Hello! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to check out my article on the Alabama Hills. My name is Caleb Faulkner and I’m from a small town in West Virginia. Growing up from humble beginnings, my family was never able to do much traveling aside from the occasional trip in-state or a road trip to my grandparents’ house a couple of states over.
I had never been on an airplane until after my senior year of high school! The world always seemed so huge and inaccessible to me. After moving off to college in the early 2000’s, I applied for a job in the airline industry and my life changed. Over the last nearly 15 years, I have had the opportunity to move around the US, travel to dozens of countries, visit six continents, see 48 of the 50 states and even met my wife, Ruth, along the way.
Having the opportunity to travel changed my life and my view of the world. It also inspired me to pick up photography as a hobby, so I could share the beauty of the world with friends and family. Ruth and I now live in Utah, and love filling our time by hiking in the mountains, or hopping on a flight, renting a minivan to camp in, and looking for our next adventure.
My Experience at the Alabama Hills
I first came across the Alabama Hills several years ago when my MacBook Pro featured a picture of Lone Pine Peak as the background. I loved that background, and felt a sense of wanderlust every time I saw it, knowing that one day I would make it there and take a picture of it myself.
After a couple of years staring at my computer and wishing I could see it in person, my wife and I decided to take advantage of an extended weekend and go for it, tacking on a few national parks (Death Valley, Sequoia and Kings Canyon) along the way. Vacation in our household is never what you would call a “relaxing” experience. We like to hit the ground running, utilizing whatever time we have to see as much as we possibly can.
From our home in Salt Lake City, we flew to Las Vegas, rented a minivan, and hit the road west through the desert. On our way to Lone Pine, we passed through Death Valley where we spent 24-hours experiencing the hottest place on earth. After departing the west side of the park, it was only a 45-minute drive until we reached Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills.
Nestled in a valley between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Inyo Mountains, Lone Pine is a quaint little old-western town with a population of just over 2,000. On the outskirts of town are the Alabama Hills which is where the real fun begins. The area is littered with thousands of massive boulders, unique rock formations and incredible arches, with trails weaving through the rocks – so you can get close with all that the area has to offer.
The view is highlighted with the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and majestic peaks such as Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney, which is the highest peak in the lower 48 states standing at 14,505 feet. The area has tons of pull-off areas for vehicles, which is perfect for burrowing in between some boulders and camping beneath the starry sky.
With our time being limited, we could only spend two days here, but I loved every minute of it. The area brought to life the little kid in me – running and climbing on rocks, and peeking through arches. The area provides for a hands-on experience. After our time in Lone Pine, we continued on to Sequoia and Kings Canyon before heading back to Las Vegas to catch our flights. It was a fun-filled vacation, covering over 1,100 miles in four days.
Interesting History of Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills
Prior to my trip to the Alabama Hills, I knew next to nothing about the area, aside from it being the scenic background on my MacBook Pro computer. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the city of Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills is so much more than just one beautiful mountain peak.
Lone Pine got its name in the mid-1800s when settlers moved west to California. In the shadows of the Sierra Nevada’s were two creeks that intersected, providing settlers with freshwater. Growing at the junction of the two creeks was a single, solitary pine tree. When deciding what to call their new home, the settlers opted for Lone Pine. Although the tree was destroyed during a storm in 1872, the name has continued to live on.
The Alabama Hills also has an interesting history as to how it got its name. While you don’t hear much about California in relation to the Civil War, this small area in eastern California has ties directly to the war. The Alabama Hills were named in 1862 by prospectors sympathetic to the South, who named it after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship.
In 1864, when news reached California that the CSS Alabama had been sunk by a Union warship (the USS Kearsarge), prospectors 20 miles up the road who were Northern supporters decided to retaliate by naming their town Kearsarge, as well as a mountain pass and mountain peak close by.
Why the Alabama Hills should be on your Adventure List
For travelers visiting for the first time, “outdoor playground” is the phrase that comes to my mind of what you can expect. With thousands of boulders, arches, slots and trails, you can be entertained for days. Climbing around on the rocks is commonplace, with every direction you look providing a unique and incredible view of the mountains.
While there is a lot of freedom when exploring the Alabama Hills, it’s always important to be respectful of the land, be mindful of any rules set in place, and leave the area better than you found it. As long as you do a little bit of planning for any supplies you might need for a night of camping, the Alabama Hills can provide for some unforgettable experiences.
Favorite Place at the Alabama Hills: Mobius Arch
When it comes to photography, I’m not very good at planning my shots ahead of time, or necessarily knowing where to be at the right moment to get a particular shot. While this may be to my detriment a lot of times, it has also added to the excitement I feel when exploring a place for the first time – working with what is in front of me in that moment and enjoying the sense of accomplishment when I capture something beautiful.
I would feel that sense of excitement with what felt like every step I took exploring the Alabama Hills. Having the Sierra Nevada Mountains and their picturesque peaks to the west, and the green valley floor and the Inyo Mountains to the east – every rock, crevice and corner seemed to offer a unique perspective and vantage point, each one taking my breath away.
I would say my favorite place at the Alabama Hills was Mobius Arch, facing west toward the Sierra Nevada’s. The arch is beautiful in and of itself, surrounded by massive rocks that complement its shape. When in the right spot, you can see Lone Pine Peak framed perfectly by the arch.
This was especially memorable as Lone Pine Peak was my inspiration for visiting the Alabama Hills in the first place. I came upon this view close to sunset, as the sun was working its way down below the mountains. As I snapped the picture, I captured a bright sun star in the corner of the arch, which felt like an exclamation point on a shot that I will never forget.
While I typically prefer being behind the camera as opposed to in front of it, unbeknownst to me, my wife snuck a picture of me as I was running from spot to spot in a picture-taking frenzy, capturing the big smile on my face as I was having the time of my life. Seeing that picture always transports me back to living out those special memories.
Top 5 Things To Do at the Alabama Hills and Surrounding Areas
1. Spend a Full Day Exploring the Alabama Hills
Let your inner child run wild and explore the hills. Climb the rocks. Jump from boulder to boulder. Stand under an arch and get your picture taken. Take a walk along the trails that weave throughout the rocks. Get to a high vantage point and just have a seat, taking in the beauty of the area.
2. Camp among the Hills for at least One Night
Make it a point to spend at least one night camping among the hills. The Alabama Hills take on a whole new look at night – with the shadows of the rocks and surrounding mountains, and the clear night sky showing off the beautiful display of stars. The stargazing opportunities here are world-class.
If you are there during the right time of year, let your eyes adjust to the dark and gaze into the Milky Way and it’s clusters of stars. Make a fire and cook hot dogs and marshmallows, and sit back and listen to the wind blow through the boulders. It’s a great way to escape the stresses of life.
3. Watch the Sunrise towards the Sierra Nevada’s
Make the effort to wake up before the sunrise and find either a scenic or a comfortable spot among the rocks, facing west towards the Sierra Nevada’s. As the sun rises from the east, the peaks begin to glow a bright orange. Then the sun slowly starts to illuminate the rest of the mountain.
It’s one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. If you have your camera with you, there are countless views and unique angles to capture in a personalized way. Your unique viewpoint in the hills will be yours to cherish forever. After all, no two photos of the Alabama Hills are the same.
4. Visit the Museum of Western Film History
Spend a couple of hours exploring the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine. Because of its unique landscape, the Alabama Hills have been a popular filming location for many movies and TV shows. In fact, since 1920, there have been over 700 movies and shows that have featured some part of the Alabama Hills, as well as thousands of commercials.
Popular titles include Gladiator, The Lone Ranger, Django Unchained, Man of Steel, Star Trek, and most notably, the 2008 blockbuster Ironman, starring Robert Downey Jr. The Museum of Western Film History pays tribute to legendary heroes of the West, featuring a wide collection of western film memorabilia associated with the films made in the area.
The museum also supports the Lone Pine Film Festival over Columbus Day weekend each year, featuring screenings, panels, authors and tours of the Alabama Hills – showing the exact locations of some of the most notorious shots. This is a must-do if visiting over Columbus Day weekend.
5. Take an Adventure in the Mount Whitney Zone
If you are looking for even more incredible views, take a drive up the 13-mile road to the Whitney Portal, starting in Lone Pine and ending at the Mount Whitney Trailhead. For those interested in a more strenuous experience, consider taking a hike to the summit of Mount Whitney – a 22-mile round trip excursion, gaining nearly 6,700 feet in elevation as you climb to the top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States of America.
This hike is not for the casual traveler and does require a permit to ascend the mountain. If summiting sounds like a tall order, a great alternative is hiking to Lone Pine Lake, only 2.5 miles each way from the trailhead. While permits are required for most activities in the Mount Whitney Zone, it’s best to start your journey in Lone Pine with a visit to the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center where you can have all your questions answered.
My Favorite Memory from the Alabama Hills
My favorite memory from the Alabama Hills was experiencing the sunrise after camping among the rocks. I woke before the sun came up and went walking along one of the many trails to find a view of the mountains that resonated with me. This was a harder task than I imagined as every view along the trail was so beautiful. I didn’t want to miss out on any of them!
Eventually I was content with a spot I found and just watched as the peaks began to glow – watching as the warm light continued to expand, covering the entire range. While I did snap hundreds of pictures, at a certain point I just had to put my camera down and take in the sights without distraction.
Lone Pine Peak is such a beautiful mountain, and Mount Whitney is a unique and prominent structure. I often find it’s easy to get distracted trying to take as many pictures as possible, but it’s important to “stop and smell the roses” every now and then – taking in a view through your own eyes instead of the lens of a camera. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to see this incredible area for myself, as it’s an experience I will always cherish.
Accommodation Options near the Alabama Hills
To best experience the Alabama Hills and it’s unique landscape, I suggest camping among the rocks – whether it’s in a tent, vehicle or RV. There is something special about being out in the hills, and seeing the landscape at night under the glow of the moon and stars. With the layout of the rocks, it’s easy to feel like you have your own private space to kick back and relax.
While we didn’t utilize any of the lodging in town, there are a handful of charming Airbnb properties, as well as small motels along the main drag of Lone Pine – all within a couple miles of the hills. For those interested in camping but looking for a more structured experience, there are lots of campgrounds in the area offering different levels of amenities.
More Amazing Adventures to Enjoy in Eastern California
Eastern California is filled with lots of exciting adventures, especially for those looking to enjoy some time in the great outdoors. Surrounding the Lone Pine area are four national parks (Death Valley, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite) – all of which provide incredible views and experiences, and are each worthy of their own dedicated trip.
Just north of Lone Pine, you can hike the Kearsarge Pass Trail – a nearly 10 mile round trip that takes you past alpine lakes and provides breathtaking views of the Kearsarge Pinnacles. Drive a little further north and you will find Bishop, another charming town with its own attractions. It boasts a plethora of opportunities for hiking, climbing and fishing. A few miles east of the city, you can visit Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest – another gem!
Need to Know Before you Go
Lone Pine and the surrounding areas are something I think everyone should make the effort to go see at least once (although after you see it, I don’t think once will be enough). While getting there isn’t as easy as just hopping on a plane, the setting is well worth the effort. The locals are laid back and welcoming, the towns are charming and the views are incredible.
While you shouldn’t expect to find a Walmart during your visit, as the towns are small in both size and amenities, there is enough to ensure you can find the few supplies you may need to make your trip enjoyable. Having your own transport is a must, and the more off-road capable your vehicle is, the more you will be able to explore during your time in the hills.
Whether you are a weekend warrior or a seasoned traveler, the Alabama Hills have all the makings of an unforgettable trip, allowing you to enjoy nature at its finest. It’s a haven for both outdoor enthusiasts and casual travelers alike. There is something for everyone at the Alabama Hills!