During a recent visit to Death Valley in California‘s Mojave Desert, I overnighted in the desert town of Ridgecrest to photograph the nearby Trona Pinnacles. This atmospheric locale has served as a setting for several well-known sci-fi movies and commercials. The basin with its Trona Pinnacles, the adjacent Searles Lake salt pan serviced by an unlikely railroad, and flanked by the Slate Range to the east and the Argus Mountains to the west, evokes an ambience that is at once enchanting, eerie, and alien.
As dawn approaches, the Trona Pinnacles emerge like a dream landscape from the parched bed of Searles Lake. The silhouettes of over 500 strangely shaped towers cluster together against a vast plain rimmed with distant hills. Old-timers call it Cathedral City, an apt name for such a mysterious looking place.
Although it may be hard to imagine, the Trona Pinnacles once protruded from the bottom of a deep lake. During the ice ages that occurred between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago, runoff from the Sierra Nevada periodically coursed into Searles Lake…The pinnacles consist of an unusual “rock” called tufa. It resembles limestone and forms entirely underwater…
…From a distance Searles Lake looks like any other Mojave Desert salt pan. But this playa is different: its deep lakebed sediments contain 98 of the approximately 112 elements.
When I got to the Trona Pinnacles about an hour before sunset, I was dismayed to see both the eastern and western horizons plastered with a ribbon of clouds. With only two nights shy of the full moon, I had timed my visit to capture the moonrise over the Slate Mountains. Now it appeared I would be hit with a double whammy – denied both the magic hour sunlight and the rising of the moon. Adding to the irony – it was a pleasant, still, wind-free evening (my next two forays later that week were met by strong wind gusts).
Resigned to my karma, I set up shop on the ridge next to the Trona railroad and went about my business. And then something totally unexpected happened. The sun dipped below the Argus Mountains behind me and the Pinnacles suddenly came alive, awash in sweet light. I could scarcely conceal my excitement at the unfolding scene. I will let the photographs below tell the story.