Have you ever dreamed of going on a road trip to explore the most unique landscape? The Alabama Hills at the base of California’s Eastern Sierra mountains off of Highway 395 is home to a stunning array of natural arches and rock formations. And it doesn’t hurt that Mt. Whitney is on display as a breathtaking backdrop!
For those that are ambitious and want to tackle the difficult hike up to Mt. Whitney, camping in the Alabama Hills is the perfect spot pre and post-hike.
For those that might not be aware, Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet (4,421 meters) and is a bucket list hike for any avid hiker.
Tip: Interested in finding the coolest hiking and camping essentials? Take a peak in my post, 45+ Awesome Gifts For Hikers & Adventurers!
The Alabama Hills is a photography paradise as there is an unlimited number of natural arches and rock formations that are distinct for their rounded appearance. The most well-known of the arches is by far the Mobius Arch.
As you explore the Alabama Hills landscape, don’t be surprised if you recognize several areas!
The Alabama Hills has been used in several Hollywood movies and commercials for its one-of-a-kind presence…
Where Are The Alabama Hills?
Nope, the Alabama Hills are not located in the state of Alabama. They are located at the gateway of California’s Eastern Sierras near the town of Lone Pine off of Highway 395.
If you are looking at a map then it might seem that they are in the middle of nowhere and they are to some extent.
If you are on a road trip to Mammoth Lakes (3 hours north) or Death Valley National Park (1.25 hours east), then making a stop in the Alabama Hills is perfect.
From Los Angeles, the drive will take about 5 to 5.5 hours and from San Diego, it will take 6 to 6.5 hours to reach the Alabama Hills.
From Highway 395, turn west onto Whitney Portal Rd that is in the heart of the small town of Lone Pine. After about 2.7-miles, veer right onto Movie Road.
Once on Movie Road you are in the Alabama Hills and all of the places listed below will be off of this road.
Tips: To help get you to the correct area, you can enter Mobius Arch Loop Trail into your GPS to start.
If you are flying into California and want to visit the Alabama Hills, find the best car rental ratea here!
The best airports to fly into and then drive out to Alabama Hills are from:
Ontario International Airport (ONT) – 200 miles
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) – 220 miles
San Diego International Airport (SAN) – 300 miles
Start planning your trip and find the best flight deals today!
Hollywood Movie History
When I was researching the area, I was quite surprised to learn that numerous Hollywood movies have been filmed in the Alabama Hills and Lone Pine since 1920!
Looking out onto the landscape you can recognize that the arid land scattered with boulders is perfect for old western movies and any movie set in a rugged environment.
Although there have been over 400 movies and shows filmed in this region, the most famous old movies are The Lone Ranger, The Gene Autry Show, and Bonanza. More recent films include Star Trek V, Tremors, G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Iron Man, Django Unclaimed, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
If you are a lover of film history then visiting the Alabama Hills is a must to see where some classics have been acted out.
The backdrop of unique boulders, mountain peaks and terrain is also popular for photoshoots, commercials, and music videos.
In fact, when I visited, I rounded a clump of boulders and almost walked in front of a photoshoot!
With such a natural rugged landscape it isn’t surprising why this area has been so popular for Hollywood sets.
Note: For movie buffs, there is the Lone Pine Film Festival every October that celebrates the movie industry history in the Alabama Hills.
How Did It Get Its Name?
At first thought, it might seem odd why the hills here are called Alabama Hills when they are in fact not in Alabama.
But the name comes from the C.S.S. Alabama, a confederate battleship during the Civil War.
Prospectors in the area named their mining in these hills with this name as they were sympathetic to the cause and it remained all these years.
The Best Time To Visit The Alabama Hills
The best time of year to venture out into the Alabama Hills is in the spring and fall months as it isn’t too cold or hot.
The summers can easily hover around 100 F or more so unless you love the heat, I would avoid it as there isn’t any shade available.
The winter might be too cold but if you are a photography buff, it is a great time of year to capture the landscape and mountains in the backdrop covered with snow.
If you want to photograph the mountains still blanketed in snow, then spring is a great time as you can also view spring flowers.
Overall, I would say the best months are May, June, September, October, and November for ideal weather.
It is an excellent place to add as part of your road trip to Mammoth Lakes or Death Valley National Park as you will pass it coming from Los Angeles or San Diego.
Geology Of The Alabama Hills
The terrain of the Alabama Hills stands out as being unique and very different than other parts of California.
