Formations of tufa, a spongy form of calcium carbonate, tower in the Mono Lake state reserve just east of Yosemite National Park at the base of the Sierra Nevada and 180 mi/290 km east of San Francisco. Initially formed underwater, the eerie, netherworld formations now stand like abstract sculptures all around the lake. A visitors center at the lake sheds light on Mono's creation and complex ecology. There are hiking trails and good spots for swimming, though you should be aware that the water is very salty, buoyant and full of fowl. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=514.
One of the oldest in North America, the lake itself is more than a million years old and has become saline since the water had no natural outlet. It is home for tens of thousands of birds and a migratory feeding stop for millions more, but years ago its future was uncertain. Water diverted to the city of Los Angeles was draining the lake, but action by environmentalists led to court rulings that now protect Mono and regulate the amount of water that can be drained. An eventual result of ongoing lake restoration is that many of the tufa spires that are now popular sights will again be underwater.
Nearby is Panum Crater, one of many active volcanoes south of the lake. A trail leads to the rim of the volcano, which yields good views of the surrounding area, and another trail descends into the crater.
North of Mono Lake is Bodie State Historic Park, which offers a glimpse into California's gold-rush era. The park is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the west. In its day, Bodie had among the wildest streets, the wickedest men and the worst whiskey (and climate) in the West. A town of nearly 10,000 people during its brief heyday in the late 1870s, it is preserved in its entirety in a state of arrested decay. You can now walk the town's empty streets and peer through tattered lace curtains into buildings that remain as they were left more than a century ago when promises of gold turned out to be naught.
Head for Bodie's hillside cemeteries for an introduction to some of the town's colorfully memorialized former residents. The fenced-in cemetery was set aside for decent folk: Most of the bad Bodie boys were buried on Boot Hill. If you visit, pack a lunch. There are no stores or services at the park, though facilities include a shadeless picnic area and pit toilets.
Highway 270, the main road into Bodie, is often closed seasonally in the winter and early spring because of hazardous road conditions. Check weather and road conditions before making a special trip. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509.
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