The Alabama Hills, in the shadow of California’s Mount Whitney, ought to be a national park for their unusual beauty and unique geology. This wonderland of bizarre boulders is fun, photogenic and easy to access. It is so photogenic, in fact, that Hollywood fell in love with the area and filmed many a western and sci-fi thriller among its eye-catching rock formations.
The hills are just west of Lone Pine on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range about 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Lone Pine’s resident population of 2,000 swells with the tourist seasons. In the summer and fall, Lone Pine is a popular jump-off point for hikers heading to Mount Whitney, the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra. The world-class ski resort of nearby Mammoth Mountain draws carloads of skiers in the winter. Death Valley National Park is an hour’s drive east of Lone Pine, but the amazing Alabama Hills are right outside the town limits.
History of Alabama Hills
The hills were named by prospectors with Confederate sympathies. During the Civil War they named the hills in honor of the Confederate warship CSS Alabama, which inflicted significant damage on Yankee ships and fortifications before being sunk in 1864.
It was nearly 100 years ago that Hollywood discovered the Alabama Hills and began shooting black-and-white films with the unusual rock formations and distant peaks as a backdrop. Early cowboy heroes like Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy galloped through the passes and leapt from boulders onto the backs of bad guys. Runaway stagecoaches careened through the narrow gaps and gunfights echoed among the rocks. Dozens of movies were filmed at a particularly popular shooting location that became known as Movie Flats. In addition to countless so-called B Westerns, several major films were shot here, including Gunga Din in 1939. This big production, starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., used the rugged, mile-high setting to depict Northwest India and the famous Khyber Pass.
Even as the movie industry became more sophisticated and color replaced black and white, the Alabama Hills continued to be a favored filming location. How the West Was Won was shot here in 1962. Episodes of Maverick, Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train and other popular TV Westerns were filmed here. More recently, parts of GI Jane, Iron Man, Tremors, Gladiator, Star Trek Generations and Django Unchained were filmed in the Alabama Hills. In fact, there is a fascinating museum in Lone Pine dedicated to the many films, television shows and commercials shot locally.
In 1969, the Bureau of Land Management set aside 30,000 boulder-strewn acres as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. Its mission is to protect the resource while facilitating motor touring, hiking, rock climbing, camping, photography and other recreational pursuits. The area’s rich history in American filmmaking provided additional impetus to protect and preserve the unique property.
Discovering Movie Road
An excellent introduction to the Alabama Hills can be enjoyed by driving the Movie Road, a 12-mile loop that passes many of the more picturesque rock formations and movie locations. Beginning in the center of Lone Pine, drive west on the Whitney Portal Road for 2.7 miles and turn right off the pavement onto Movie Road. This graded gravel track winds for six miles through the rock maze past several famous filming locations before returning to U.S. Highway 395.
The Bureau of Land Management has a downloadable Movie Road brochure that helps identify where key films were shot. (You can find it by typing BLM Movie Road brochure at Google and other online search engines.) Hiking trails, both official and unofficial, lead off to the east and west of Movie Road. Some lead to natural arches of rock, of which there are believed to be over 300 in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. Photographers cannot help but frame distant Mount Whitney in the granite circumference of Mobius Arch and other rock arches scattered throughout the terrain.
What to Expect
Lizards, snakes, rabbits and other denizens of the high desert can be spotted in and amongst the sage and cacti of the Alabama Hills. Although winter snow occasionally falls on the hills at their 5,350-foot elevation, the snow does not linger long in this high, dry and sunny climate. Springtime brings wildflowers to the slopes and crevices among the rough boulders. In summer it can get hot and dusty, with the occasional thunderstorm spilling over the crest of the Sierras. Except for very unusual circumstances, the Alabama Hills Recreation Area is open year-round and there is no entry fee.
Dispersed primitive camping is allowed in nooks and crannies along the Movie Road provided you have a permit issued from the Interagency office in Lone Pine. A better alternative is the Turtle Creek campground, which has fire pits, water and toilet facilities. In and around Lone Pine are several full-service RV parks including the highly regarded Boulder Creek RV Resort four miles south of town on U.S. Highway 395.
So if you are traveling along the east side of the Sierras, be sure to schedule a visit to the Alabama Hills. Drive the Movie Road through the heart of the park and imagine Tyrone Power, Randolph Scott, Richard Boone or Roy Rogers riding among the boulders with cameras rolling. Picture Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) astride his white stallion Topper with goofy sidekick Gabby Hayes trailing behind. Enjoy the unusual rock formations and the magnificent escarpment of Mount Whitney (tallest peak in the lower 48 states) shimmering just to the west. It will be a visit to be remembered and recommended.
John R Howard is an Oregon-based freelance travel writer/photographer with a lifetime of experience hiking, camping and RVing throughout the American West.