Between these two very different environments, the highway passes through Bishop in California, and Carson City and Reno in Nevada. The drive is especially scenic as the highway bisects rugged mountain ranges in the Owens Valley. With the Sierra Nevada to the west, and the Inyo and White mountain ranges to the east, the views are unrivaled, especially during spring when snow coats much of the mountains, whose peaks soar to over 14,000 feet.
Along this great highway no locality blends spectacular scenery, small town America, and a feel for the Old West better than the community of Lone Pine. This settlement of approximately 1,600 friendly souls is nestled between two impressive mountain ranges, the Inyos and the Sierra Nevada. Directly west is the Sierra Nevada’s crown, Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 feet, is the highest peak in the lower 48 states.
Lone Pine is best known as the filming locale for hundreds of movies and TV shows, mostly westerns featuring many of America’s screen giants including Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Randolph Scott, Audie Murphy, Gene Autry, Rex Allen and Roy Rogers. Each October the town celebrates its movie heritage with a three-day Lone Pine Film Festival that features the viewing of movies filmed in the area, guided tours of important film locations, and the return of celebrities who appeared in movies filmed there. A museum near the south end of town offers an excellent introduction to the area’s history as an important filming location. Filled with posters, costumes, and exhibits, the museum also offers a narrated film with clips from many of the movies that were filmed locally. Vintage movie posters and photos are also prominent at many of the town’s businesses.
(This year’s film festival will be held Oct. 8-10. See the fall festival listings on Page 14 for more information.)
The Alabama Hills, just west of town, is a nine-mile long scenic area of granite outcroppings and boulders where most of the filming took place. This area, named long ago by locals sympathetic to the Confederate cause, is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which maintains a series of dirt roads providing access for exploration of former movie locations. Free maps highlighting the roads and movie locations are available at the museum in Lone Pine. A leisurely drive through the hills makes it evident why Hollywood directors and producers found this such a desirable location. Allow your mind to wander a little and you may imagine villains wearing black hats and six-shooters hiding behind a boulder while waiting to rob a passing stagecoach.
Lone Pine was named for the solitary pine tree that settlers found when they entered the Owens Valley in the 1860s. The tree at the confluence of Lone Pine and Turtle creeks was blown down in an 1876 storm, but the town name stuck. The Owens Valley in which Lone Pine is situated has a history of extensive seismic activity. It is thought that the valley formed when a major earthquake caused a drop in the earth’s surface between two major faults, one on the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada, and the other on the western base of the Inyo Mountains. A huge 1872 quake, on a scale of the famous San Francisco quake, leveled most of Lone Pine and the surrounding settlements.
It must be difficult for first-time Owens Valley visitors to visualize this dry high desert land as a thriving agricultural community. However, this was indeed the case. Purchase of land and water rights by the City of Los Angeles in the early 1900s was the beginning of the end for agriculture in this beautiful valley. Los Angeles continued to purchase additional water rights until it had acquired 95 percent of the valley by the 1930s.
Although the scenery alone is reason enough to visit the Lone Pine area, there is much to discover and enjoy in addition to the vistas, especially for anyone who loves the outdoors. Limitless possibilities exist for hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, fishing and hunting. Several outfitters and sports shops are located in the town’s business district. The county operates numerous recreation areas and campgrounds in the area. The first Saturday in March the community celebrates the approach of spring with an Early Trout Opener Derby that includes prizes for the talented and, occasionally, the lucky. A nominal entry fee is charged.
Nine miles north of Lone Pine, Manzanar National Historic Site is a former relocation center where Japanese-American citizens and Japanese aliens were interned during World War II. The center was in operation between 1942 and 1945, with a peak population of over 10,000. Now operated by the National Park Service, the historic site includes an interpretive center featuring exhibits, audio-visual programs and interpretive presentations by park rangers. An excellent 22-minute film provides an overview of events leading up to the relocation of Japanese-Americans and the life they lived in Manzanar. A 3.2-mile self-guided auto tour circles the site where signs indicate places of interest. Visit nps.gov/mana for additional information.
Six miles farther north in the community of Independence, the Eastern California Museum offers exhibits and photos (over 25,000 prints in total) that interpret the natural and cultural heritage of this area of California. A portion of the museum is devoted to the experience of Japanese-Americans at Manzanar. Visitors can also view an impressive Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone basket collection.
Additional information about Lone Pine and the Owens Valley, including lodging, dining, and recreation is available from the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce website at lonepinechamber.com. The Dow Hotel, which served as home to many movie stars who filmed in this area, remains open to the area’s visitors. Accommodations are plain but clean and the lobby is an enjoyable place to visit with other guests. An adjoining motel offers more upscale rooms but without the atmosphere.
Numerous public and private campgrounds are near Lone Pine. These include public units with limited facilities in the scenic Alabama Hills. The county operates a number of recreation areas that include campgrounds. For information, visit inyocountycamping.com. Boulder Creek RV Resort is a particularly nice commercial campground with pull-through sites that can accommodate 60-foot rigs. Electrical service of 30/50 amps is available. The resort is located south of town on U.S. 395. For information, call 800-648-8965, or visit bouldercreekrvresort.com.
David and Kay Scott are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot). They live in Valdosta, Georgia.