The out-of-this-world formations of the Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark have been used as a backdrop in a number of science-fiction films. There are about 500 towers of various shapes that reach as high as 140 feet above the base. The formations are the weathered remnants of tufa (a form of calcium carbonate) towers created under water between 10,000 and 80,000 years ago in an ancient lake that's now dry.
You'll find this unique place in the western Mojave Desert less than 200 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The formations lie nearly seven miles south of California Highway 178, down a graded dirt road that's passable for most vehicles in dry weather. In or shortly after rainy times, the road may become impassable, even with four-wheel drive. Be cautious: it's easy to get bogged down in the loose sand of the dry washes that cross the area.
Although there are no facilities at the site, primitive camping is permitted. The nearest habitation, 10 miles north, is the town of Trona, where the IMC Chemicals facility extracts borax and other minerals from the dry lake deposits. The closest abundant lodging is in Ridgecrest, about 15 miles to the west. If you stay there, set your alarm—you won't want to miss the sunrise shot.
The area experiences extreme temperatures in both summer and winter, making spring and autumn the best times to visit. Although high winds are more common then, springtime offers the possibility of wildflowers in the surrounding desert. Winter weather varies, with daytime highs in the 60s and lows often below freezing. Summer nights may be pleasant, but daytime highs regularly exceed 100 degrees F. Beware of becoming dehydrated in any season. No matter when you visit, carry plenty of water.
As with most landscape photography, your images will show best results during the golden hours around sunrise and sunset. The low light creates long shadows and may color the background a deep magenta, which makes a great contrast to golden light on the pinnacle formations. Shooting just after a storm may offer interesting shadows and dramatic clouds. With a little luck, a soaring hawk or vulture may grace your frame, providing an accent in your landscape.
You can capture detail shots of desert plants or rock formations all day long using the indirect light in the tower shadows. Desert wildlife is rare at midday, but at dawn and dusk, coyotes, bats, owls and rattlesnakes prowl their territories. After dark, take a hint from the sci-fi filmmakers to use the formations as a strong foreground for the full moon, star trails or other astronomical images. As always, protect your equipment from blowing sand, especially when the wind kicks up.
When you exhaust the photo possibilities at the Pinnacles, explore some nearby points of interest. Within an hour's drive, you can reach Death Valley National Park, California's Red Rock Canyon, the Alabama Hills and Mount Whitney portal, plus numerous Mojave ghost towns.
While winter presents a greater possibility of dramatic skies, spring is ideal and gives the bonus of desert flowers in the surrounding areas. Autumn has a similarly temperate climate but few wildflowers. If you must choose between winter and summer, opt for a dry period in winter when the road is passable so you can avoid the summer heat.
Contact: Bureau of Land Management, California Ridgecrest Field Office, (760) 384-5400,
Proper hydration is key for success in the field. The Platypus Liquidator™ safeguards against dehydration by storing up to two liters of water. It has cargo pockets, plus a reflective strip