The Astounding Tufa of Mono Lake

The wonder-filled state preserve is open to visitors.

Alysia Gray Painter

'TIS THE SEASON... for spooky yard displays. Creepy flying saucers made from paper plates dangle from oak trees and webs made of crepe paper dangle from porches and monstrous figures, full of crumbled newspaper, glower from driveways. And while these all charm -- anyone taking a tree full of flying saucers gets an immediate upvote -- there are otherworldly scenes to be found in the natural world. The blocky Devils Postpile is one, yes, and a perfect October destination, but alas: The government shutdown of 2013 means that the autumnal favorite is not open. Not far from Devils Postpile, in California terms at least, is another otherworldly wonder, and this one is open. It's a state preserve, so visitors are welcome, and the strange sight awaiting people? Why it is tufa. Which is a giveaway to the place, of course: It's Mono Lake, "an ancient saline lake" dotted with globby, chunky tufa formations. Think limestone, but don't think of any limestone wonder you've seen before. The Mono Lake wonders have their own supernatural, slightly surreal air. They're even a bit ghosty. And if you see them and say to your friend, "say, doesn't this all feel like this could be on the inside sleeve of a Pink Floyd album, or something?" you'd be totally right.

AND WHILE... the tufa is kind of the obvious superstar of the Eastern Sierra-close lake -- which its official site puts at about 760,000 years old -- we're rather partial to the migratory birds that love to pay it a visit, and, yes, even the famous and eensy-weensy alkali flies that move about the shore in gentle clouds. Please, please, please don't forget your camera. Will three "pleases" be enough? Or, better yet, sign up for an upcoming photography seminar. It truly is an odd spot and the tufa could hail from a Hollywood backlot. But it wasn't used as a backdrop in some outer space flick; it was made here on earth over a very, very long time. Call it October authentic as you go road-tripping in search of your next surreal and slightly spooky scene.

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