What makes it even more remarkable is the numerous rounded boulders and rock formations that are a stark contrast to the sharp peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains west of it.
For centuries, natural elements like rain, snow, sandstorms, and wind have gradually smoothed the granite rocks and hills to what you see today.
It truly is a natural wonder how so many arches were formed with the erosion of granite in just the right places…
- Whitney Portal Road is paved but Movie Road is a maintained dirt road.
- If you only plan to stop on the way to Mammoth Lakes or Yosemite, you can easily see everything listed in a few hours to half a day.
- Elevation is at 4,665 feet (1422 meters) so if you are sensitive to high altitude, take it easy and drink lots of water.
- Stop in at the Visitor Center in Lone Pine at the corner of Highway 136 and Highway 395 (2-miles south of Lone Pine).
- There is no cell service available. A GPS satellite communicator comes in very handy when on any road trip or camping trip.
- Carry a daypack and reusable water bottle as you can never have enough water out here.
- There isn’t any shade in the area, so have a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen with you.
- Carry a physical map of the Alabama Hills as a backup if you can’t access maps via your phone.
- Or refer to the book Arches of the Alabama Hills by Orlyn Fordham to help guide the way.
- Bring plenty of snacks and food as there are no facilities. This collapsible travel cooler will keep your food and drinks cold!
- Have a headlamp in case you are walking around near sunrise, dusk or night time!
- Have a roll of toilet paper or Kleenex packs in case you need to pee out in nature… And bring a bag to dispose of any trash!
- To find out more about the best essential hiking and outdoor gear, head over to my post 45+ Awesome Gifts For Hikers & Adventurers.
Alabama Hills Camping
For everyone that loves to camp, then you are in luck as there are a lot of camping options in and near the Alabama Hills.
To stay overnight at a campground, I recommend one of the these below that are near the base of the scenic mountain range that is home to Mt. Whitney.
Tuttle Creek Campground – it has 83 campsites for tents and RV’s and an added bonus of beautiful views of Mt. Whitney. Open all year, a site costs $8.00 and you don’t need to make a reservation. Each site has a fire pit, picnic table with potable water (March thru October). Vault toilets only.
Lone Pine Campground – near the base of Mt. Whitney, this campground welcomes tent and RV camping in its 42 sites. There are vault toilets and food storage lockers (due to bears), no water, and $22.00 per site. You can reserve a spot ahead of time online. Great fishing and hiking near here.
If you are a more adventurous type that wants to camp wherever you want, then you will be happy to know that camping in the Alabama Hills is free!
The land is managed by the BLM or Bureau of Land Management. They allow you to pitch a tent or park your RV anywhere among the rounded boulders of the Alabama Hills.
The negative to camping on this free land is that there are no facilities meaning no water, toilets, electricity or trash cans. But that is part of the adventure, right? Whatever items or trash you bring in, make sure to take with you.
Where To Stay
If you don’t love camping, there are a few options but don’t be expecting any luxury resorts in this region. These are also great places to stay before and after a hike up to Mt. Whitney.
- Quality Inn Lone Pine
- Best Western Plus Frontier Motel
- Winnedumah Hotel – a historic hotel few miles north in the town of Independence
Alabama Hills In California Sights
1. Miss Alabama
As you turn onto Whitney Portal Rd in Lone Pine and head out to the Alabama Hills, Miss Alabama will greet you as you enter on your right.
I admit, other than the rock itself she isn’t completely natural with the addition of paint. But we couldn’t leave her out…
She sticks out so you really can’t miss her splashes of color on tan-colored boulders. Her bright smile seems to say welcome and have a great time!
Since it is right off the road you can hop out to admire her beauty and take some photos before continuing on.
2. Heart Arch
As you leave Miss Alabama behind, continue on Whitney Portal Road and turn right onto Movie Road in about 2-miles.
Once on Movie Road, head to the Mobius Arch Loop Trail that you plugged into your GPS. There is a dirt parking lot and a trailhead to start the loop.
Even though you will walk along the trail, you can spot the Heart Arch looking straight out. It really does look like a heart that has been carved into the rock!
Of all the arches this one is the easiest to spot especially as you don’t even have to go on the trail to see it.
3. Mobius Arch
The Mobius Arch Loop Trail is pretty easy with only a few small inclines that cover a 0.6-mile (1 km) loop where you can see a few natural arches.
The most famous and biggest arch in Alabama Hills is the Mobius Arch which is quite spectacular.
As you make your way to Mobius Arch, the trail is clearly marked and defined where to go. When looking through Mobius Arch, you can frame Mount Whitney in the background.
