Back to the Wild West ~ Alabama Hills

Since our travels down Hwy 395 in the fall of 2012 we have reminisced and daydreamed about following this route north again in the spring. What better time than when planning a trip to the Northwest.

Welcome to the Alabama Hills!
Welcome to the Alabama Hills!

A drive up the 395 is not complete without a stop in Lone Pine, where, when you lay eyes upon the uniquely stacked boulders of the Alabama Hills, you are immediately drawn back to the wild west.  For those like me who think that this is an unusual name for a California landmark, the explanation lies with the old prospectors who staked claims in the hills.  It seems they were sympathetic to the Confederate cause and named their mining claims after the C.S.S. Alabama, a Confederate warship that wreaked havoc during the Civil War.  The name eventually stuck.

Alabama Hills_150502-1190532

Gazing out over this barren, sagebrush dotted landscape, it is easy to envision a “shoot-‘em-out” scene from back in the day. Since 1920 there have been 400 movies filmed here. Movie stars such as Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and The Lone Ranger hunted down outlaws in these hills and more recently Star Trek Generations, Iron Man, and Django Unchained were filmed in the Hills.  A great little movie museum in Lone Pine carries memorabilia from these movies.

Our interest goes beyond the many movie sets you can check off on your drive through the Alabama Hills. Standing in stark contrast to the rounded, oddly shaped boulders are the glacially chiseled Sierra Nevada mountain range and there is no finer backdrop for exploring the myriad trails that snake through these parts.

A nice reminder that we are treading on his territory.
A nice reminder that we are treading on his territory.

Although the Alabama Hills and Sierra Nevada Mountains could not look more dissimilar, they are composed of a similar granite rock uplifted about 100 million years ago. The Hills were subjected to a different type of erosion known as “chemical weathering”, scientists believe at a time when the region was moist and the hills were covered in soil.

Pulling into Tuttle Creek Campground just outside the Hills, we saw big signs reading “WWW”. Thinking there may be no availability due to the arrival of a large group, we were pleasantly surprised to find a few empty sites. We soon learned that “WWW” stood for Wild Wild West Marathon and Ultra, held the first Saturday of May, weaving through the Alabama Hills and the Mt. Whitney foothills. All three races, a 10-miler, marathon, and 50k began at the campground, a rugged course run in sandy soil, up and down long grades, in 80 degree temps, on a blustery day. Made our day seem like a walk in the park.

WWW runners on the 50K course
WWW runners on the 50K course

As a prelude to hiking again at high altitude, we ventured out from the Tuttle Creek Campground where we camped, over to the Arch trailhead at Alabama Hills.  This is home to the famous Mobius Arch that countless photographers have used to frame photos of Mt. Whitney, highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,500’.  From there we ventured out onto the trails in search of more arches, but eventually the wind gusts and blowing sand drove us back to the campground.  We clocked 11 miles and Terry is now thinking he might have a drill sergeant for a wife like someone else we know. 😉

Note: For those interested in “arch scouting”, there are over 200 arches in the Alabama Hills, although many remain elusive and unnamed. You can read more about them here.

From Tuttle Creek our plans were to camp at the Whitney Portal Campground, sitting at the base of Mt. Whitney but the Ranger at the Visitor Center discouraged us with weather reports that sounded less than promising for high altitude hikes.   And they had not received word that the Whitney Portal campground had opened, most likely because of the projected storms.  Since we had done the Whitney Portal Trail in the fall, we opted for Plan B, heading for the hills, where we spent the next two days bouldering and hiking the myriad trails that snake through the rocky outcroppings.  I was on the lookout for arches, but most remained hidden from view.

The best part of our stay was the campsite, with views out our windows of Mt. Whitney and the White Mountains…sweet!  Reverently gazing up at this jagged mountain, I had a sense that the same cool breeze caressing our faces has just rolled down the face of the mountain from high above. Yep, this crazy, otherworldly landscape has a hold on us and we will be back.

Lovely sunset over the White Mtns
Lovely sunset over the White Mtns

80 thoughts on “Back to the Wild West ~ Alabama Hills

  • Love your little play on words with the photo of the ‘snake’. Beautiful photos and the new rig set up will have you camping in some sweet spots this summer. Al and I still have regrets selling our truck camper. Oh well, at least we still have the truck with all the brackets and extra leaf so there could still be one down the road. Keep the photos coming. Happy trails 🙂

    • We really enjoy the Alabama Hills…such striking scenery. As for the truck camper, so far so good, but we have a ways to go yet. With the slide-out it really is pretty roomy. 🙂

    • Lisa, I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back on the road. I have longed for this for some time. Hwy 395 seems to be a good place to get started again. 🙂

    • There are so many places where you can stand out in the ‘Bama Hills and just envision The Lone Ranger coming down the trail chasing an outlaw. 🙂

  • Like so many who live in interesting places, I am learning so much more from your exploration, than when I lived in nearby Bishop, CA for 15 years! i think too, that Long Pine has awakened to its own wonders and made them more accessible with tourist information availble which was not in place in the 90’s (when I moved away). Thanks for making it all come alive.

