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
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A Breathtaking Hike and a Sad Farewell ~ Sierra Nevadas, CA

whitney portal trail
Lovely Lone Pine Lake, set in a granite bowl

We have bid a sad farewell to the Sierra Nevadas and moved on from the Alabama Hills due to the threat of a high-wind warning.  Our original plans were to leave a few days hence anyway, so we thought erring on the side of caution was prudent for us.  Our friends Nina and Paul had plans to stay another week, so hopefully the high winds bypassed the Alabamas and we will all be treated instead to some of Nina’s fabulous photography of snow-capped peaks in an upcoming post.

All four of us had planned a second hike before our departure, sadly not to be, but fortunately we did hike the Whitney Portal Trail  to Lone Pine Lake, which was spectacular for viewing soaring granite walls, stunning fall colors, and a lovely lake at the end.  It was rather exciting to think that we were trekking up the same trail that those summiting Mount Whitney hike, although our journey was a much abbreviated version – 2.5 miles vs. 13 miles to the summit.

The gang headin’ out!
Stunning fall colors racing up the canyon

Whitney Portal is one of the busiest trailheads in the Sierra Nevadas and is most often hiked by those going the full distance.  Our 5-miler round-trip began at 8365 feet with a 1500 foot elevation gain to Lone Pine Lake, a far cry from the 6100 foot gain required to summit.  It is a well-maintained trail and a hike that we highly recommend if you are in the area.

Terry enjoying an amazing view to the desert floor below

Although our time here was cut short, we soaked in a lot of natural beauty and enjoyed a breathtaking hike, sharing some good times with friends along the way.  It’s no wonder we are bidding a sad farewell to this magical place.

Lenticular cloud above the Alabama Hills ~ “Sierra Wave”

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A Boondocking First ~ The Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, CA

Alabama Hills
Camped at the Rawhide movie Grave Site

We are on our first big “boondocking” adventure, thanks to RV buddies Nina and Paul.  They slowly indoctrinated us at June Lake where we were dry-camping but now it is the real deal, truly goin’ naked out on BLM land.  I must say it is invigorating, just like running around naked in the wilderness would feel, and now that I mention it, we could definitely traipse through the desert au natural if the mood hit as campers are few and far between here.

First happy hour

Our location, chosen by none other than the lovely RV bloggess Nina, is in the Owens Valley just west of Lone Pine, CA in the Alabama Hills.  If you have never been, this place seems a bit otherworldly.   Technically the Alabamas are part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains but considered more a range of hills and they look nothing like the Sierras.

Sunrise in the Alabama Hills

The Sierras stand as tall, rugged granite peaks all around us, with Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states towering above them all at 14,505 feet.  The Alabamas, however, although about the same age as the Sierras, roughly 150 million years old (give or take a few million years), are a volcanic rock that has been weathered over millions of years to resemble large potato-shaped boulders that have been turned on their ends.  It is believed that the same cataclysmic events shaped both the Sierras and the Alabamas.  A millennia of driving winds and snow are the tools that sculpted the unusual shaped granite boulders that are now the Alabama Hills, strewn throughout this desert landscape.

Rugged Mt Whitney seen through Mobius Arch

Approximately 300 arches dot these 30,000 acres of Alabama Hills, the most famous being the Mobius Arch, which is a favorite of photographers.  If you place yourself just right, you are able to capture Mt. Whitney within this lovely curved arch.  The trail to the arch is a short ¼ mile hike and from there you are free to explore the many unusual boulder pilings against a backdrop of granite peaks.  It is important to keep your bearings out here as the piles of boulders all begin to look alike after a time.  I must admit to getting a bit turned around and coming out at a completely different location than I had entered but was still able to find my way back home.

With landscape this otherworldly, you gotta know that something special has happened here, right?  Heck, the name alone had me wondering why ‘Alabama Hills’ in the middle of California?  First, let’s get that answer out of the way.  The Alabama Hills were named for the Civil War Confederate warship, USS Alabama.  It seems there were a few wayward prospectors wandering them thar hills who were sympathizers to the Confederate cause.  They named these hills and it stuck!

Alabama Hills beauty
Geological changes at their finest

Probably what this area is most noted for is the 150+ movies and roughly a dozen television shows that were filmed here, most notably old Western movie productions, dating back to the early 1920’s.  A few of the more notable Western films include Gunga Din, How the West Was Won, Rawhide, Bad Day at Black Rock and a few non-Westerns filmed here were Gladiator, Iron Man, and Star Trek Generations.  A few of the old television productions, for those of you who can remember (I was a wee bit too young!) were Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, and The Gene Autry Show.

Lone Pine Film Museum

If you tour the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center at the south end of Lone Pine, and you should because it is very well done, you can pick up a booklet that will take you through a self-guided tour of the Alabama Hills movie filming locations.  As long as you are in the area, a stop by the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History is pretty fascinating as well.  We discovered shortly after flipping through the Movie Road tour guide that our rigs are situated at the Rawhide movie Grave Site.  Does Nina know how to pick a site, or what?!

I have lots more to share about this amazing area, along with a couple fabulous hikes, which I will do in subsequent posts, provided my Internet connectivity cooperates.  We are out in the boonies, you know!  Although it hasn’t stopped those techie engineers Nina and Paul from blogging away!

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