Exploring the Otherworldly Pinnacles Desert in WA

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Australia, Oceania

Do you dream of exploring an otherworldly landscape full of pinnacles that can't be fully explained? Then you have to visit the Pinnacles Desert in Western Australia's Nambung National Park.

Deep yellow sand and thousands of limestone pillars that are up to 3.5 meters tall – that is the otherworldly Pinnacles Desert in Nambung National Park. Located on Western Australia’s Coral Coast and close to Cervantes, it is around 200 km north of Perth.

Once mistaken as the ruins of an ancient city by Dutch sailors who visited the area in the 1650s, the area now sees 250.000 visitors per year. It is one of the many great places to see along the Indian Ocean Drive.

If you want to explore it, you can walk through the Pinnacles Desert or drive along the one-way loop.

Pinnacles in the Pinnacles Desert in Western Australia

About the Pinnacles WA

There is no denying that the otherworldly landscape of the Pinnacles Desert is one of Western Australia’s most picturesque locations. It first became a nature reserve in 1967, which is when the area became publicly known. This reserve was then included in the newly created Nambung National Park in 1994.

The Pinnacles all have different shapes that were formed by natural forces. Some of them have cross-bedding structures, while others have a mushroom shape. The latter is due to a harder calcrete capping which weathers at a much slower rate.

Based on excavations in the area there is a great likelihood that the limestone pillars emerged from the sand 6000 ago and vanished again around 5000 years ago. They then became visible again just before the Dutch first arrived in the area in the 1650s.

While I visited the Pinnacles Desert near the end of my Western Australia road trip, it is also possible to visit it as a day trip from Perth.

Pinnacles WA

Read more: Perth to Broome Road Trip

Exploring the Pinnacles Desert

If you want to explore the Pinnacles Desert, you can do so on foot or by driving along a loop. Both are great options, so do whatever suits you best or even do both if you are staying in the area and want to visit the area during different times of the day.

Walking Track

The walking trail through the Pinnacles Desert is 1.5 km long and starts and ends at the Discovery Centre Car Park. If you stop to take a few photos, it should take you around 45 minutes.

The Pinnacles Desert WA

I am not entirely sure how much time my group spend exploring the walking trail, as I definitely spent more time than expected taking photos. After all, the pinnacles look different from every angle, so it is quite fun to play around with different perspectives of one singular limestone pillar.

We might have also played a short game of hide-and-seek, as the location is ideal for childlike fun. And we definitely were not the only ones doing it.

It is allowed to leave the trail but do yourself a favor and always keep an eye open for the location of the trail or the driving loop. At first glance, it might seem unlikely, but it is incredibly easy to lose one’s sense of direction.

Driving Track

The driving track is suitable for most – if not all – cars. There are plenty of marked parking bays where you can pull over and get out of the car, so driving instead of walking does not mean that you miss out on the experience.

The 4 km long loop is built with rough limestone gravel, so it is not suitable for caravans and trailers.

Pinnacles Deesert Loop

We had a trailer, so we decided to skip it, as we would likely not have been able to stop at a parking bay without accidentally blocking the loop. The minibus and trailer combination was just too long. If we had not accidentally killed the parking wheel of the trailer, we could have left it at the car park, but alas we had to explore the Pinnacles Desert on foot.

Please know that it might not be possible to drive along the loop if it has been raining. The loop tends to be flooded a bit after heavy rain, so they close it until the water is gone. However, you can still walk along the walking trail.

Watch out for emus and kangaroos if you explore the Pinnacles Desert in the early morning, the late afternoon, or at night.

Pinnacles Desert Lookout

The Pinnacles View Lookout is located just behind the visitor center. It is wheelchair friendly as the path that connects the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre and the viewpoint are connected by a cemented path.

There is another viewpoint in the center of the Pinnacles of WA. The wooden platform is elevated and therefore allows those visiting it to spot the ‘Little Painted Desert’, the ocean and white sand dunes in the distance

View from the Pinnacles Desert Lookout behind the Visitor Centre
Pinnacles Desert Lookout behind the Visitor Centre

Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre

The Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre is open daily from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM. The only day of the year it is closed is Christmas Day. It is a discovery center that has an extensive exhibition with displays, videos, and more that explain the geology of the Pinnacles as well as the cultural and natural values of the Nambung area.

Kangaroo Statues at the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre
Kangaroo Statues at the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre

You can also buy some souvenirs at the shop area that is so common in the discovery centers of Western Australian national parks. There is also a toilet.

It opened in 2008 and was designed by the same architect as the Karijini Visitor Centre. Its’ construction materials reflect the area and the wooden beams that are part of the front area of the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Center have Ngoongor words in them. The words were included in the design to reflect the link of the Yued people to the area.

