Still a month away from spring break, we were in desperate need of a mini-adventure to tide us over. Ever since reading about the Black Point Fissures over on Lady on a Rock, I’ve been wanting to get down to Mono Lake to check them out. With a receding snow pack and warm temperatures forecasted for Saturday, it looked like the perfect weekend to climb a volcano.
Mono Lake is about 2 hours south of Carson City on HWY 395. It’s a very scenic drive and goes by pretty quickly. The roads were good the entire way, with mostly just patchy snow in the hills between Walker and Conway Summit. The snow cleared as we descended down to Mono Lake.
Just off the north shore of Mono Lake lies the volcano Black Point, a low, mesa-like mountain of black ash. Black Point erupted about 13,000 years ago following the last ice age, when Mono Lake swelled to five times its current size and nearly ten times its current depth. At that time of its eruption, Black Point was located under water, which probably accounts for its unusual flattened top and the 20 – 50′ deep fissures on its southwestern face. The fissures are only a few feet wide, resembling the slot canyons of southern Utah.
There are a couple ways to get to the Black Point trailhead. The easiest way is to take the Cemetery Road turnoff at the north end of Mono Lake on HWY 395, and just follow the signs as you head around to the east side of Black Point. That’s not the way we came in though. We took route 167 east past the point, then came in from the north. We guessed on some of the turns, and ended up driving around an old ranch trying to find the right road. Thankfully I got a phone signal and was able to pull up a satellite map. We eventually got back on the right track and made our way to the trailhead. Cemetery Road is a well graded dirt road, but the final dirt road to the trailhead is an uneven jeep road. Low clearance vehicles will have to be careful on this stretch.
Although I’m calling this a trailhead, I only mean that there is parking and an informational kiosk. Nothing more. From this point on, it’s up to the hiker to find the way to the top of the mountain and the fissures. Thankfully, if you just head up the mountain to west, you’ll find your way just fine. To make it easier, I used my GPS to navigate to the peak of Black Point.
Although not a far hike, the side of the hill is mostly sandy, and you have to navigate your way around brush and sticker bushes. You can’t see the top of Black Point until you are almost there. Near the top you reach ledges that are made of hardened mud and rock. The rock offers great traction unless it’s covered in debris. Then be careful, because the little round volcanic rocks are like walking on ball bearings.
The top of Black Point makes a great first destination. There are great views in all directions, and it gives you a good layout of the land. Just off to the northwest you can see the fissures. We headed to the north end of the fissures, and would eventually follow them to the southwest.
As we approached the fissures, they looked like nothing more than sand washes from a distance. It’s not until you get right next to them that you can see how deep they are. For this reason, it’s probably a good idea to keep young kids and pets close by as you approach the fissures.
Even though the fissures have steep edges, they are actually quite easy to enter. Many of the fissures can be just walked into on either end, and others are a simple climb down.
Right away my son pointed out the similarities to the lava tubes we explored last year at Lava Beds National Monument. Hardened bubbly lava still lines the walls in some places, and even though they’re not caves, they have the same damp musty smell. And just like caves, the temperature drops noticeably in some of the deeper fissures.
Occasionally there would be a tight squeeze to get to the next section. I had to take my pack off for a couple of the tighter spots and hand it through. Icy snow throughout the fissures also added a fun challenge to the hike.
Earlier, my son and I talked about getting a photo of him jumping across one of the fissures. But after spending some time down in them, my parent instincts took over and I decided against it. He almost certainly could have done it easily in some places, but I kept thinking, “What if…?”.
The last fissure at the edge of the plateau was the narrowest and deepest of the day. It was only a couple feet wide, just wide enough to walk through. The top was high above our heads, and there was ice on the walls where the water trickled down into the fissure.
After we got our fill of the fissures, we took a break overlooking Mono Lake with expansive views of the still snowy Sierras. Mono Lake is one of those places where everything is so vast, that the awesomeness of the lake, desert, and mountains seems to re-energize the body. Being outside is sometimes the best medicine.
From the end of the fissures, we headed south towards Mono Lake. I hadn’t realized how high we still were when we came to the edge of the black sand face of Black Point. These black volcanic sands are obviously where Black Point gets its name, and are clearly visible from the highway. By the time I got there, my son had already ran all the way to the bottom. We followed his lead, and ran down the steep slope, taking giant steps all the way.
Down at the lake shore, the smells were similar to the ocean. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine yourself at the sea, with only the lack of huge crashing waves absent. Mono Lake has over twice the salinity levels of the ocean, and doesn’t support a fish habitat. The rocks that line the shore were covered in salt crystals left behind by the evaporating water. There is still plenty of life in and along the lake though. Brine shrimp and algae dominate the aquatic life, and alkali flies buzz along the shoreline. Along with the shrimp, the flies are a important source of food for many bird species. We hiked along the mysterious lake shore as we returned back to the trailhead.
Before heading back home, we wanted to get something to eat in Lee Vining. Normally this little town is bustling in the summer months, and we were surprised at how many businesses were closed for the season. Luckily we found the roadside diner Nicely’s open, where we found good burgers, beer, and a huge sundae.
On the way home we wanted to check out Travertine Hot Springs near Bridgeport. By the time we got there though it was nearly dark. We drove to the hot springs, but the boy and I couldn’t find the hot pools as we hiked around in the dark. I’ve since looked at the map, and we were no more than 50 feet away from them. But now that we know exactly where they are, we’ll be back to check them out our next time down there.
The complete photoset of this trip can be found on Flickr here.