in a moment.

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The alkali flies themselves, the pupae of which were consumed and prized by the Mono/Kutzadika'a tribe. Rich in fat and protein, the small developing pupae were collected, dried and eaten as a delicacy called kutsavi, larval fly, shell and all. Even surveyor William Brewer remarked after tasting one that "if one were ignorant of its [the pupa's] origins, it would make fine soup." The flies are everywhere and coat every surface of the beach; amazingly, they can dive underwater using small hairs that trap air for their spiracles. They are completely harmless and live off algae in the lake.

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If we turn back a bit to the southern CA 120 junction we passed in Part 7, we come here to the South Tufa Grove about five miles off US 395 to the east. These spires are probably the best known landmarks of the lake, and the ones that appear above on the album cover. This park, maintained by the National Forest Service, is Mono Lake's most popular attraction. On this particular day, it was very windy and made the lake surface quite choppy.

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A more peaceful inlet and a better look at the tufae. Tufa spires are essentially common limestone (calcium carbonate), which arises out of the various chemical reactions in the lake (particularly underground calcium salt springs and the large amount of carbonate anion in the lake solution). The calcium carbonate then precipitates out of solution to form limestone, often directly around where the springs would enter the lake water, thus forming a tube.

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Obviously, now that the lake has receded, the process no longer continues for these revealed tufa tubes and they are subject to erosion. However, the process does continue within the lake, and boaters can see new tufa underwater slowly forming over decades. Some reach a height of 30 feet.

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End Detour

Coming back from CA 120 and descending along the lake on US 395.

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Curving around the narrow shores. This one-lane-per-direction segment is nearly identical to US 395's very earliest routing in this region, although the earliest road ran almost at the water's edge (remember, the levels were higher then).

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Through the small cottages and restaurants on the north shore.

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Leaving the lake.

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One last look.

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Mono Basin signage as we leave the Scenic Area proper.

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Towards the Conway summit and grade, the wind can become extremely fierce at times.

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Almost directly on the other side of the road facing SB is this distance sign, the sign furthest north on the whole of US 395 in all three states that still shows San Diego as the control city.

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We also meet CA 167 here, a small, rarely traveled route which will cross the Nevada border to become NV 359 and end at US 95 in Hawthorn.

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Looking down CA 167, with 55 miles to its interstate terminus. North of Hawthorn, US 95 splits into a spur route which is an interesting drive for U.S. highway roadgeeks.

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Snowplow warning, common on these lightly traveled roads. The flasher was erected by NDOT with Caltrans permission.

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Yes, there's nothing much out here until the road ends.

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Flashing stop ahead before the US 395 junction, with snow still on the hills when this image was taken in early spring.

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END CA 167.

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Continuing on US 395 to the grade.

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[Conway Grade, 1950s, 56K.] The grade is extremely sharp and ascends about 1400 feet. There are prominent passing lanes present, part of a 1962 upgrade that greatly improved the alignment, but even most moderately powerful passenger cars will need to downshift for this. Lighted curve warning signs are on the downgrade, including this one (plays in Windows Media Player; Mac users: use VLC Player instead of MacWiMP 9).

Despite the expanded lanes, the steep grade is not a whole lot different from the 1950s-era Burton Frasher postcard at right (click for a larger 56K image).

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Blue Star Highway designation at the view point (see Part 4).

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And what a view it is, as we look down at US 395, Mono Lake, and the mountains in the distance. Compare this view with this Burton Frasher, Sr. photograph from 1938, which was taken slightly up the grade and not as high as we are here.

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Also compare it with this view of the lake in early spring, taken around the same time I did the CA 167 junction.

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Conway Summit, highest point on US 395 at 8,138'. Conway Summit gets its name from John Andrew Conway, who settled in the nearby meadows in 1880. Caltrans has replaced this grand summit signage with a really stupid tiny sign, so I am intentionally using my old photography.

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[Conway Summit, 1950s, 96K.] Compare this view, facing SB towards the grade, with the picture postcard at right (click for a larger 96K view). I'm not exactly sure when the picture was taken, but based on other Royal Pictures postmarked cards, it was probably early 1950s.

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Finally, consider what Conway Summit must be like in the winter (as in this picture).

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PM 67, towards Bridgeport and Bodie.

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Turn-off to Bodie along CA 270. Bodie is California's most famous (and the state's official) ghost town, kept officially in a state of, as they say, "arrested decay" since 1962 when it was declared a state park. When gold was discovered, the once-tiny town swelled to an impossible 10,000 inhabitants, most of them the hardbitten miner type who preferred sex, gambling, alcohol and sex (not necessarily in that order) to more genteel pursuits. For this reason, it was said that a man died every day in Bodie, undoubtedly from the combined effects of venereal disease, alcohol and opium abuse, bar fights and out-and-out robbery. Not only that, but Bodie's fearsome temperature extremes and fierce winds ensured that only the toughest could stand to live there at all.

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The road to Bodie's remnants is a strange one. Besides being closed in the winter, it trails off into dirt about three miles before getting to the town, making it an occasionally uncomfortable drive. We offer a special exhibit: see our CA 270 to Bodie photoessay, complete with views of the town buildings and the state park.

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Distance signage leaving CA 270.

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By the way, this is what the CA 270 sign looks like when the road is closed.

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Out into the valley surrounding Bridgeport.

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Outskirts of Bridgeport.

Continue to Part 9

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