  • Lovely area!! We’d never heard about it. We’ll have to put it on our to do list. 🙂

  • This is great, LuAnn. When I lived in Escondido, what is now I 15, from San Diego to where 395 leaves it, was called 395, and I have driven it many times. However, it was before I started hiking, so I wasn’t aware of all it had to offer. I am planning a road trip NEXT summer, to California, and possibly to Oregon, to visit some old friends, and I was planning to start in San Diego and go up 395 to Minden, NV, where I will breeze over to Sacramento, then probably go back to 395. I have only been as far north as Susanville on 395, so it will be nice to see the rest of it. I’ll be anxious to see the rest of it, through your eyes. A lot of people think I’m crazy because I always prefer back roads to freeways, but the scenery is so much better. This time, I can stop, pitch my tent, and do some hiking. It’s funny that they call that area the White Mountains. That’s what the area I live in now, is called. I love the shot you took of the sun shining through the clouds. Thanks for the great post.

  • Wow!! Such awesome pictures. We have got to go to this area next year!! Thanks for the interesting dialogue.

    • Thanks you two! We are so ready to do some hiking up in the mountains again. Safe travels as you head north on the “great Alaska adventure”. Wish we were there with you. 🙂

  • LuAnn I think I should be hiking with you for some elevation training! Not so keen on the snake I have to day. Your photos as always are so beautiful. The arch reminds me of a swirl of soft ice cream. 🙂

    • Well, the hike in the hills was not at the elevations that you enjoy up north but hubby hadn’t done too much hiking as of late as he was nursing a pulled muscle, so I thought we should take it easy on him. Funny, he didn’t think an 11-mile hike was very easy. 😉

  • Absolutely beautiful photos, LuAnn. Your header photo is spectacular — love the view of Mt. Whitney through the arch, too. I know you guys are thrilled to be back on the road. You certainly found a gorgeous campsite — it must feel great to be able to tuck your new truck camper into the “perfect” spot. 🙂

    • Although I am having to learn to cook in a much smaller space, the places we can get into make it worth it. We are loving being back on the road again. See you both soon!

    • I suspect you would love the Alabama Hills Bulldog. Wish we could get you and Linda over here and give you a tour. And yes, that was a little rattler.

      • I so want to get more photos of snakes, but in my walks I see them from far and they disappeardown holes far to fast for me… I want to get close ups of cobras with their aggressive pose…

      • Now there is a snake that would make me very nervous, but how thrilling it would be to capture it.

  • I love the happy dragon face rock, that made me smile, it brings a whole new meaning to rock art. The snake made me shudder though, I would be worried I would get bitten, unless sufficiently distracted. I love the Mobius Arch, nature is a wonderful artist.

    • Nature is the perfect artist, isn’t she? I too love the dragon face. The little rattler was a nice reminder to beware as we were hiking among and on the boulders. Mobius Arch may be one of the most photographed arches in the country.

  • We can hardly wait to get to this area on the fall. You know how I love my rocks, arches, and great climbing hikes. This will be heaven for us (at least for this drill sergeant)! Eleven miles is the perfect starter hike:) Your photo of Mt. Whitney framed in the arch is one of the nicest I’ve seen. What a fantastic spot to enjoy the area! Snakes! Not my cup of tea, but I guess they come with the territory. Once again I so enjoy your flow of words. Very witty and so picturesque:) Looking forward to your next stop. Hope the weather holds:) Safe travels.

    • I knew you would catch the drill sergeant comment, as Terry was speaking of you when we were wrapping up the hike. 🙂 Our next hike out of Lone Pine was even tougher, at high elevation, which I will write about soon. It will be a hike that I think you and John will want to do. That little rattler was the only one we saw while in the hills, thankfully. 🙂 P.S. Cold here today, with snow at the campground we just left. We are sitting tight today as tomorrow promises to be better for hiking.

  • First, I forgot to mention that gorgeous header:) Second, your photos are all so beautiful:) And, third, that website on the arches is amazing! What a great site!! I was so excited to see Capital Reef as one of the parks on the list. Since we are staying here next week instead of going to Escalante, you can bet we will be on this arch hunt!! Now as soon as the rain moves on, the search begins!! I can hardly wait!! Thanks so very much for the link!

