Trona Pinnacles – Martian landscape in southern California

Trona Pinnacles up close

So it turns out that southern California has its own Pinnacles natural area in the Mojave desert just a few hours northeast of Los Angeles. I’d been to the Pinnacles National Park in northern California before (southeast of San Jose), but this was my first trek to Trona Pinnacles, a smaller but still interesting and definitely other-wordly formation much closer to home.

View from the dirt road leading to the pinnacles

Created by ancient tufa deposits, the Trona Pinnacles rise out of the isolated desert near the town of Trona in San Bernardino county, on BLM land just south of the Inyo county border. More then 500 spires jut skyward, forming a perfect science fiction backdrop that has been used  by numerous Hollywood productions ranging from Lost in Space to Battlestar Gallactica. The eerie spires reach as high as 140 feet and create a dramatic impression in the isolated desert landscape.  Trona Pinnacles makes a great subject for nature and landscape photography and ranks as one of the most interesting geological formations in the state!

The spires were formed by ancient underwater springs


Wider shot


Nothing around for miles

The pinnacles can be reached via a dirt road off of Highway 178. We drove down from Death Valley and the pinnacles are located a few miles south of the rather dilapidated town of Trona, the nearest civilization (if you can call it that).  If you think this would be a good place to catch dinner or stock up on supplies, think again… Probably the only thing this mining town has going for it is dirt cheap real estate, assuming you’d want to live there.  From the looks of things, most homes are abandoned and falling apart, and the only business I saw was a run down Dollar store.  This place seriously looks like a scene out of the Great Depression and doesn’t exactly make you want to explore.

After passing by Trona, the turn off for the pinnacles takes you over 7 miles of poorly marked washboard dirt roads. It’s not a bad road so you don’t need 4WD, but it is long and rutted.  I wouldn’t go at night though since it’s not well marked and you could probably get lost…  You can see the pinnacles in the distance when you turn off the road and that’s your only clue where to drive, another reason not to go at night unless you know the way.

4WD is handy but not required

Keep following the road across the train tracks and some dry washes and you’ll eventually reach the destination. The pinnacles are quite impressive and feel like something from a Martian landscape.  These tufa formations are fragile but look great from any angle and draw a lot of photographers.  We spent about an hour there and didn’t see anyone else during this time so it was a great opportunity to shoot away.

The moon off in the distance
Another angle
Where’s the Mars rover?

One of the things about Trona Pinnacles is how isolated it is, which is both good and bad.  Not having other people around we had the whole place to ourselves and didn’t have to worry about tourists getting into the frame which was great. Unfortunately, the whole area also has this weird and creepy vibe (which others have also noted). It kind of feels like a place someone would murder you in or maybe perform some kind of ritual satanic sacrifice. In fact, the vibe was uncomfortable enough  that we didn’t feel like hanging around past dark to get any night sky photos – both me and my companion felt really unnerved and got the distinct feeling that something was telling us to “get outta there”.  We spent about an hour shooting and promptly scurried back to the main highway as the waning sunset descended into darkness.  I’ve travelled a lot of places in the world and rarely have I felt such an uncomfortable vibe.  I definitely would not want to spend a night here camping, especially alone. Creepsters!

Somebody built a cave and there’s a metal door. We didn’t go in.
Many different formations here
Trona Pinnacles
One last look before we leave – some body left some Mad Max looking gear there but not a soul around

Despite the weird vibe, Trona Pinnacles is a great place to take photos (or maybe shoot a horror/sci-fi movie).  It’s proximity to Los Angeles is a plus (2 1/2 – 3 hours drive) and it’s definitely one of the most interesting geological features in California which makes it worth the drive.

Equipment list:

Nikon D750
Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR G