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Exploring the Trona Pinnacles at Sunset

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It’s quite easy to visit another plant, without all the hassles of interstellar travel.  You can have an out-of-this-world experience just a few hours north of Los Angeles, at a place called the Trona Pinnacles.  It’s a landscape so weird, it has served as the backdrop for numerous alien worlds, in Hollywood movies and commercials.  And if you have something much simpler than a moon buggy — let’s say, a 4-wheel-drive — you can pretend you’re aboard a Mars rover and do some serious exploring.

Location

Trona Pinnacles are located south of Trona, California, along Highway 178.  If you set your GPS for Trona (the town), you’ll overshoot the turnoff by several miles.  Instead, watch for the turnoff to Pinnacles Road, 7 miles south of Trona.  From the turnoff, it’s 5 miles on a dirt road to the Pinnacles.

My Visit

I spent the better part of Day Two of my California vacation racing across the desert, hoping to get to my final destination for the day at the perfect time.  I had never been to the Trona Pinnacles before, but I’ve seen them many times in the movies.

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This train didn’t help with my time crunch.  After waiting at the railroad crossing…

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… then heading down this desolate dirt road for a few miles, I finally reached the pinnacle(s) of my journey.

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Shadows were already growing long when I arrived.  I wish I had gotten here a half-hour earlier — it would have given me more time to line-up some nice shots.  Instead, I had to move quickly.

The Trona Pinnacles consist of more than 500 calcium carbonate “tufa” spires, which were formed underwater millennia ago, when this area was at the bottom of the ancient Searles Lake. The lake water was highly alkaline (the opposite of acidity), and ground water was loaded with calcium, and together the two formed the tufa pinnacles.  Over the ages, the climate changed, the lake disappeared, and the tufa were left standing.

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The Trona Pinnacles are protected as a National Natural Landmark, so you shouldn’t go offroad or do anything crazy that would destroy the natural environment.  But fortunately, you don’t have to.  There’s a dirt path that loops around and over the pinnacles, and it’s loads of fun to drive.  While you can reach the area with a two-wheel-drive vehicle, it’s probably a good idea to have a 4-wheel-drive if you’re going any farther than the parking lot.

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The shadows move quickly, when it gets close to sunset time.  It doesn’t help that there’s a hill to the west, which starts to block the sun before you’re expecting it.  But, I still managed to get a few nice shots…

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… showing a soft pink glow on the surrounding mountains.

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In addition to the dirt roads that criss-cross the area, there are some hiking trails that take you to some nice viewpoints.  I didn’t have much time for them, unfortunately, because it was getting dark, and I still had a long way to drive.

So what has been filmed here?  Perhaps most famously, the tufa spires at Trona Pinnacles provided a backdrop for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  Lost In Space and Planet of the Apes also used the area for filming, as did Disney’s Dinosaur and Battlestar Galactica.

The Bottom Line

It’s worth the time to make the detour out to Trona Pinnacles.  The landscape is great, and the dirt roads around the pinnacles are a lot of fun.  Plan to spend a couple of hours here, if you can.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the time-lapse video of the drive around the Trona Pinnacles:

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