Supermoon above the Eastern Sierra Mountains, California, USA.; Shutterstock ID 556617343; your: Meghan O'Dea; gl: 65050; netsuite: Digital Editorial; full: POI

Shutterstock / Johnny Adolphson

Alabama Hills

Top choice in Lone Pine

The setting for countless ride-‘em-out movies, the popular Lone Ranger TV series and, more recently, parts of Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) and Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), the stunning orange rock formations of California's Alabama Hills are a beautiful place to experience sunrise or sunset. 

But why are these brightly hued formations called the Alabama Hills when they sit west of Lone Pine in the Sierra Nevada? Wouldn't they have more suitably been named the 'California Hills'? It turns out that a group of miners digging in these hills during the Civil War years were supporters of the Confederacy and chose the moniker in honor of the CSS Alabama, which was wreaking havoc on Union ships.

It's easy to see why Hollywood continues to shoot movies at Alabama Hills © Shutterstock / Wisanu Boonrawd

Visiting Alabama Hills

You can drive, walk or mountain bike along dirt roads rambling through the boulders, and along Tuttle and Lone Pine Creeks. The warm colors and rounded contours of the Alabama Hills, located on Whitney Portal Rd/Movie Flat Rd, stand in contrast to the jagged, snowy Sierras just behind. A number of graceful rock arches are within easy hiking distance of the roads.

Head west on Whitney Portal Rd and either turn left at Tuttle Creek Rd, after a half-mile, or north on Movie Flat Rd, after about 3 miles. Following the latter route, the road eventually turns into Moffat Ranch Rd and brings you back to Hwy 395, only 3½ miles south of Manzanar National Historic Site. The websites of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and the Museum of Western Film History have excellent movie-location maps.

The Mobius Arch in Alabama Hills is one of the destination's most popular features © Adonis Villanueva/Shutterstock

There are dozens of weird and wonderful shapes to look out for while exploring the otherworldly rock formations of the Alabama Hills. Here are a few to tick off during a hike.

  • Spooks A bunch of ghost heads all sitting on top of each other, in a mound.
  • Mobius Arch Perfectly framing Mt Whitney through its window.
  • Batman The outline of the Cape Crusader's logo in a rock.
  • The Face A spray painted rock with a blue star eye and sharp teeth along Whitney Portal Rd.
  • The Cougar A profile of a wild cat outline on the side of rock.
  • Bishop Pointy rock that looks like an old man in a cloak.
  • Football Player Side view of a man kneeling down with his leg half way up.
  • Eagle Head Profile including the beak, eye and head of America's national animal.
Two friends standing by campfire at night while camping in Alabama Hills Recreation Area, Lone Pine, California, USA
Camping is one of the best ways to experience the Alabama Hills, from its colorful daytime hues to its starry light shows at night © Getty Images/Aurora Open

Alabama Hills camping

You can't go wrong with free camping amid some of the most striking scenery in the Sierras. Go along Movie Flat Rd, then pull off onto any of the dirt roads to find a private spot behind a rock formation with snowcapped mountains towering above. Of course, services are nonexistent, but for those you can head into Lone Pine, a short drive away.

Indeed, about midway between Lone Pine and Whitney Portal, the popular creekside USFS Lone Pine campground (elevation 6000ft) offers vault toilets and potable water. Also has a designated family section. Can get busy in peak summer, so pitch up early.

Another option is Turtle Creek. Off Whitney Portal Rd, this first-come, first-served Bureau of Land Management campground has 83 primitive sites at 5120ft with panoramic ‘pinch-me!’ views of the Sierras, the White Mountains and the rosy Alabama Hills. There’s not much shade, though. It's near a small river, so occasionally can get mosquitos and is rather windy. Drop toilets on site.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Lone Pine attractions

1. Museum of Western Film History

3.06 MILES

More than 400 movies, not to mention numerous commercials (mostly for rugged SUVs and Jeeps), have been shot in the area. This fascinating museum contains…

2. Manzanar National Historic Site

8.81 MILES

A stark wooden guard tower alerts drivers to one of US history's darkest chapters, which unfolded on a barren, windy sweep of land some 5 miles south of…

3. Mt Whitney

10.11 MILES

West of Lone Pine, the jagged incisors of the Sierra surge skyward in all their raw and fierce glory. Cradled by scores of smaller pinnacles, Mt Whitney…

4. Mary Austin's House

14.66 MILES

Fans of Mary Austin (1868–1934), renowned author of The Land of Little Rain and vocal foe of the desertification of the Owens Valley, can follow signs…

5. Eastern California Museum

14.7 MILES

This museum contains one of the most complete collections of Paiute and Shoshone baskets in the country, as well as artifacts from the Manzanar National…

6. Mist Falls

28.14 MILES

One of the most popular destinations for a day hike from the Cedar Grove area of Kings Canyon, Mist Falls is an Edenic spot, with massive boulders,…

7. Muir Rock

29.13 MILES

On excursions to Kings Canyon, John Muir would allegedly give talks on this large, flat river boulder, a short walk from the Road's End parking lot and…

8. Roads End

29.18 MILES

Six miles east of Cedar Grove Village is the end of the road for cars. A seasonal ranger station issues wilderness permits, sells maps and hiking guides,…