To capture the mountain range behind the arch, I recommend going in the morning or for sunset. I went too close to midday and let’s just say I can’t wait to go back at a different hour! I’ll likely camp in an epic sunrise and sunset spot.
Walking among the desert landscape and boulders it felt like I was walking on another planet that has yet to be discovered…
4. Lathe Arch
Finding the Lathe Arch isn’t as obvious as the Heart or Mobius arches but it is very close to Mobius.
When you are below Mobius Arch facing the direction of the mountains, walk around to the right and behind Mobius a little bit on the trail.
In just a few steps turn left off of the trail onto a smaller less trafficked trail. This leads to a space between a large boulder on the left side and the Lathe Arch on the right side.
You won’t notice the Lathe Arch from the main trail but explore the area a little as it is there!
Be patient as it is tucked away from sight but worth finding. As with the Mobius Arch, you can photograph Mt. Whitney with the Lathe Arch framing it. It is a rather slender arch compared to other ones you might have seen.
5. Eye Of The Alabama Hills Arch
Once you are back in your car and leaving Mobius Arch Loop Trail parking lot, continue on Movie Road instead of heading back.
Driving ahead, you will go up and over a small hill and stay on the road as it bends to the left.
A short distance from the bend in the road, you can see the Eye of the Alabama Hills on your right side.
You can pull over to the side of the road for some photos or you can drive past it to a small dirt parking lot. That way you have the option to walk up to the Eye for closer inspection.
6. Boot Arch
After seeing the Eye of the Alabama Hills, keep driving on Movie Road (don’t turn around yet).
As the road begins to bend to the left, you can pull over after a short distance and see Boot Arch on your right. It has also been referred to as the High Heel Arch and Horse With A Foot In Mouth.
7. Random Arches
There are hundreds of natural arches throughout the Alabama Hills with the most recognizable listed above. You will begin to see arches of all sizes and shapes as you explore the Alabama Hills. A few other arches that I learned about later and that you might need to hunt around for are:
- Baseball Bat Arch – to the right of Space Arch
- Space Arch – Space Arch and Baseball Bat Arch are a short walk from Mobius Arch continuing farther from where you parked.
- Cyclops Arch
- Laughing Arch
Tip: If you want to make the most of your time and explore as many natural arches as possible, take a look at the book Arches of Alabama Hills by Orlyn Fordham to assist you.
8. Lone Ranger Ambush Point
The site of the Lone Ranger Ambush Point is immediately recognizable if you have seen the movie or googled on YouTube with its smoothly rounded boulders that make an ideal scene. It really does set the stage for a perfect old western scene.
The Lone Ranger is an American classic western movie from 1938 whose main character is the Lone Ranger who fought outlaws with his Native American friend Tonto.
The Lone Ranger was always shown wearing his black mask over his eyes as his “disguise”.
Not much of a disguise but like Clark Kent transforming to Super Man it was pretty obvious who they were! So, I was convinced and proud that I had found and photographed the correct scene from the ambush in the Lone Ranger.
Unfortunately, I realized after I left that I might have gotten the wrong spot. I think I needed to turn left just a little from the scene in the first photo above but they do look really similar! So close and likely just steps away…
Tip: As was in my case, finding Ambush Point isn’t easy and may take some walking around the area to find it correctly. Here are the GPS coordinates to get you as close as possible. (GPS: N36 36.235 W118 07.125)
Once you turn onto Movie Road from Whitney Portal Road, drive 0.8-mile and turn onto a dirt road on your right. Continue for about 0.1-mile and park. Ambush Point should be north of the parking area.
9. Gene Autry Rock
It is pretty obvious that this large rock doesn’t look like a person, so why is it called Gene Autry?
It is named after the actor and singer Gene Autry. He starred in several western movies and shows filmed in this area of the Alabama Hills.
The Gene Autry Rock is located close to the Lone Ranger Ambush Point and is easy to see for its distinct shape!
Other Activities In The Alabama Hills
- Rock climbing – is very popular throughout the region as there are excellent tall and large boulders to practice climbing on.
- Hiking – countless trails to trek
- Photography – if you are staying overnight, photographing the terrain at both sunrise, sunset, and at night provides different perspectives.
- Quads and dirt biking – take to the dirt roads and paths for an adventure.
- Visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine to find out more about the history of this region. The address is 701 S. Main Street, Lone Pine, CA 93545.
Have fun exploring the cool rock formations in the Alabama Hills!
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