The otherworldly Trona Pinnacles
Day Trippin' with Mel
May 14, 2022
If you like rocks and rock formations and geological wonders, you'll love visiting the Trona Pinnacles. I took off to see them again on a recent Tuesday.
Just about 20 miles east of Ridgecrest on SR 178, a BLM sign marks the turn to the Trona Pinnacles National Landmark, and although you can see them from the highway, at that distance the pinnacles look rather small and relatively uninteresting. Taking the five-mile dirt road (washboard and rocky and sandy) across the desert right up into the unique geological wonders is, however, well worth the effort.
Over 500 rocky spires – some of the finest examples of tufa formations (calcium carbonate) anywhere in North America – rise up from the Searless Dry Lake basin in a 15-square-mile area of BLM land, some as high as 140 feet. Sizes and shapes vary, and many of the formations are named for their resemblance to birds or animals (several information boards are located on the dirt road in). The ragged silhouettes of the formations have prompted the appropriate description of "a landscape from another world."
The unique, out-of-the-way and "otherworldly" area is also a favorite filming location, such as for the remake of "Planet of the Apes" as well as "Lost in Space," "Star Trek V, The Final Frontier," and "Battlestar Galactica."
So you can always watch for the Trona Pinnacles in movies, commercials or television shows, but seeing them on a screen will not compare with the experience of driving out and spending an hour or more seeing them in real life, up close and in person.
You can drive right up to the pinnacles but be sure to stay on the designated roads. By the way, you don't need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there, but good tires and good shocks and a willingness to ignore the dust and enjoy the rocky roads and sights will make your day a little more enjoyable.
The area is open – no fences or safety rails but roads are marked with rock borders – and if you hike around you should wear sturdy boots (the tufa is sharp and can cut like coral). Off-road vehicles are welcome but must stay on designated trails. Picnicking and primitive camping are also permitted, but there are no developed sites, no shade or tables, and no water; one vault-type toilet is available. Visitors are expected to pack out whatever they pack in.
There is no cost to tour the pinnacles, but neither are there any services or onsite host/ranger. The site is open year-round but note that heavy winter or spring rains may make the access road temporarily impassible, and temperatures in summertime can get over 115 degrees.
If you go, remember that any route you take will mean a lot of desert driving. Be sure you have plenty of gas and extra water in the car, and maybe a paper map – many of the places along the way, including in the pinnacle area itself, have no cell phone service.
Several routes will get you there from Tehachapi. You can take the 58 to 14 North to 178 East (which will take you through the towns of Inyokern and Ridgecrest). You could also take the 58 to Kramer's Jct (aka Four Corners) and then take the 395 North to the 178 East. There are shortcuts along the way if you feel like exploring (follow the signs to Trona, a little town a few miles on down the 178 from the pinnacles).
If you're familiar with the area like I am, you can take the 14 North and turn off on the Garlock/Johannesburg Road and follow that road to Johannesburg where you can jump on the 395 – or take the Randsburg Road turnoff and go through Randsburg on your way to Johannesburg. Just past Johannesburg you can turn north on Trona Road from the 395, which will hook you up with 178 east of Ridgecrest (go east then on to the pinnacles, following the signs to Trona).
Typically there are few other people there at any given time; the pinnacles are off the beaten path and appeal to rock hounds/geologists and desert rats more than anyone else. Personally, I'm neither but I do love exploring and experiencing different types of landscapes than the ones I'm most used to; the otherworldly landscape of the Trona Pinnacles certainly fits that bill.
© 2022 Marilda Mel White. Mel is a local writer/photographer and avid day-tripper; she welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.