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.
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.
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.
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.