Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles
0.5 miles loop, 80 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Rough gravel road to trailhead, no entrance fee

The otherworldly tufa towers of the Trona Pinnacles rise out of the Searles Dry Lake in the middle of California's Mojave Desert and have stood in for extraterrestrial landscapes in many Hollywood movies, including Planet of the Apes and Star Trek. Quite far from any of California's major metropolitan areas, the pinnacles are closest to the mining town of Trona, from which the pinnacles take their name, and the town of Ridgecrest outside the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Center. While the pinnacles can be seen from a driving tour, this short ramble through the heart of the pinnacles will allow visitors to see these odd geological formations close up and escape the hordes of campervans and tents that dot the outskirts of the formation. 

I visited the Trona Pinnacles at sunrise during a November trip to Death Valley National Park. From the center of Ridgecrest, I took California Highway 178 east for 17 miles through the Mojave Desert and turned right onto the Pinnacles Road; a BLM sign for Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark marked the turnoff. I turned onto this gravel road and then bore right at the first junction; I followed the Pinnacles Road for the next six miles, crossing the Trona Railway and then descending down a steep, bumpy slope at the very end to reach the Trona Pinnacles. The road was in bad shape with potholes and deep tracks left by cars that plowed through when the road was wet, especially in the early part of the drive; later on, the road became quite rocky. I handled the road fine in a 2WD sedan but I could see this road requiring higher clearance if it deteriorates further. A dirt road encircled the Pinnacles and was enjoyable to drive; to reach the trailhead, I turned right upon reaching the loop and then pulled out into a large dirt parking area on the inner side of the loop.

Trona Pinnacles from the approach road
There was not really much of a formal trail through these 50-to-100-foot tall pinnacles, just a network of social paths. Leaving the parking area, I followed these social paths through the pinnacles, approaching some of them close up and getting a better overview of the area as I climbed up to the bases of these tufa towers. This spot in the Mojave Desert was ringed by mountains: Telescope Peak, a soaring summit in the Panamint Range, rose to the north, while the Argus and Slate Ranges bound the nearby basin. While there were numerous tents pitched on the land surrounding the pinnacles and plenty of cars and campervans parked on the outskirts of the pinnacles, the area at the heart of the formation was thankfully not overrun.

Telescope Peak rises above the Trona Pinnacles
How did these remarkable rock pinnacles end up in the middle of the Mojave Desert? The answer lies to the north where one can spot the coal-fired power plant and mining operations associated with the town of Trona. The borax operations of Trona mine the mineral-rich evaporite basin of the Searles Dry Lake. In previous ice ages, the desert basins of the endorheic Great Basin were once filled with lakes; the Trona Pinnacles were once at the bottom of ancient Searles Lake. These pinnacles are tufa towers, forming in a similar manner to the better known tufa formations at Mono Lake. Mineral-rich springs bubbling into Searles Lake resulted in chemical reactions that deposited these calcium carbonate towers above the springs. As the waters of Searles Lake receded, the Trona Pinnacles were exposed to the desert.

Trona Pinnacles
Tufa towers
I enjoyed a half-hour of wandering through this remarkable landscape and drove the loop around the outskirts of the pinnacles before continuing on my way to Death Valley National Park. The Trona Pinnacles are a bizarre and beautiful sight and while it might not be worth driving out here for the pinnacles alone, they make for a nice stop for visitors going to Ridgecrest or who are on their way to Death Valley.

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