Exploring the Trona Pinnacles, Mojave Desert

Exploring the Trona Pinnacles, Mojave Desert


Just three hours north of Los Angeles, the Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark is a unique, other-worldy landscape of towering tufa pinnacles against the starkly beautiful backdrop of the Mojave Desert. Once the bed of an ancient lake, the remote location is easy to access, and there are a number of trails and dirt roads that lead through the pinnacles to amazing views and secluded campsites. There’s nowhere else like it in California.

First view of Trona Pinnacles from the dirt road leading to the preserve

First view of Trona Pinnacles from the dirt road leading to the preserve

Details

Address: Look up map directions to 78625 Pinnacle Road, Trona, CA 93562, and then continue on the dirt road for 6 miles until you reach the pinnacles (more details below)
Drive Time: 3 hrs from Los Angeles
Cost: $0
Facilities: Vault toilet, no running water
Camping: Yes, details below
More Info: Ridgecrest BLM office 760.384.5400

Highlights

Tufa pinnacles, desert landscape, hiking trails, camping, starry nights, and wildflowers if you’re there in the spring.

This is the path closest to the main parking area

This is the trail closest to the main parking area

All these little roads lead to spots you can set up camp

All these little roads lead to spots you can set up camp throughout the pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Our Itinerary

We left Los Angeles at dawn and arrived by about 9AM, stopping for breakfast in Mojave on the way. We spent several hours driving around the network of roads, jumping out to take photos, and to take shorts hikes. Around 1PM, we took shelter from the sun in the shade of the truck over by the main parking area, and made some lunch. Both kids asked for bowls of hot spicy ramen. The perfect meal when it’s 100°F. We all took naps, and then explored more in the few hours before sunset. Sunset was beautiful against the pinnacles. At around 9PM, I drove the three hours back to L.A. It was a loooong drive home. We should have stayed the night.

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Hiking through the pinnacles

Hiking through the pinnacles

Looking for bugs

Looking for bugs

Exploring the Area

Once you arrive at the pinnacles, you’ll see signs for the scenic loop drive that takes you through the main formations and returns you back to the main lot. If you’re just visiting for a short time, this is the thing to do. You’ll be stopping to take photos every two minutes. There are trails and roads everywhere along the way if you have more time. The main trail up into the pinnacles is just off the parking area near the bathrooms.

Some rules for exploring. Stay on established roads and trails, do not collect wood for fires, and do not climb the tufas. The arid habitat appears to be rugged and tough, but it is fragile. The harsh conditions makes recovering from damage very difficult.

Warning – Any car is fine driving the dirt to the pinnacles, but I wouldn’t drive the scenic loop unless you have a high clearance vehicle. Do not drive through the sand washes unless you have a 4-wheel drive. There is no mobile phone signal out there if you get stuck.

There are a number of roads that wind through the pinnacles

There are a number of roads that wind through the pinnacles

Looking toward the southern pinnacles

Looking toward the southern pinnacles

Walking through the southern pinnacles

Walking through the southern pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles Camping

The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which means camping is free, no reservations are required, and there are no designated campsites. That said, the BLM encourages campers to use existing campsites and fire rings. There is one vault toilet where the access road first meets the pinnacles. Near the bathroom, there is a large flat area where a few RVs were parked. I’ve seen photos of people camping in tent there as well. Or follow one of the many two-track dirt roads through the pinnacles to find a more remote site. There is no running water or firewood available. Camping is limited to 14 days.

Kids walking across the large lot next to the Trona Pinnacles where a couple RVs were parked for the nght

Kids walking across the large lot next to the Trona Pinnacles where a couple RVs were parked for the night

Mid-day we took shelter in the shade of the truck and made some lunch

Mid-day we took shelter in the shade of the truck and made some lunch. There are a number of stone fire rings like this assembled where folks have camped before.

