Laura and Lee's Sierra Saga

We spent 4th of July weekend touring parts of the Western and Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, including a day trip into Yosemite, and hiking near Mono Lake and Mammoth Lakes.

We planned to spend our first night with Lee's family in Visalia CA. Normally we go through L.A., but we got off to a late start - and would have hit L.A. in the middle of rush hour, so we decided to take the longer route through the high desert and over Tehachapi. There are some interesting sights to see near Tehachapi, including the Wind Valley Energy Center, which is one of the biggest wind power complexes in the world. The wind turbines come in several different shapes.

At this particular site there are over 5,000 wind turbines. They don't all run constantly, but on average each one runs 6000 hours per year.

The Wind Valley Energy Center can provide enough electricity to service the needs of 1/2 million people. There are also wind turbines in Palm Springs and outside San Francisco, and the three combined can service a city the size of San Diego (1.2 million).

Wind power is very clean, and using the power provided by the Energy Center, saves 1 billion pounds of pollution from going into the atmosphere every year - that's the pollution that would be produced by a line of trucks from Tehachapi to San Diego.

Tehachapi's other attraction is the Tehachapi Loop which is a section of the Southern Pacific's railroad track which is laid out in a loop. This was necessary to enable to trains to be able to climb the steep grade to Tehachapi Summit. It's very well known in the railroading world. Long trains actually pass over the top of their own tail ends.

The next morning, after a too-short visit with Lee's dad and grandmother, we left for Yosemite Valley.

We weren't sure what to expect in Yosemite Valley, which suffered a devastating flood in early January - just six months earlier. Some roads were completely washed out, and several campgrounds were damaged, as well as bridges, trails, hotel rooms and employee housing.

We were very pleasantly surprised at how well the valley has recovered. For the most part, had we not known there had been a flood, we never would have known. Though there were several signs that showed what the flood level had been.

The Park Service is taking "advantage" of this opportunity and will be rebuilding and relocating facilities that were damaged out of the flood plain. Two of the campgrounds are still closed and there is still a lot of reconstructive work that needs to be finished on trails and bridges, but it's amazing how much everyone accomplished in such a short time.

Here are some sites with some interesting facts and photos of the Yosemite Flood.

Even though it was only the beginning of July, the waterfalls, though still pretty, were way past their peak. The wildflowers and meadows were lovely, though.

We found a parking place at Curry Village and caught the shuttle bus to the Happy Isles trailhead, and walked up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall.

The "Mist Trail" is so named because the mist from the fall normally blankets the trail and hikers get soaked while climbing to the top. But with the water level down, all we got was a cooling mist, which felt very refreshing. We saw a beautiful rainbow at the base of the fall.

After visiting the village store and the Visitor's Center (which had a very interesting video of the flood), we left the valley and drove up towards Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass. Along the way we saw the back side of Half Dome (looks a lot different than it does from here, doesn't it?), and this view of the high country around Tenaya lake.

Tioga Pass, almost 10,000 feet high, is one of the few places where you can drive from the western Sierra to the eastern Sierra, the eastern side climbs (or in our case, descended) quite steeply. We drove to Laura's parents house near Mammoth Lakes, in time for a late dinner.

Friday morning was one of those "ho hum, just another perfect High Sierra days". :-) Lots of blue sky and sun, and a beautiful view of the mountains right from the house.

Our friends from L.A., Lauri, Erin, and Kristina, had left early that morning, and arrived mid-morning. We spent a lazy 4th of July afternoon reading and relaxing and watching the coverage of the Mars Pathfinder (finally, the geeks get their 15 minutes of fame!). In the late afternoon we took a walk, and then watched the "Pops Goes the Fourth" special on TV - great music, and some amazing fireworks!

Saturday (another perfect High Sierra day), we headed up towards Mono Lake. Mono Lake is what remains of what was once an inland sea, and it's a salt lake rather than a freshwater lake. Millions of pounds of brine shrimp is harvested there every year, and it's also a "stopover" for many types of migratory birds every year as they wing their way from North America to South America. The islands of Mono Lake, Paoha and Negit, are the primary nesting grounds for the California sea gull.

Mono Lake has been in the news in recent years because the diversion of its freshwater inlets back in the 1940's (to provide water for Los Angeles) has caused the lake to recede tremendously, threatening its fragile ecosystem. A group of conservationists formed the Mono Lake Committee and were successful in imposing a limitation on the amount of water that L.A. is allowed to divert. The lake level has risen somewhat since then, but is still below the level mandated by the courts - but it took 40 years for the lake level to fall as much as it did, and that situation isn't going to be remedied overnight.

In this photo some of the L.A. water thieves stand at a point that marks the lake level in about 1950, and look at least somewhat ashamed of themselves. (This marker is several hundred yards from today's lake shore.)

Interestingly enough, though, one of today's most famous features of Mono Lake is the tufa towers, which would never have been exposed if the lake level had not dropped so dramatically. These spires have a rather eerie, other-worldly appearance, but were formed under the waters of Mono Lake due to the interaction of the calcium-bearing springs and the carbonates in the waters of Mono Lake. The limestone towers are no longer growing, now that they are exposed to air, but dot the southern shore of Mono Lake - some appear to be growing out of the ground, while others are still out in the water. The area has been designated as the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve.

Some facts about Mono Lake:

We visited the Mono Lake Visitor's Center, and then hiked around the South Tufa area before heading back towards the thriving metropolis of Mammoth Lakes, via the Mammoth Scenic Loop (or the Volcano Escape Route, as some of the locals call it). We drove by the ski area on our way to Minaret Summit. From there is a fabulous view of the east side of the Sierra, including Mt. Banner and Mt. Ritter and the Minarets. On just another perfect High Sierra day... :-)

Sunday morning we drove straight up the road from my parent's house to Rock Creek Lake and the trailhead at Mosquito Flats. There were some mosquitos, but not too bad. The elevation at the trailhead is about 10,300, and Kristina was suffering from a head cold which made it a little more difficult for her to catch her breath. But we still walked the trail up into Little Lakes Valley - one of the prettier valleys in the Eastern Sierra. The trail follows a flowing stream, past meadows and several lakes. There were many wildflowers in bloom, despite it being rather early in the season.

We stopped at Long Lake for lunch at a nice sunny, grassy spot right next to the lake, with a wonderful view of Bear Creek Spire. Oh yes, did I mention that it was another one of those perfect High Sierra days? :-)

After we got back, Dad loaded us in his 4 wheel drive 4-runner, and took us down to see the Owens Gorge - the "Grand Canyon" of the Sierra.

We found an old cement mixer, probably left over from construction of the one of the hydroelectric plants, along the rim, and I had to crawl inside and see what was in there. :-) (Rocks and aluminum cans...)

The sights were interesting, but 6 adults crammed into a 4-Runner on a warm summer afternoon wasn't a lot of fun.

Dad dropped us off at a point about a mile from the house so we could walk back - on one of the dirt roads we saw some mountain lion tracks.

Lauri and Erin and Kristina got up very early Monday morning and left so that they could be at work by about 9:00 or so - or at least that was Lauri and Kristina's plan - Erin was the sane one that planned to take the entire day off.

Lee and I left later that morning, and were home about 3:30.

Back to Laura and Lee's Vacation Page

Text and photographs copyright © 1997, by Laura Gilbreath. Feel free to link to this document, but you may not redistribute it in any form without the express written consent of the copyright holder.

Laura Gilbreath, email: lgil at lgil dot net
Last updated 8/24/97