Trona Pinnacles National Landmark
Day Trippin' with Mel
November 11, 2023
One fine October day not long ago I decided to wash my car. It looked so nice when it was all clean and shiny.
And then the next day I decided to visit the Trona Pinnacles. I wish I would have waited on that car wash. Visiting the Pinnacles is a dusty proposition... and the way to do it is by car. My poor little Ford Escape looked like a very large dust bunny when I got home.
Oh well, it was a beautiful, cool fall day – a perfect day to spend in the desert.
Twenty 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.
Sizes and shapes of the rocky spires vary, and there are over 500 of them, some reaching a height of 140 feet. They are some of the finest examples of tufa formations (calcium carbonate) anywhere in North America; many of the formations are named for their resemblance to birds or animals (several information boards are located on the dirt road in). The unique, ragged silhouettes of the formations have prompted the appropriate description of "a landscape from another world."
The 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 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.
Note: I don't have four-wheel drive, and thanks to the recent tropical summer storm there is a lot of sand on the five-mile access road. In a couple of spots I was worried I might get stuck (and I did slide around a bit) but I ended up making it through all right. If you only have two-wheel drive and are nervous about that sort of road, this is not the day trip for you.
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, and there are no services or onsite hosts/rangers either. The site is open year-round but note that heavy winter or spring rains may make the access road temporarily impassible. And count on it being hot there – it is, after all, in the Searless Dry Lake basin in the Mojave Desert.
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/GPS service.
To get there, take CA-58 to CA-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 Junction (AKA Four Corners) and then take the 395 North to the Trona turn off near Johannesburg (that will take you to the 178). There are some shortcuts along the way, too, if you feel like exploring other dirt roads and have a good current map, but because the storm caused many small road closures, I advise staying on the main highways.
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 none of the above 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... dust and all.
© 2023 Mel Makaw. Mel is a local writer/photographer and avid day-tripper; she welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.