Official Opening Time of the Pinnacles, WA

Nambung National Park and the Pinnacles Desert are open during the daylight and twilight hours. While you can technically visit anytime, you are expected to leave by 9 PM.

This means you should still be able to take some stunning photos of the Milkyway with the Pinnacles Desert as the foreground.

Pinnacles Desert Western Australia
Pinnacles Desert Formations

Beyond the Pinnacles: Nambung National Park

Nambung National Park is one of the unique Australian National Parks. It is framed by nature reserves on three sides, has a size of 170 km², and is home to many native animals and birds. The reefs offshore are part of Jurien Bay Marine Park.

The Yued people are the traditional custodians of the land. It was named after the river that flows through Nambung National Park in winter. ‘Nambung’ is an Aboriginal word and in the Yuat and Wijuk language groups it means “crooked”.

Other Things to Do in Nambung National Park

This national park has more to offer than just the Pinnacles Desert, so I recommend checking out at least some of these things to do in Nambung National Park.

Dune Areas (including the white Quindalup Dunes) – If you want to explore more remote parts of the dune system, you are supposed to inform the Ranger Station in Cervantes, as it is easy to get lost. So please give them a call before you venture out: (+61) 8 9545 7093.

Hangover Bay – Hangover Bay has an incredibly beautiful curved beach and is a great spot for a picnic. There is a shaded sitting area with a BBQ and toilets. Furthermore, it is a great snorkeling, swimming, and even surfing spot. And if you love marine animals, you will be happy to learn that bottlenose dolphins like those of Monkey Mia are quite common sights and that you might even have the chance to spot sea lions playing in the ocean.

Kangaroo Point – Visit the beach at Kangaroo Point and spot the Cervantes Islands off the coast. There are facilities including a public BBQ.

Hangover Bay in Nambung National Park
The Beach of Hangover Bay

Lake Thetis – Lake Thetis is home to thrombolites that are similar to the stromatolites of Shark Bay. The is a loop trail and a boardwalk from which you can spot them.

Best Time to visit the Pinnacles Desert

The Pinnacles Desert and Nambung National Park experience great weather year-round, but they look their best in spring during the wildflower season. In this part of Western Australia, the wildflower season lasts from August to October.

It is an impressive location regardless of the time of the day, but the best time to visit the Pinnacles Desert is just before sunset when the limestone pillars cast long shadows and the sky turns colorful.

Pinnacles Desert Entrance Fee

If you want to visit the Pinnacles Desert in Nambung National Park, the usual national park fees of Western Australia apply. The entry fee is 15 AUD per vehicle with up to 12 passengers.

Visit the Pinnacles Desert

If you plan to visit more national parks in Western Australia, it is best to get a Holiday Pass. A WA Holiday Pass for 5 days costs 25 AUD, 2 weeks will set you back 40 AUD and the 4 weeks pass costs 60 AUD.

The Annual All Parks Pass (WA) costs 120 AUD, with a reduced rate of 75 AUD for seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Please see the full disclosure for further information.

How to get to the Pinnacles Desert in Western Australia

The Pinnacles Desert and Nambung National Park can only be accessed via the Indian Ocean Drive (60), so drive along the road until you see the Pinnacles Desert sign.

The national parks’ limited access opportunities make the Indian Ocean Drive a vital road you are planning a road trip through Western Australia. Be it a trip from Perth to Broome, Perth to Exmouth, or just from Perth to Kalbarri – the Pinnacles Desert is one of the places you just have to see, so ensure that you plan your route accordingly.

Perth to the Pinnacles

Nambung National Park is 189 km north of Perth, so the driving time from Perth to the Pinnacles Desert is around 2 hours. Follow the Indian Ocean Drive for 147 km once you have left the wider area of Perth and then turn right onto Pinnacles Drive to enter the national park.

Lancelin and the Lancelin Sand Dunes are great stops along the way if you are coming from Perth.

Don’t have a car? Check out these guided day trips from Perth to the Pinnacles Desert!

Cervantes to the Pinnacles

The driving time from Cervantes to the Pinnacles Desert is only 17 minutes as they are only 20 km away from each other. Turn right onto the Indian Ocean Drive (60) once you have left Cervantes and follow it for 12 km.

Then, you have to turn left to enter Nambung National Park. Follow the Pinnacles Drive for 5,3 km to reach the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre.

Pinnacles Desert Lookout

Things to know before you visit the Pinnacles Desert

Nambung National Park Pinnacles Desert

Do not climb the Pinnacles. – Do not climb the pinnacles, even if there are social media photos of people doing it. It is strictly forbidden, as it could easily destroy the Pinnacles.

No dogs allowed. – It is not allowed to bring dogs when you visit the national park. This includes dogs that would never leave the car while you drive along the loop through the Pinnacles Desert of Western Australia.

How were the Pinnacles formed?

