Monday, January 21, 2008

The Trona Pinnacles: Like A Visit To Another Planet

You have probably seen the Trona Pinnacles in several science fiction movies, like the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes and numerous episodes of the old Twilight Zone TV series. It is a truly surreal landscape and one I always tried to visit on my trips to Death Valley. They are reached from California route 178, which connects California Highway 395 (the Eastern Sierra highway) with the Panamint Springs entrance to Death Valley National Park.

The "town" of Trona is the very definition of the adjective bleak. It consists of a huge dry lake bed----that of old Searles Lake----which is now mined (or maybe "scooped" is a better word) for minerals, mainly potash. A mineral processing plant in Trona belches out a foul smell that fills the entire town. Other than the processing plant, the only surviving businesses appear to be a couple of gas stations, a small grocery store, two small short-order restaurants, and a hardware store. Several homes and businesses are abandoned, while most others are in serious disrepair. Trona seems to be a ghost town in the making; it is difficult to describe what a grim, depressing place it is.

But just before arriving in Trona, there is a clearly marked dirt road to the right which leads to the Trona Pinnacles. Until a little over 10,000 years ago, the Trona area was underwater----the old Lake Searles-----and the area was geothermally active; the bottom of Lake Searles had many hot, mineral-rich springs. As the hot spring water cooled after being released, the minerals (mainly calcium carbonate) precipitated and collected around the vents, accumulating in some cases to heights over 100 feet. When the climate changed and Lake Searles evaporated, the Trona Pinnacles were left behind.

There are three separate regions of the Pinnacles, based on their age. The newest ones----some only 10,000 years old----are also the biggest and highest:

Depending on the lighting and time of the day, the views of the Pinnacles can be especially dramatic:

While most of the Pinnacles occur in groups, there are some "lone wolves" like the one below. The dirt road at its base gives you some idea of how large it is:

The Middle Pinnacles were formed about 50,000 years ago. Because of erosion, they are not as high or spectacular as the younger ones:

The Old Pinnacles were formed as much as 100,000 years ago and are heavily eroded as a result, as you can see in the two photos below:

The road through the Pinnacles is kept well-graded and shouldn't pose a problem for most 2WD vehicles, except in wet weather. The view below represents my vision of paradise; a road leading to places I've never been and plenty of gas in my 4Runner to get me there! Some of my happiest times have been spent on roads like the one below, consulting my USGS maps and GPS receiver to find the hidden treasures-----not buried gold, but historical and geological sites----in the deserts of the American southwest: