We’ve meant to have this travel log ready a while back, but prioritized the Carrizo Plains log due to the time-sensitive superbloom. We got many appreciative messages on that one, glad we could be of help! We've been coming to the Trona Pinnacles for many years, I'm not sure I even remember the first time anymore!
Known for their otherworldly appearance, the Trona Pinnacles are a unique geological formation featured in numerous movies, TV shows, and photoshoots. The Pinnacles are composed of more than 500 tufa spires, some as high as 140’, that rise from the dry lake bed. Made of ancient calcium carbonate, these formations are the remnants of water bodies that once spanned the entire valley. At one point, the area was under more than 640’ of water. Today, the Trona Pinnacles are an attractive hotspot for photographers, campers, offroaders, and more. Over the years, it has unofficially become a pilgrimage site we take new campers and overlanders stepping outside of established campgrounds. Although we consider the Trona Pinnacles a great ‘gateway’ into primitive camping and overlanding, the region can be deceptively brutal. We’ve definitely passed and helped out many struggling campers that underestimated the conditions!
There are two main ways into the Trona Pinnacles. The first is from the north along State Highway 178. Coming from Los Angeles, you would take the turn off Highway 395 for Searles Station Cutoff, which then links to Trona Road towards SR-178. Signage will mark the dirt road entry from SR-178. Pinnacles Road is regularly graded for even regular sedans to traverse, although care will be necessary to avoid any punctures on sharper rocks. We entered from the north for the first time this recent trip, and found that most people will lose cell reception along SR-178 well before hitting the Pinnacles entry. Make sure to study the route before heading out!
We typically enter via the second entry from the south. This path is shorter as it is more direct, but does require much more off-roading. Aired down high-clearance vehicles are highly recommended, as this trail is not as frequently graded. We’ve run through this trail at a steady 40mph cruise, but also at a 10mph crawl in parts due to brutal washboard conditions. Going slow, we end up at the Pinnacles in the same amount of time as circling from the north. Going quicker when the trail is in better condition, we’ve saved 20-30min. Coming from LA, and taking the same Searles Station Cutoff from HWY395, we turn right onto Trona Road, then left onto Pinnacle Road, the start of off-pavement travel. This trail cuts through Spangler and Spangler Hills, and loosely follows the train tracks through to the Pinnacles. Cell reception will be on and off, so definitely download offline maps ahead of time.
The actual Trona Pinnacles area is divided into two halves by a sandy wash. Both entry routes take you into the west side, which is graded and marked well enough for regular sedans to travel around in a loop. There is one vault toilet in the northwest corner of the loop, and most travelers will limit their stay to this western side due to the relative ease of travel. As such, any camp-able sites off of the loop are often taken quickly on a first-come-first-serve basis. I personally dislike campsites so visible from many travel roads, and haven’t really camped on this side. Many club events are hosted here throughout the year, including many photography and astronomy clubs. Unsurprisingly, most of the photos you’ll find of the Pinnacles online will feature this western portion.
Now the actual fun and beautiful part of the Trona Pinnacles, in my humble opinion, is the east side. You will need to traverse across the wash via one of three main trails. The northern most trail is considered easier, with the middle and southern trails a bit trickier, even with high-clearance vehicles. You’ll be able to easily find these three trails from an aerial view. The east side is considerably larger than the west, and the spires are spaced wider apart, making for large campsites better suited for larger groups. As this side is more difficult to access, the sites here are also considerably more private. We’ve gone multiple days without others passing by. Depending on the site you choose, you can get gorgeous views of the Searles Valley dry lakes to the northeast to southeast, or the west side Pinnacles.
Expect desert weather in this region. This means very hot triple-digit summers, and sub-freezing cold winters. The transition between seasons is the best time to visit (Late Feb to June, Oct to Nov), but these seasons are also subject to strong desert winds. Always double check the weather before heading out, especially in regards to wind. On tame weather days, winds will often still pick up around dusk due to the changes in temperature. These winds typically gust for two hours or so, then calm down overnight. In general, any winds 15mph and under are perfect. Winds up to 20-25mph can be dealt with, but I would recommend against camping in winds higher than 30mph. While our equipment is designed to perform in far heavier winds, there’s very little you can do besides reading inside the tent. The wind noise can also really mess with your ears. Our team definitely had a great time (not) stress testing our canvas tents in heavy winds!
Although the Trona Pinnacles is an established landmark, it’s still a true primitive site. There is no water, power, nor cell reception. Make sure to have all your supplies covered the same as you would in the middle of nowhere. One good plus in dipping the overlanding toes at the Pinnacles is ironically the proximity to others. If you’re really stuck without something, there’s a good chance your neighbors a short hike away can help. With proper preparation, you will be rewarded with spectacular views few others have seen.
Thanks for reading!