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Mono County: California’s Fall Heartland

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Lundy Canyon trail, Mono County. (Ari Burack/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In the shadow of the Eastern Sierras, Mono County’s ghosts slumber amid threads of autumn color.

The former gold-mining town of Bodie, with its frigid winters at more than 8,000 feet, once was home to nearly 10,000 souls, two churches and 56 bars during its raucous heyday in the 1880s. It finally emptied of townsfolk in 1962. Now park rangers — as few as five during the off-season — watch over the windy high-desert tourist spot and keep its spirits company. There are tales of an aged woman in white occasionally seen peering from the second-floor window of one of the homes here. The skeletons of abandoned shops, churches and stamp mills creak under layers of dust, in the wind and bleaching light.

Along Highway 395, which threads between the mountains and the Nevada border, leaves of tangerine, saffron and emerald drip from the hills amid the rivulets of water that feed them. Above, snow and ice from recent rains cap the jagged peaks that encircle multitudes of alpine lakes. This is October in eastern California, attracting eager photographers, hikers and sightseers to revel in the changes.

Pilot Ed Roski, who does helicopter tours as well as search-and-rescue work in the area, and has 30 years’ experience flying in as diverse and beautiful locations as Brazil, Hawaii and Mt. Everest, doesn’t mince words when it comes to his feelings about Mono County.

“It is the most beautiful place to see from the air in the entire world,” Roski said.

The high altitude, stern gusts and air currents can make flying dangerous here — the wreckage of adventurer Steve Fossett’s plane was discovered in nearby Madera County in 2008 — but you wouldn’t know it from Roski’s steady, capable piloting over towering granite spires and volcanic calderas and through narrow canyons. Noting the dramatic geologic contrasts and seasonal variation of Mono County, he added, “Here you’ve got so much change and diversity. And you can see what’s happened with time.”

Time hasn’t — in recent decades, anyway — been too kind to shrinking Mono Lake, the county’s most well-known attraction, famed for its statuesque calcium carbonate tufa sculpted by underwater springs. However, the 45,000-acre basin, where water has been collecting for about three million years, has been slowly recovering.

After Los Angeles began diversion in 1941, lake waters dropped more than 40 feet before a group of locals formed the Mono Lake Committee and sued. Since a 1994 court decision in their favor to establish a management water level roughly in between the prediversion level and the historic low, its waters have slowly risen. Drought is yet another huge challenge.

“Everybody is happy that the decision is in place, to reach the management level,” said Bartshe Miller, education director at the committee’s information center in Lee Vining. “The lake’s not there yet, so there’s still work to be done.”

Employment in Mono County relies almost completely on tourism, whether for Mono Lake, the Mammoth Lakes ski resort, or the fishing and skiing resorts of lovely June Lake. Agriculture is a distant second. The drought has impacted both. In addition to start-up breweries and a food truck, the county has also begun attracting the film industry. In neighborhood bars where so many of life’s imponderables are hashed out, locals gossip about a movie being filmed in the area for the Lifetime television network, and wonder about their prospects.

“They need any extras?” one man asked. Another mourned his difficult work in the hospitality sector. “This was the life we chose,” his drinking companion answered.

Spring and fall — before fishing season and after the summer rush of hikers, bikers and festival-goers — have historically been especially difficult times to earn a living here, according to Alicia Vennos, the county’s economic development director.

“There’s no doubt, it can be a challenge because of the seasonality,” Vennos said. “We’re trying to close the gap on that.”

Mono County has been aggressively promoting its September and October colors to visitors, in addition to spring wildflower viewing and year-round catch-and-release fishing, in an effort to bolster the shoulder-season economy. According to Vennos, it’s working. The county saw an increase of more than 12 percent in tourism-related jobs last year, a boon for a region as remote as it is dramatic.

For those willing to make the trek, beauty awaits.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at www.openskylight.blogspot.com.

IF YOU GO:

Bodie State Historic Park: Explore the ghostly history of one of California’s most picturesque former gold-mining towns. $8 adults; $5 children 3-17. From Highway 395 seven miles south of Bridgeport, take Route 270 (Bodie Road) 13 miles to Bodie. www.parks.ca.gov

Skytime Helicopter Tours: Helicopter pilot Ed Roski offers spectacular tailored individual flights over the mountains, Mono Lake, June Lake and more. Trips are available year-round, and start at $88 per person. Depart from the Mammoth Yosemite Airport. www.skytime.com

Lundy Canyon Trail: One of several beautiful hikes to experience the explosion of Mono County’s autumn color. A narrow, moderate-to-steep trail takes you deeper into the canyon, past waterfalls to Lake Helen. From Highway 395 north of Lee Vining, turn at Lundy Lake Road, drive west past Lundy Lake until the road turns to dirt, and then a shorter distance to the trailhead.

Silver Lake Cafe and Whoa Nellie Deli: A pair of tasty and affordable options: the former a friendly greasy spoon with hearty portions located at the Silver Lake Resort along the June Lake loop (state Highway 158) and the latter inside a Mobil gas station — offering everything from fish tacos to buffalo meatloaf — where the Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120) from Yosemite meets Highway 395 in Lee Vining.

Double Eagle Resort and Spa: The rustic mountain resort offers upscale amenities, a spa and fitness center, dining and modern cabins. An ideal jumping-off point to witness the fall colors of June Lake and the rest of Mono County. 5587 Route 158, June Lake. www.doubleeagle.com

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