If you have ever yearned to take a vacation on an uninhabited planet somewhere in outer space, there actually is a mysterious place in the Mojave Desert that will easily fit this bill of fare! In fact, this other worldly landscape has been featured in many Hollywood science fiction movies and television shows, which include Battlestar Gallactica, Lost In Space and Star Trek. This is the place where the human astronauts battle it out with reptilian aliens and it is possible to see such a scene if a major production film crew is there. The Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark certainly is way beyond surreal expectations and the geological explanation of how these towering rock formations were created is equally as strange.
The area east of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is where tectonic plates collide and the tremendous upheaval pressure rearranged the landscape long ago. Towering mountains rose up from sedimentary ocean bottoms, the earth crust was crushed into fragments and vast volcanic fields popped up to relieve the pressure. The geological evidence can be seen everywhere along the front range of the Sierra Nevadas and it can be felt as well. Severe earthquakes are commonplace in this region, so this still is a very active fault line area.
Natural hot springs and geysers are associated with volcanic upheaval areas, which provides a clue as to how the Trona Pinnacles were formed. For those who have been to Mono Lake, which is about 200 miles north at the base of the Sierra Nevada Range, the tufa in the lake will provide the answer. The columns at Crowley Lake, which is in the same area as Mono, also demonstrate solid evidence of how this type of tufa pinnacle is formed. Where the ancient natural hot springs percolated to the surface of the ground, mineralization occurred in the steam passageways and over time the vertical hot water tubes hardened. Calcification is the primary catalyst for hot spring vent hardening in ancient ocean bottom areas and because of porosity saturation, quite a wide area around a hot spring vent can literally be turned into cement if the environmental conditions are just right.
The hardened hot spring fissures and vents that are hidden underground are exposed on the earth surface after eons of erosive forces do their work. In the case of Trona, massive ice age floods, ancient seas and wind storms exposed the towering pinnacles, which actually are gigantic tufa. The reason why the tufa pinnacles at Trona are so massive will become evident after researching the history of the Searles Valley mining industry, which is very much active to this day. The Trona Mine currently produces soda (sodium bicarbonate), which is a primary cement component. The Searles Valley actually is an ancient dry lake and the soda evaporation ponds cover a vast amount of land next door to Trona Pinnacles. The evaporation ponds produce a thick ancient ocean aroma that can be smelled throughout this strange landscape, which can totally confuse the senses!
Trona Pinnacles certainly is an educational experience and it is a photographer's paradise as well. It is relatively easy to capture a great photo in this mysterious terrain, especially at sunrise, sunset or after dark. Using a long exposure or a high dynamic range bracket photography technique can be a challenge at Trona Pinnacles, because this landmark is in the California Desert Conservation Area and camping is allowed, so incoming vehicle headlights or campsite lights can interfere with the process. All it takes is patience and plenty of time to produce a clean photo capture, so it is best to plan on camping onsite to make the photography mission happen. The Trona camping area has facilities, so even a casual car camper can get in on the action. These two examples of Trona Pinnacles night and sunset landscape photos can be found in the Destination West Digital Gallery or Print Gallery, so be sure to check it out!
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