TRONA, California — When senior editor Kirill Ougarov handed me the key to a vibrant red 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara (instructing me to have fun), not in my wildest ideas did I envision the place I would venture to. With two days to get acquainted, the clock began ticking. This Jeep Wrangler yearned for a desert environment yearned to get its tires dirty in. Avoiding obvious choices, I ruled out in-demand California desert destinations like Joshua Tree, deciding on a place I had never heard of before: the Trona Pinnacles, a U.S. National Natural Landmark since 1967.
The Trona Pinnacles are a natural geological formation comprised of more than 500 spires composed of a porous calcium carbonate rock called tufa. Located about 170 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert, they are relics of the now-dry Searles Lake and are part of the California Desert Conservation Area.
Accessible via State Route 178 by way of State Route 14 or US Highway 395, the Bureau of Land Management-managed Pinnacles sit near the end of via a five-mile dirt road. This unique desert landscape has served as the backdrop for several films including the 2001 version of “Planet of the Apes,” as well as car commercials and sci-fi television shows. But what make the Trona Pinnacles spectacular for off-roading are the many designated trails surrounding them.
Despite some night-before anxiety over driving solo into an unfamiliar and remote area, come morning, I enthusiastically settled into the plush heritage-tan leather driver seat and started the eight-speed-automatic Wrangler’s 3.6-liter V-6 engine. The Jeep’s infotainment displayed an advisory notice of strong winds in the forecast, but that did not deter me. I tapped play on my Trona Pinnacles playlist composed of house and electronic music and picked up a sizzling hot double mocha to get on the road to discovery.
Engulfed with the Wrangler’s sublime Alpine audio system I drove north on State Route 14 through Palmdale. The Jeep felt at home rolling past the Santa Clara River and through various canyons adjacent to the road. Prior to arriving at the Trona Pinnacles, I took a quick detour to Red Rock Canyon State Park to warm up. Located in Kern County 80 miles east of Bakersfield, the 27,000 acres that make up Red Rock Canyon were once home to the Kawaiisu Indians. The geological masterpieces that are its massive glowing-red rock formations made me feel completely irrelevant. It is intriguing how nature can do that to you.
The Wrangler Sahara is equipped with a Selec-Trac Full Time 4WD System and an anti-spin differential rear axle, making it ready for action in more challenging terrain—it sports Bridgestone Dueler H/T 255/70R18 all-season tires, however, and I’m far from a veteran off-roader, so not too challenging.
Before heading into no man’s land for an undetermined amount of time, I refueled the Wrangler and picked up a few items from a nearby Stater Bros. supermarket. I continued down SR-178 passing a lonesome roadside sign that welcomed visitors to the Trona Pinnacles. At the entrance, I drove onto a massive dirt path that appeared to lead into an abyss toward Pinnacle Road. From this point, I needed to drive five miles inland and the GPS navigation on my smartphone went cold—but fortunately the Jeep’s GPS was still functioning. With the Wrangler guiding the way, I activated the four-wheel-drive system and hauled ass creating a huge dirt cloud behind me.
Strong desert winds caused the resistant Wrangler to dance in the dirt, and I must confess that being at the wheel of a dancing Jeep felt incredible. A quarter of the way in, I crossed a railroad track where the terrain gradually became choppier, causing the Wrangler to shake relentlessly. Aided by its anti-spin rear differential, the Wrangler handled this terrain like a champ, however, crawling through the ocean of loose dirt and rocks confidently. Through certain portions of the rugged dirt road, I drove on the edges instead of in the middle, increasing the pace at which the Wrangler and I moved toward the Holy Grail.
The drive through through the dry lakebed seemed endless, but before long, the Trona Pinnacles began to reveal themselves over the horizon. After passing some informational plaques, I drove down a small slope onto a neatly paved pathway and in the blink of an eye, the Wrangler Sahara was confronted with the massive formations. In complete awe of what I was witnessing, I studied the breathtaking tufa spires while contemplating my next move. To make my first visit worthwhile I decided to explore by foot before driving on the surrounding trails and climbed up the side of a Pinnacle for an enhanced view from a higher altitude.
Raging with excitement like a kid visiting Disneyland for the first time, I got back into the Wrangler to get my first go around the Pinnacles. The trails were fairly easy to navigate and offered many opportunities to pull over, which I did repeatedly to capture a full-scale perspective of the dirt covered Wrangler near the geological feature, which made the Jeep look like a Hot Wheels car. The Pinnacles left such an impression on me that I developed a strong affinity for the desert. After touring the Pinnacles for a handful of hours, adding a layer of dirt to my clothes, and destroying a pair of Dr. Martens, I sensed it was time to bid farewell.
After a long day in the desert I was quite hungry and immediately pulled over at the sight of a Taco Bell. I parked the Jeep Wrangler where it was visible from a dining room window. The adventure I had just taken had not settled in and seemed unreal. If this Jeep could talk, it would talk about the value in taking risks, all the cool things we did together, and how much it enjoyed having me as its operator. Driving a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara to the Mojave Desert was the best way to experience off-roading and the perfect introduction to the Trona Pinnacles.
2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4×4 Specifications
|ENGINE||3.6L DOHC 16-valve V-6/285hp @6,400 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||16/21 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||184.9 x 73.7 x 72.6 in|