On the way to Death Valley, off a road to nowhere, are the Trona Pinnacles, one of the most unusual sights in the Mojave Desert. Five hundred tufa towers, many more than 100 feet high, rise from Searles (dry) Lake basin.
From a distance, the pinnacles appear to be the ruins of some ancient, other-world civilization. Trekkies and movie buffs will recognize the Trona Pinnacles as one of the out-of-this-world locations in "Star Trek V: "The Final Frontier."
Scientists believe the tufa (calcium carbonate) rock formations developed about 10,000 to 100,000 years ago when Searles Lake was a substantial body of water, fed by rainfall and by runoff from retreating Sierra Nevada glaciers.
The pinnacles formed under water in the mineral-rich lake. Highly concentrated calcium carbonate brine bonded with algae to make reef-like formations of hollow tubes, and then the spires we see today.
Once-deep Searles Lake, now a vast alkali basin, has long attracted the mining industry. Beginning in the 1870s, borax was extracted from its surface. Trona is the name of the predominant mineral (a double salt--sodium carbonate/bicarbonate) found in the lake. Trona minerals are used in the manufacture of baking powder, soaps, glass and cleaning solvents.
The tufa formations are similar to the ones rising above Mono Lake; in fact, Trona's tufas, known officially as Pinnacles National Natural Landmark, are the best in the United States.
The pinnacles are spread over a four-mile-long, three-mile-wide area, but the main concentration of spires can be reached by an easy walk from the parking area. Wander at will from tufa tower to tufa tower as far as time and imagination permit. Wear sturdy footwear on this walk; tufa cuts like coral.
Directions to trail head: From California 14, take California 178, Ridgecrest exit, and drive 15 miles into Ridgecrest. Continue east another 11 miles. Turn right on Pinnacles Road. Proceed seven miles over the rutted dirt road (suitable for passenger cars with good ground clearance) to the Trona Pinnacles.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Trona Pinnacles Trone Trail Where: Mojave Desert, east of Ridgecrest. Distance: A mile or so round trip. Terrain: Weird maze of tufa (calcium carbonate) monoliths. Highlights: Mosaics of colorful rock fragments decorating canyon walls. Degree of Difficulty: Easy. Precautions: Fall, winter and spring best times to visit; Summertime temperatures can reach 120 degrees. For More Information: U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Ridgecrest, CA 93555; tel. (619) 384- 5400.