When you think of American western movies, you likely envision a cowboy on his horse galloping across dry and dusty roads surrounded by giant boulders set against a backdrop of bright blue skies. While the cowboy has long gone, if you go looking for this landscape, you’ll find it in Alabama Hills, a national recreation area found at the foot of California’s eastern Sierra mountains. And, it’s not a coincidence that this rocky terrain looks like the set for a movie, because this was the filming location for 400 films, most notably westerns.
In 1920, Hollywood discovered the Alabama Hills, a rugged 30,000 acres expanse known for its giant boulders and rocky arches. The scene could be set for gunslingers, aliens, warriors, and even gladiators. The nearby town of Lone Pine became the source of labor and supplies during the filming of hundreds of movies and television shows. And while Hollywood’s interest in the area has decreased in recent years, it remains a popular spot for filming commercials.
Getting To The Alabama Hills
Most people reach the Alabama Hills by car along US 395, a scenic highway well known for road trips. Coming from Los Angeles, the drive will take about 3 hours and 45 minutes. And while it’s certainly possible to stay overnight in a hotel or campground, most people make this a few hours’ stop on their way to another overnight destination.
1. Start At The Museum of Western Film History
A great way to start your visit to Alabama Hills is at the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine. This small museum packs a punch when it comes to preserving the costumes, props, and equipment from hundreds of movies and television shows filmed nearby. Silver adorned saddles, giant latex monsters, a car fitted to carry movie cameras, and original posters from dozens of feature films are displayed throughout the museum. Be sure to watch the documentary movie in the theater about filming in the Alabama Hills. This short film is quite informative and will help visitors better understand the exhibits.
If you’re visiting in October, consider attending the Lone Pine Movie Festival. Watch some of the classic movies made here or attend panels with actors, directors, and producers.
Visit Lone Ranger Canyon
No visit to Alabama Hills is complete without a visit to Lone Ranger Canyon. Even if you never watched an episode of this classic show, you likely remember and recognize the masked cowboy riding a white horse named Silver. This canyon — located along Movie Road — is the site of the ambush that brought together Tonto and Ranger Reid. But it was also a great spot to recreate Afghanistan in the movie Iron Man or the Spanish countryside in Gladiator.
There are dozens of other movie sites to visit in the park. If you’re a western movie buff, use this map from the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce outlining 10 filming locations.
2. Hike To Mobius Arch
For a short and easy hike combined with a terrific photo opportunity, head to Mobius Arch. This monzogranite arch perfectly frames Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Use your GPS to find the trailhead. Fortunately, the 0.6-mile loop hike is one of the few marked trails in the area. If you enjoy nighttime photography, this is a great spot to capture both the arch and stars.
Mobius isn’t the only arch in Alabama Hills, just the most famous. In fact, there are an estimated 200 rock arches here. Other photogenic arches include the Eye of Alabama, Boot, Cyclops, Hitching Post, and Space Case.
3. Go Rock Climbing
It may be obvious with all those boulders and rock formations, but Alabama Hills is an excellent rock climbing destination, especially for beginners. The park has more than 420 established routes and an endless number of bouldering options. Popular spots include Paul’s Paradise, Whitney Cave, and Alabama Dome.
If you’d like to learn to climb, or want the assistance of a guide, consider booking a tour with California Rock Guides. It offers half-day and full-day experiences for both kids and adults.
4. Visit Mount Whitney Portal
Each year 30,000 people attempt to reach the summit of Mount Whitney, but only 10,000 succeed. Many will begin this trek at Mount Whitney Portal, just outside the Alabama Hills. Even if you don’t plan to hike the 22 miles up the mountain, the portal is a beautiful spot to visit. Located in a heavily wooded canyon with towering granite cliffs on either side, the area includes campgrounds, a picnic area, fishing pond, and a stream.
No one is allowed on the Mount Whitney Trail without a permit, and these can only be obtained through lottery. However, if you’re interested in hiking in this wooded spot, then look for the Lone Pine Lake trailhead in the same vicinity. This 6.5-mile out and back hike is very scenic. Keep in mind that you are at 8,374 feet elevation, so your hike may be a bit slower than normal.
5. Ride Your Bike
The 14.7 mile Alabama Hills Loop is an ideal mountain biking experience. The snow-capped Sierras will be your backdrop along this route which is a combination of paved and dirt road. The elevation gain is over 1,900 feet, so some may prefer to shuttle to the highest point and enjoy the ride down. With several stretches of sandy track, fat tires are recommended.
6. Gaze At The Stars
If you can set aside an evening to visit Alabama Hills, then you may be rewarded with a jet-black sky full of bright stars. In fact, this area is well known for sightings of the Milky Way, believed to comprise over 100 billion stars. Like much of the eastern Sierras, there is minimal light pollution in the area making it an excellent destination for observing the night sky. The best time for this experience is on a cloudless, new moon night.
7. Where To Eat Near Alabama Hills
If you want to grab a meal before or after your time in the park, there are several good options in Lone Pine.
Fuel up with a big breakfast at Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery. Known for its large portions and reasonable prices, this is a favorite stop for hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail which passes through the region.
For a hearty dinner after a long day of outdoor adventures try Seasons Restaurant. The large menu features steak, fish, pasta, and even medallions of elk.
If you’re craving barbecue, try Lone Pine Smokehouse. This casual restaurant serves all the classic dishes like ribs, brisket, and pulled pork.
8. Tips For Visiting Alabama Hills
The best time to visit Alabama Hills is in the spring or fall. Summers get very hot with temperatures well into triple digits and winter can be extremely cold. Come in the spring and you’ll be rewarded with wildflowers including yellow willow and desert olive.
There are no services in Alabama Hills, not even restrooms. Bring everything you need for the length of your stay. It’s especially important to bring water since this is a very dry terrain. If you’ll be here for several hours, bring food, especially if you’re biking, hiking, or rock climbing. Before entering the park be sure you have plenty of gas.
Two campgrounds are available by reservation; BLM Tuttle Creek Campground and Inyo National Forest Lone Pine Campground. Currently, dispersed camping is allowed, but that may change, so be sure to check the website before arriving. This area is known for high wind advisories, so check the weather before planning to camp here.
There aren’t many signs in the park, so plan to use your GPS to get around and find some of the most popular sites.
Despite being a wildly popular filming spot for almost 100 years, Alabama Hills has remained a relatively unknown destination for tourists. Each year thousands of visitors speed through Lone Pine on their way to somewhere else and don’t even know the natural beauty and film history that this region holds. Film buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, and nature lovers should definitely set aside a few hours — or an entire day — to explore everything that this recreation area offers.
Want to visit other filming locations? Check out: