By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

mammothYes, it’s me again this week.  As you read this my brother is hiking Machu Picchu.  Which means he has no access to the internet.  This could be my opportunity to write something really awful about him, except that he’s a really good guy and right now I’m just hoping he has a really great time.  So instead, I’ll write about my recent trip to June Lake Loop and the ravages of the California drought.

For those of you who live in Southern California you are probably familiar with Mammoth Lakes, a renowned ski town and home of several Olympians.  It is a place that my husband has visited yearly since 1960 and we have been going there together since the mid-80’s.  As someone who grew up going to Lake Tahoe,  I always considered “the Lake” to be the most beautiful mountain retreat in the Sierras.  And truly, it IS spectacular. But there is something about the eastern escarpment of the Sierras around Mammoth Lakes that takes your breath away.  Rather than the gently sloping foothills that you see on the western side, the eastern stretch juts out at a sharp angle from the flat terrain.  Mammoth is also higher than Tahoe – the town sits at about 7800 feet and the top of the mountain (which I have been crazy enough to ski down) is at a staggering 11,000 ft.

The Aptly named "Oh" Ridge

The Aptly named “Oh” Ridge

When we travel there in the summer we usually make a point of driving the June Lake Loop, a five-mile stretch of Highway 158 that is approximately mid-way between Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining.  The loop is literally a horseshoe-shaped road that sits between the eastern Sierras and the four lakes that rim the road: June, Gull, Silver and Grant. Six hundred and twenty-nine brave souls live along the shores of the loop as permanent residents, but the population swells to thousands during the summer and fall.  It is the ideal place for fisherman, backpackers and day hikers.  They also have added a new spa which is attractive to people like me who leave their siblings to do the “outdoor” stuff.  This year we made the trip again, partly to see how the drought had affected one of our favorite spots.  As we entered Highway 158 coming north from Mammoth Lakes the first site we came is Oh! Ridge.  As you can see from the picture (right) the ridge earned its name.  I can’t remember a time when upon coming to that point I didn’t say “OH!”.  This picture was taken from my car window as my husband was trying to avoid the jerk driver behind us who was tailgating.  So you can imagine just how gorgeous the picture would be if we had actually stopped.  Still, you get the idea.  Although we had been reading a lot about the California drought, and June Lake was definitely down from previous years, it still looked pretty good.  A bit past the ridge we entered the village of June Lake, the hub of the loop.  It is where most of the population lives, where the businesses are and is adjacent to the June Mountain ski area, a favorite of locals.  There are several good little motels and best of all, an ice cream store.

Gull Lake is a litter harder to see from the roadway but sports its own marina and is a great place for fishing.  A mile down the road is the beautiful Silver Lake.  It is situated such that it often has a reflection of the mountain on the water and is another breathtaking site.  Unfortunately we were there on a cloudy day so it wasn’t showing its best side to us but is beautiful none the less.  I always have a soft spot in my heart for the only business on the lake, the Silver Lake Resort and Café.  It has been in business since the 1920’s, making it one of the oldest recreation resorts in the Sierras.  Make no mistake, “resort” is stretching the term a bit.  It is the type of place that sells everything from tee shirts to fishing lures at the check-out counter.  But back in the late 80’s when we embarked on this trip I had had a few too many…coffees.  There wasn’t a proprietor in June Lake who would let me use a restroom.  But the kind owners of the Silver Lake Resort saved the day, and my bladder, and I will always be grateful.  Again, Silver Lake looked a bit recessed but not alarmingly so.

The depleted Grant Lake

The depleted Grant Lake

The last lake on the loop is Grant Lake, by far the largest of the four.  It serves as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct so its level is constantly changing depending on how much water is being sucked out of it to head south.  Given the relatively good conditions at June and Silver Lakes we were not prepared for what we saw as we rounded the bend and Grant came into view.  While the photo I took (left) shows some beautiful colors, I quickly realized that I was looking at brush and other flora that used to be underwater.  Trucks and boats were parked on its shores where water used to be.    The marina, which previously sat at the center point of the shoreline is now at its most northern edge.  After spending much of our summer traveling California this was the first time we came face to face with the ravages of the drought.


Snow in October!

We left “the Loop” and headed north to Lee Vining to see what Mono Lake looked like.  In past years when the water is low the two islands in the middle of the lake seem to be attached.  As Mono came into view it was clear that not only were the two islands seemingly connected, you could walk from one to the other without so much as getting your toes wet.  We headed back to Mammoth Lakes very depressed by what we had seen.  I’m not sure there’s enough water conservation techniques in the world that can bring Grant and Mono Lakes back up to normal levels.  The weather nerds are predicting a record-breaking El Nino this year and I sure hope they are right.  I won’t mind cancelling a few plans if it means the Sierras get dumped with snow. 

The next day, perhaps a portent of things to come, it started to rain.  The following morning we awoke to snow on the mountaintops.  We can only hope there is much more on the way.