  • Beautiful pictures ! We were just there, camped by the dragon face rock with our Bighorn, first time boondocking for us. We’re new fulltimers. I saw a similar camper drove by on the dirt road where we camped, I wonder if it was you. Zsuzsa “Z”

    • Oh my goodness! I took a picture of dragon face rock with your 5th-wheel sitting there. Yes, that Arctic Fox that came by was us…small world! We have a 5th-wheel as well that we left parked for the summer and decided to take the truck camper so we could get into smaller spaces. Congratulations on becoming full-timers. What a fabulous lifestyle we have chosen! 🙂

      • Oh, how cool is that ! Wish I knew it was you, small world….I don’t have a blog, not much of a writer, but do post on fb. so maybe next time will meet when it’s so close.

      • We’re in Bishop right now @ the Fairgrounds until Sun. morning, we’ll be in Bishop for awhile but not sure where we’ll stay next, check a few places today. We’re heading north once it’s warmer, possible stops Mammoth, Twin Lakes at Bridgeport.

      • We just got to Bishop a couple of hours ago. We had wanted to stay at the Fairgrounds as well but the website indicated a blackout beginning the 10th as they were preparing for Mule Days. We are staying at a little campground in town behind Schat’s Bakery, convenient to walking anywhere. We are headed to Mountain Rambler Brewery tonight around 5:30pm if you are interested in joining us.

    • We love the hills also. Yesterday we did a hike out of Lone Pine and thought of you two, wondering if you were in Kings Canyon NP, as we hiked up to a pass and stepped out onto the NP. It was beautiful! 🙂

  • I have never heard of Alabama Hills. If we ever get back to CA, we must see this area. It looks absolutely gorgeous.

    I can’t image running in that race. What awesome scenery to run through.

    • You two really should come out to the Alabama Hills. It is such beautiful country. As for the race, it looked pretty grueling to me. I think it would be difficult to enjoy the scenery as I was trying to drag myself up those hills. 🙂

  • What a fascinating rugged rocky landscape. I can definitely understand that this area has been used for movies!

    And I would love to do some “arch scouting” – very cool shapes mother earth has made!

    We don’t really see much snakes up here. Is it a venomous one?

    • Mother Earth has made the most wonderful sights for us to enjoy, hasn’t she? This rugged country takes my breath away every time we are here. And yes, that little guy is a rattlesnake, someone you would not want to mess with. Glad to know that we won’t have to be worrying about snakes when we get up to your neck of the woods. 🙂

  • Such a gorgeous place to camp and your photos are beautiful. I can’t imagine running in the conditions you described and hiking 11 miles is more than what hubby and I could do. Bravo!! Enen though I don’t like the snakes, you stumbled upon a very nice looking specimen!

    Glad you are back in a place that speaks to your heart!

  • When I was a kid in the early 50’s my family lived in Independence CA, just north of Lone Pine. We had our bon fire parties in those very hills. If those rocks could talk! (I am now 74 and haven’t been there since then).

    • We camped just above Independence at Upper Grays Meadow for a couple of nights and did a hike in the mountains. I should have listened to those rocks when we were in the area. 🙂

  • Your photographs are utterly breathtaking! They brought back memories of our night at Lone Pine Campground. I couldn’t quite make out exactly where you stayed. Was it Tuttle Creek or boondocking in the Alabama Hills? There was hardly ANY snow when we were there around mid-February. Have they actually added some since then? I love that area. It’s truly awesome, in every sense of the word.

    • Gunta, we camped at Tuttle Creek for a couple of nights, then at the Alabama Hills for a couple of nights. They had more snow since February and I’m sure there is yet more since we left. We stayed a couple of nights above Independence at a small campground and it was snowing when we woke. The mountains have lots of snow on them now, beautiful but we had planned another high altitude hike, which is probably not going to happen. 😦

  • Your header is great but the sun coming through the clouds is breathtaking! Neat seeing your camper at your beautiful campsite! Have a fabulous time! Safe travels!

  • Exquisite photos for such an exquisite site. Lone Pine has always been in my list. I just know that I needed more than a day to visit all its glory. 🙂 With the kind of job I had in California, I knew I couldn’t visit it then. Seeing your pictures now and reading your experience with it, it confirms that it’s my life’s mission to reach the Lone Pine peak.

    • Keep that one on your list Rommel. If you ever get back to this part of the country, I would love to do some hiking around Lone Pine with you. Stay tuned as I have other hikes to whet your appetite. 🙂

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