One of my last destinations on my winter road trip through the American Southwest was the Trona Pinnacles. They serve as famous scenes for a handful of famous movies. In spite of this, they are so far off the beaten track that they don't get regularly visited except by a few photographers and wanderers like myself. Here's my guide.
Getting to Trona Pinnacles
The Trona Pinnacles are on open BLM Land near Ridgecrest, California. Also nearby is the company town of Searles Valley where the mining operations continue at nearby Searles Lake. Its a desolate looking place reminiscent of the Mad Max Movies.
The turnoff for Trona Pinnacles is 16.7 miles from the intersection of Business 395 and CA-178 in Ridgecrest. Drive East on CA-178 for about 20 minutes. I missed the turnoff for Trona Pinnacles initially but Google Maps got me back okay. If you start hitting the outskirts of Searles Valley, you've gone too far.
I took the most obvious Southbound road from here, mostly paralleling some railroad tracks. After 1.2 miles of driving, the road doglegged across the tracks and then paralleled the other side of the tracks. On clearer days, the Pinnacles remain in view the entire time. Today, there were constant tropical-storm strength winds blowing across the road which is not uncommon. At exactly 3.0 miles after crossing the railroad tracks, I ran into an intersection and saw obvious signs of travel. I took a left on this road and the wind died down; the loop road around the Trona Pinnacles was clearly visible.
Altogether, I did not have trouble navigating the road in my Subaru Outback. It was graded and muddy in some sections but descent given the remoteness of the area. Cell reception was non-existent.
Here's a map of my driving route and the region I explored:
Exploring the Trona Pinnacles
There is a main loop road that encircles some of the tallest Trona Pinnacles which I think are known as The Middle Group. To the East and South there are more Pinnacles but I think they can only be hiked, not driven.
Around the area, there's a few interpretive signs description the formation of the Trona Pinnacles and their role in cinema. Star Trek buffs know the Trona Pinnacles for the famous scene in The Final Frontier.
Although you can drive all the way around the Middle Group, there's nothing stopping off-trail exploration. A few herd paths weave in and out the pinnacle groupings. I loved that aspect about the area; its a "chose your own adventure" trip.
I'm not a great photographer but anyone who is would love the opportunities this place offers. There's all sorts of curious natural architecture, weird lighting, shadows and otherworldly scenes. It plays to the imagination.
I wish I had more time for exploring. However the wind and rain were really oppressive for my trip and I could only stand being outside for about an hour. As you can see above, I made a makeshift headscarf to keep the sand out of my mouth and nose.
As its all on BLM land, you can camp at the Trona Pinnacles. Of course, leave no trace as always.