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The Trona Pinnacles


...not too far out!



Pinnacles_2
If you've been at least a semi-regular reader of this column over the last three years, you've just got to get out more. You also know that I've got a thing for the desert. Despite growing up on the West Side, I was in my mid 30s before I started paying attention to anything east of Bakersfield that didn't involve dice, cards or a slot machine. Now I'm making up for lost time.

When your idea of roughing it is staying in a hotel that only has basic cable, it takes something unusual to get you into the outdoors. In my case, I found such an oddity about 20 miles southeast of Ridgecrest.

The Trona Pinnacles is without a doubt one of the most unusual geological features found anywhere. This is protected federal land (so ordered in 1968), but it might as well be another planet. In fact, you may recognize it as just that from several movies.

This was the planet Shaka-Ri in "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" and later the Calima Ruins in Tim Burton's very weird re-imagining of "Planet of the Apes". Most recently a T-Rex chased Will Farrell through the towers for "Land of the Lost", although I've been assured all of the large carnivores have long since gone back to Hollywood (along with the dinosaurs.)

The region consists of more than 500 tufa spires, a fancy way of saying "big, pointy rocks," some rising at high as 140 feet above the desert floor. Tufa, by the way, is basically calcium carbonate -- yep, I Googled it -- pressed into a porous rock formed from springs, streams and other bodies of water. That's the dead giveaway that this region was under water back when Ferrell's dino co-stars were more than computer generated effects.

Because this region was once a series of interconnected lakes, the towers formed at different rates. Three groups roughly correspond to each ice age. The northern group tops out at about 25,000 years old, roughly the same amount of time it takes the state to pass a budget. A group to the south hits about 100,000 years of age. The teenagers are in the middle, and that's where you'll find the tallest tower.

It's a cool sight, even from a distance, but the up-close-and-personal view will take some effort. Access to the site is via BLM road RM143. This is a five-mile-long maintained dirt road that leaves State Route 178 east of Ridgecrest. It's a bit of a washboard in places but is accessible by all but the lowest two-wheel drive vehicles. The road may be closed after a heavy rain, so check the report on your iPhone first.

Important tip: Those washboard ruts tend to even out if you have good shocks and hit them at the right speed. I won't tell you what that speed happens to be, but a couple of angry tarantulas have put out a hit on my truck.

This area can get boiling hot in the summer -- we're talking bake-a-potato-in-the-passenger-seat hot. Temps can reach 115 degrees (but it's a dry heat!) so bring plenty of water because the closest services are in Ridgecrest. This time of year that just encourages you to visit when the views are best. Early morning and evening make for some especially dramatic lighting, and the desert under a full moon is outrageous.

Weather permitting, the Trona Pinnacles are open all year for picnicking, primitive camping, hiking and biking. Vehicles should stay on existing trails -- going cross country destroys vegetation and tears up the ground, creating scars on the landscape that take years to heal. Plus, more than one vehicle has gotten stuck in the sandy wash that runs through the middle of the zone. Remember to pack out your trash.

For information on the Trona Pinnacles, contact the Ridgecrest office of the BLM at (760) 384-5400 or the Ridgecrest Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 847-4830.

To see more of what there is to do in an about Kern County, visit the Kern County Board of Trade's tourism web site at www.VisitKern.com.

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