Trona Pinnacles Geology and History

The entire basin on which the pinnacles sit is the dry bed of Searless Lake, one of a series of lakes that stretched from Mono Lake to Death Valley during the Pleistocene era. The tufa pinnacles were formed underwater between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago. They are composed primarily of calcium carbonate and algae. At the bottom of the lake, calcium-rich groundwater and alkaline lake water combined to grow the tufa formations. There are three sets of tufa formations – northern, middle, and southern – all of different ages and characteristic shapes. Makes sure to stop and read all the info displays to get the details.

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles Plants and Animals

With annual rainfall at only about three inches per year, and temperatures above 115°F in the summer, Trona is a tough place to live. Despite that, the area is home to falcons, ravens, foxes, coyotes, kangaroo rats, desert iguanas, horned lizards, and rattlesnakes. Also, it’s home to the endangered desert tortoise. If you see a tortoise, don’t touch it. When we were there in April, it had just rained and the wildflowers were in full bloom. The entire area for miles around was buzzing with great bugs scrambling to find flowers, and the sky was filled with a million butterflies. It was incredible.

Apparently if you startle a tortoise, it pees itself, and then dies

Apparently if you startle a tortoise, it pees itself, and then dies

It was surprisingly green the day we were there

It was surprisingly green the day we were there

Because the flowers were blooming, there were butterflies, caterpillars, and many other bugs around

Because the flowers were blooming, there were butterflies, caterpillars, and many other interesting bugs around, like dragonflies and beetles

Blooming wildflowers at the Trona Pinnacles

Blooming wildflowers at the Trona Pinnacles

Getting There

The Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark is about 20 miles east of Ridgecrest, CA, close to three hours north of Los Angeles. Take Hwy 178 off the 14 through Ridgecrest heading east. About 8 miles after the intersection of the 178 and Trona Mountain Road, you’ll see a sign on the right for the pinnacles. Follow the bumpy BLM dirt road (RM143) for about 7 miles.

We did it in a day from Los Anageles, and it was tough. If you’re spending the whole day at Trona, I recommend camping overnight or grabbing a hotel in Ridgecrest. That said, it’s absolutely worth a quick visit if you’re on your way up to Mammoth from Los Angeles. You can see a lot in just an hour or two. Have fun!

Test pilots from the nearby Airforce base flying low through Trona Pinnacles

Test pilots from the nearby Airforce base flying low through Trona Pinnacles

Tough to beat the desert golden hour

Tough to beat the desert golden hour

Sun setting on Trona Pinnacles

Sun setting on Trona Pinnacles

I was hoping to stay to see some stars but 10 hours in the desert was enough for the kids

I was hoping to stay to see some stars but 10 hours in the desert was enough for the kids, so we left soon after sunset

12 Comments

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  1. Jenna

    This area looks really gorgeous! The landscape is so pretty and I love that it’s accessible enough to explore in a day but has enough to do that you could spend days there as well. We will definitely have to add this to our list, thanks!

  2. Fiona @ London-Unattached

    More fabulous pictures. We used to do much the same with my parents when they lived in Saudi and Libya. Mum was always a bit nervous – generally two families went together to make sure if one car broke down, there was a backup!

  3. Aileen

    Those are amazing views! You truly encapsulated the look of the place with your photos :) I haven’t been to a dessert area yet so I’m looking forward to it!

  4. Jennifer

    I lived in California for a long time an didn’t know about this place. Your photos of the place and the day are fantastic. But I can imagine staying over might have been a good plan!

  5. noel

    Wow, I really loved that shilouette image with your daughter and the light captured behind the mountains, stunning – definitely worth waiting for the late afternoon light to sunset because the vibrant colors bring out the best of any harsh environment.

  6. Claudia

    I love your opening line: “Just 3 hours away” – it makes me realise once more that we have a completely difference sense of distance here in Italy. We would never say something is “just” 3 hours away, because to us that is a lot!! Anyways, it surely looks like your trip was worth the drive :)

  7. Kate

    What an incredible landscape! I feel like I learnt a lot about these formations reading your post. Its hard to imagine that area was covered in water thousands of years ago. I had no idea a desert tortoise existed either. The sunset looks beautiful. Great photos and information

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