Nestled in the Searles Valley about 70 miles southwest of Death Valley National Park lies the fascinating desert community of Trona, California, which straddles San Bernardino and Inyo counties. Situated in Searles Valley, Trona was built upon a promising wealth of natural mineral resources discovered in 1862 by John Searles. Named after trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dehydrate, Trona was developed in 1914 to accommodate a growing workforce for the booming mining industry. In 1974, the corporation was bought out, and production diminished. By 1982, more than half of the employees were laid off, people moved away, but some residents remained—with vested interests in SVM and the community. Trona’s population once peaked at around 7,000 in “boom times,” but Trona is now home to around 1,000 residents. Trona’s economic heartbeat remains Searles Valley Minerals, which continues to mine and process brine solutions harvested from the Searles Lake basin, although in lesser quantities. Products made by SVM include boric acid, sodium carbonate, sodium sulfate, borax, and salts—used in a wide array of industries in products like dye, detergents, and window glass.
We stumbled upon Trona by accident, heading toward Death Valley National Park. We had checked into our dingy Ridgecrest motel room in the afternoon following a long drive from Los Angeles. We knew that the park would be at least a 90-minute drive and we wouldn’t make it, but we still wanted to take advantage of the remaining daylight and see what adventures might await us in the Mojave Desert. We took highway 178, which snakes northeast from Ridgecrest toward Death Valley. There isn’t much to see, just vast expanses of land with a wall of distant mountains, desert grasses and scrub brush as far as the eye can see.
As we approached Trona (30 miles northeast from Ridgecrest), the landscape shifted, characterized by bumpy salt mounds and dry, cracked earth. We stopped to more closely examine the textures of the land—the crumbling salty hills were unlike anything we had seen before. The bone-dry Searles Valley basin stretched out for miles. There is a public rest stop in Trona, which became a useful stopover for what became several passes through the town. In front of the rest stop is a California Historical Landmark commemorating John Searles’ landmark borax discovery in 1862.
There was only one feature of Trona highlighted in our Lonely Planet guidebook: The Trona Pinnacles, an unusual geological feature overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Over thousands of years, over 500 tremendous tufa spires formed out of the Searles Lake bed, creating stunning, almost otherworldly formations. Faintly visible from the main road, a lone BLM sign indicated the Pinnacles to be five miles down a dirt road, also admonishing travelers that ATVs or vehicles with 4 wheel-drive are recommended. My boyfriend and I (not wanting to miss an opportunity to explore) braced ourselves and went forth with our rented Chevy Malibu. We rattled slowly along the bumpiest dirt road I’ve ever experienced, and although we didn’t make it all the way to the Pinnacles, we did get to see them and marvel at their beauty from a distance. It felt like we were visiting another planet (fitting, since the Pinnacles have been the backdrop for iconic films such as Planet of the Apes and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier). The sun was dipping below the horizon on our way back, making for an anxious drive and some beautiful photographs during the so-called “magic hour” right before sundown. A string of abandoned railway cars stretched along the landscape, seemingly going on forever, attached to nothing.
The most memorable feature of Trona (aside from its unique geological landscape and rich mineral resources) is the visible decay of the town itself: abandoned dwellings marked with graffiti, rusted-out automobile and tractor frames, collapsing outbuildings of varying size and shape, an array of under-maintained stores, businesses, and churches. Later research told us that the reason for the abandoned structures is due to their containing asbestos—too hazardous to inhabit and too costly to destroy. So they are left to the elements and vandals, hollow monuments of a town that once thrived many decades ago. Hulking over the town is the industrial sprawl of Searles Valley Minerals, its maze of pipes and smokestacks obviously working despite being in dire need of repairs and updates. Also noteworthy: Trona still has almost a dozen churches—a feature that speaks to the hallmarks of community and tradition to which Trona seems holding steadfast.
Trona cannot be called an outright ghost town. It boasts its own high school (home to the Trona Tornadoes) with an infamous all-dirt football field dubbed “the pit,” which once captured the attention of The New York Times. Its graduating class in 2015 was a mere fourteen students. SVM still employs most of the town with its mineral mining and processing operation. Save for the Pinnacles, Trona isn’t what you’d call pretty or scenic—it’s at turns ugly, scary, and sad. But it’s also uniquely fascinating, offering passersby a glimpse of lives very different from our own, people fiercely holding onto what makes their community special. Despite its forlornness, Trona still manages to evoke a certain feeling: One of toughness, solidarity, and authentic “America,” built on the promise of industry and hope.