The Trona Pinnacles have costarred as backdrop in sci-fi epics like Planet of the Apes and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but seeing these tufa towers in person is far more jaw-dropping than the virtual version.
When you stand before this rock fantasy, your feet are firmly planted on what was once the bottom of Searles Lake, one in a chain of interconnected inland seas during the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The towers are made of calcium carbonate, formed underwater (just like the tufas at Mono Lake) roughly 10,000 to 100,000 years ago. About 500 tufas rise from the dry-lake basin, the tallest reaching 140 feet.
You can drive on scenic loops around many of the formations, but you’ll want to get out on foot and feel the rock’s sharp, coral-like texture with your bare hands. A short hiking trail loops through tufas in the northern group beside the parking lot. This group also includes shapes called tombstones, ridges, and cones. Even better: Get off the trail and wander like an astronaut stranded on a barren planet. The miracle—the marvel—is that this ancient, alien landscape exists on our own beloved Earth.
TIPS: This area is very remote with no facilities, so bring plenty of water. You’ll need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle to reach the middle and southern groups. Avoid visiting during rainy weather—you risk getting stuck in mud on the dirt-road approach. Trona is a popular filming location. Contact the BLM before visiting and ask about scheduled production shoots that might detract from your experience.
CAMP: The Searles Lake basin is a remarkable place to experience sunset and to bask in the cosmos after dark. Dispersed camping is allowed for up to 14-day stays at no charge on BLM land surrounding the tufas.
Trona Pinnacles is located about 20 miles east of Ridgecrest. From Los Angeles, take US-395 north. Turn right onto Trona Rd. and right onto CA-178 east. After 7 miles, turn right onto Pinnacle Rd. Follow this road 4 miles south to reach Trona Pinnacles.