An Esotouric Road Trip: The Trona Pinnacles

In late May, the Esotouric gang set off on a desert road trip, with our compass set to points unusual and mysterious.

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You won’t find many stranger, or more awe-inspiring, attractions in Southern California than the Trona Pinnacles, the towering remnants of hydro-chemical activity on an ancient lakebed.

100,000 years ago, the interior of California was dotted with a network of interconnected inland seas. The ancient seas are gone, but the mineral excrescences that formed over tens of thousands of years still stand sentinel in a vast and windy landscape, far from human habitation.

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In 1968, these tufa formations, the result of calcium-rich ground water meeting the alkaline sea, were designated by the Department of the Interior as a National Natural Landmark.

To visit the Trona Pinnacles, one leaves the sleepy military town of Ridgecrest and heads east, passing through a dramatic, wind-formed landscape that suggests cathedrals in the rock.

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The BLM road to the Pinnacles is gravel, dust and ruts, and slow going with a conventional vehicle. Visitors must be conscious of heat, wind, rain and the precise moment that the sun will set, and should allow at least an hour round-trip once leaving the paved highway.

Still, there is something extraordinary in slowing to a crawl to approach these ancient monuments, which loom ever larger on the sandy plain, throwing off wild shadows as their details come into focus. For this is how the Pinnacles appeared to those approaching on horseback a century ago, or to walkers earlier still.

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Worried our car might not be happy climbing up again, we parked on the ridge overlooking the plain to hike down to the dry lake bed. Richard noticed the dust of another car approaching, and stayed on the ridge until he could make eye contact with the newcomers. (Oddly, they never got out of their car, and soon turned and left.)

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These would be the only other people we would see for our entire visit, save the solitary young man in the 4WD truck who arrived as we were hiking back, then disappeared onto the darkening dry lake bed bound for points unknown.

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The Pinnacles are spread out over a rise in the flat landscape, with soft-packed sandy paths that lead up to the peaks and astonishing views out across the desert. The wind out here is like a living creature, whistling in our ears and shaping the ancient mineral towers. How many more centuries will they stand, before nature finishes breaking down what she has created?

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We wandered around for some time, marveling at the strange forms that are designated as Towers (tall and slender, up to 40′ high), Tombstones (fat and wide, up to 30′ high), Ridges (like mountain ranges, up to 140′ high) and Cones (little mounds, up to 10′ high).

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Then the sun moved, and the shadows shifted, and we knew it would soon be dark and cold on the ancient plain.

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Trudging back through the dust, we spied a gangly lizard that took off running, so fast and frantic that it seemed to be flying on the ground.

And a little armored beetle, its shell a beautiful ridged black, like a Japanese warrior girded for battle.

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Dusty and awed, we crawled back along the gravel road to rejoin the flow on the highway and the modern world.

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The Trona Pinnacles are standing now, as they have for thousands of years, each day a little smaller, a little different. They were standing when the Caesars ruled, and will be standing when the Caesars have been forgotten. And you should see them if you can.

See all of Chinta Cooper’s photos from our trip here.  

And if you’d like to tour the Trona Pinnacles, visitor information is  here.