There are different estimates on when the pinnacles were formed, but many say that it was between 20.000 and 30.000 years ago. At this point, no one really knows how the pinnacles were formed, but there are three different theories that have yet to be proven or disputed.

What is definitive are the facts that the sea receded in this area of Western Australia and left behind deposits of seashells that turned into Tamala limestone and sand, and that the wind removed the sand which exposed the pillars.

The yellow lime-rich sand of the dunes consists of seashells that were broken down by natural forces and over a long time, the sand ended up forming the dunes.

You can find out more about it at the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre, but in short, the three theories are as follows:

1. a petrified forest

The Pinnacles are the remains of an ancient forest that was buried by the sand dunes. The tree trunks calcified when the decaying trees caused the surrounding sand to dissolve, which created a vague ‘cemented’ cast of the trees.

2. accumulation of minerals around tree roots

Over the course of several decades, plant roots drew in water and minerals. Once a certain amount of minerals including calcium had been accumulated, the minerals started to form calcrete (calcium carbonate) and therefore formed the Pinnacles of Nambung National Park. The climate changed and the sand around the mineral accumulations that formed around roots was blown away.

3. karstification caused by rainwater

Calcium and rainwater turned the lower dune layer into soft limestone. Plant growth strengthened the soil, but the roots created gasps in the limestone layer.

Rain then corroded part of the solidified limestone layer and through the gasps, the calcium was washed into even deeper layers of the limestone, where it then formed the Pinnacles in WA.

The less calcium-rich soft limestone layer was eventually dissolved by rain, and once the region’s climate changed, the sand was blown away by the wind.

Bushes in the Pinnacles Desert

Note: Please do not use this information as a resource for anything academic. There are several books and research papers out there, that are much better at explaining the theories than I am.

The Pinnacles Aboriginal History

The Nambung National Park and the Pinnacles Desert in Western Australia have a long Aboriginal history. The area was of great importance to the Aboriginal people, as the waterholes in caves that are created by the seasonal river were a crucial freshwater source.

Additionally, the area of the Pinnacles Desert was a sacred place that was reserved for women. For thousands of years, it was a location for ‘women’s business’ including giving birth and ceremonies.

It is said, that (at least some) Aboriginal people avoided the Pinnacles Desert, as the pinnacles are the fossilized ghosts of men that ventured into this sacred women’s place. According to an Aboriginal legend, the gods punished young men that tried to visit the sacred place. They were buried by the sand and will remain there forever as the pinnacles. (Legend fact-checked here: Aboriginal Art UK)

What to bring when visiting the Pinnacles in Western Australia

The usual five national park trip items – a good backpacking camera, sufficient water, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat or a cap.

Me in the Pinnacles Desert
A smile after I finally escaped the flies in the Pinnacles Desert

Walking shoes – The sand can be quite warm and is exactly even, so be sure to wear walking shoes if you want to walk through the Pinnacles Desert. Walking shoes are even more vital if you want to explore more remote dunes areas of the national park.

Flynet Flies, flies, flies! Nambung National Park is where I discovered the crucial fact about Australia, that a fly net can be vital. I saw 50% of our minibus turn black thanks to flies within a minute. So do yourself a favor and bring one. You might be lucky enough not to encounter that many flies while in the Pinnacles Desert, but you should not risk it. I am still thankful that they were not everywhere in the desert.

Where to stay near Nambung National Park

There are no accommodations within Nambung National Park, but the town of Cervantes is only 20 km away. The Pinnacles Edge Resort and the RAC Holiday Park are nice options.

Be sure to stay in Cervantes if you want to see the sunset in the Pinnacles Desert or wait until nightfall to take Milkyway photos. The Australian wildlife is very active between dusk and dawn, so it is best to avoid driving long distances outside of cities at night.

Planning a trip?

Check out these useful websites and resources I use to plan my own adventures.

Flights: Kiwi

Accommodation: Booking.com

Rental Cars: RentalCars.com

Day Trips & Tours: Get Your Guide, Viator —or— Klook

Travel Insurance: SafetyWing

Airport Lounge Access: Priority Pass

Wanderlust edited

Roundup: Nambung National Park and the Pinnacles Desert, WA

With their unique appearance, the Pinnacles are an absolute must-see even if you are usually not interested in geological features. Exploring them feels like exploring another world, I could not recommend it more. And do not forget to check out some of the other great things to do in Nambung National Park!

More to See in WA

If you are planning a Western Australia trip, you might also be interested in these Australia Travel Guides:
Best time to visit Australia
Hidden Gems in Australia
.

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Steph Kloeckener

I am the founder of A Nomad's Passport and a solo traveling digital nomad, photographer, and writer. Originally from Germany, I have lived in several countries around the world. My goal is to explore every country in the world while promoting ethical and sustainable traveling. And of course to write as many destination guides, itineraries, road trip guides, and content about scuba diving.

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