The Alabama Hills should definitely be on your California itinerary if you enjoy nature and the outdoors! This otherworldly landscape of rock formations is nestled at the foot of the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains near the town of Lone Pine, CA, an easy drive from LA or a great stop on a Highway 395 road trip or a California desert road trip.
The rugged wonderland of the Alabama Hills offers numerous natural arches to explore and beautiful rock formations to view. An amazing playground for hikers, climbers, landscape photographers, plein air painters, and nature lovers, the Alabama Hills have served as the location for hundreds of Western movies and TV shows, from The Lone Ranger to The Gene Autry Show.
The rounded rock formations and tawny hills, set against the jagged snow-dusted peaks of the Sierra Nevada, make for a picture postcard landscape that is irresistible if you love larger-than-life vistas that spell adventure.
Considering a visit to the Alabama Hills, California? Read on for the best things to do in the Alabama Hills, plus some things to know before you go!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Brief Overview of the Alabama Hills
Things to Do in the Alabama Hills
How to Get to the Alabama Hills
Where to Stay When You Visit the Alabama Hills, CA
The Best Time of Year to Visit the Alabama Hills in California
Tips for Your Visit to the Alabama Hills
Brief Overview of the Alabama Hills
Although their rounded shapes look completely different from the jagged faces of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Alabama Hills were formed around the same time as the mountains: they just eroded differently over time, resulting in the pleasing contrast in the landscape we see today.
Fun fact: The Alabama Hills were named for the CSS Alabama, a confederate warship whose exploits during the Civil War impressed California miners sympathetic to the Confederate cause. When the ship was sunk by the USS Kearsarge, miners that were for the Union named a mountain pass, a town, and a mountain peak after the CSS Kearsarge!
The Bureau of Land Management manages the Alabama Hills. It used to be managed as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area, but in 2019, Congress designated it the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area. By whatever name you call it, the area is a beautiful escape into the wilderness!
Things to Do in the Alabama Hills
Drive Movie Road
Made popular by Instagram, Movie Road in the Alabama Hills is a graded dirt road that is considered generally passable in a sedan. The scenic drive offers expansive views of the Alabama Hills and the Sierra Nevada, with the straight strip of road creating beautiful leading lines into the view.
As one of the top photo locations in the Alabama Hills, Movie Road is understandably one of its most crowded sections. If you visit on a good weather day, arrive early or late for the best chance of getting good photos of the road without lots of vehicles on it.
To get to Movie Road from the town of Lone Pine, drive east on Whitney Portal Road for 2.7 miles. At the sign that says “Alabama Hills Recreation Area,” make a right onto Movie Flat Road. Movie Flat Road is a dirt road that becomes Movie Road after you pass the Eye of the Alabama Hills arch. See map.
Tour other dirt roads
For a driving tour experience away from the beaten path, set out to explore some of the other graded dirt roads in the Alabama Hills! Most of these roads are unmarked, but they are generally not difficult and you can drive them in a regular vehicle when the roads are dry. A 4WD would of course be a plus!
Exploring these dirt roads will give you the opportunity to view rock formations and natural arches beyond those listed in the guides. In the spring, you will see wildflowers and cacti in bloom. Be sure to stay on the roads: going off road can damage vegetation.
Ask for suggestions for driving routes at the Lone Pine Visitor Center in town or at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center on US Route 395. Especially if you are visiting in a regular sedan and not a high clearance vehicle, you will want to know the roads and routes on which you can safely drive.
Snap a Photo of Mobius Arch by Day
The Alabama Hills are home to numerous natural arches, but probably the most photographed arch here is Mobius Arch. With good reason: it looks gorgeous, and it frames stunning views of Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak!
If you are okay with an early wake-up call, plan to arrive at Mobius Arch at sunrise. Seeing the alpenglow on the Sierra peaks through the Mobius Arch is a scene you will cherish for a long time. Sunset is another great time for photos at Mobius Arch.
The trailhead for the Mobius Arch Loop Trail is on Movie Flat Road. It is signposted, and there is a dirt parking lot where you can park. The trail is a 0.6-mile loop, with some steps and climbing, but it is a relatively easy trail.
You can walk all around the arch and photograph it, and the view you see, from different angles.
And Capture Mobius Arch at Night
If you enjoy night photography, the Mobius Arch makes for a great spot to capture the Milky Way, with the arch in the foreground. You can also visit on a full moon night, to photograph the moon and Mobius Arch together.
Mobius Arch is a popular night photo spot for serious photographers, so expect to share the scene with other photography enthusiasts on night when conditions are optimal.
Explore Other Named Arches and Rocks in the Alabama Hills
Mobius Arch is the most famous of the arches in the Alabama Hills, but there are many other named arches you can try to find as you explore. These are some of the arches in the area that make for great photos:
- Lathe Arch is located along the Mobius Arch Loop Trail, quite close to Mobius Arch. It is small and lies close to the ground, but if you look through it you can get a great view of the Sierra Nevada!
- Heart Arch can be seen in the distance from the parking area of the Mobius Arch Loop Trail, and you can hike closer to it via the trail. At the fork in the trail where you go left for Mobius Arch, make a right to the Heart Arch. Along the route, you will see many other unnamed arches, so keep your camera handy!
- Eye of the Alabama Hills Arch can be accessed via a short hike from Movie Flat Road. You can see the arch from the road, and you will find places to pull off the road and park. The rocks around this arch offer fabulous views of the landscape.
- Boot Arch is another popular photo spot, during the day as well as at night. The arch looks like a lady’s boot and is a little further up along Movie Flat Road.
- Whitney Portal Arch is accessed off Whitney Portal Road, and you can even see it from the road. The dirt road to the trailhead comes up a little over 5 miles from the intersection in Lone Pine. The trail offers stunning views of the Sierra Nevada and Mount Whitney.
- Miss Alabama is a face painted on a rock as you enter the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. She is pretty hard to miss! We were ambivalent about her because we like our natural landscapes left untouched, but she is a popular landmark in the area.
There are numerous other arches, rocks, and other natural features that you can discover in the Alabama Hills. Finding them is just a function of how much time you have in the area, and how much you enjoy driving around and hiking to find more of them.
If you love hiking or touring and want to try and find more Alabama Hills arches during your visit, you may want to pick up a very helpful book called Arches of the Alabama Hills. The book has maps, color photos, and GPS coordinates for several dozen arches and other natural features in this fascinating area. Buy it on Amazon!
Tour Movie Locations
The Alabama Hills are most well known as a location for numerous Hollywood movies, TV shows, and commercials. From classics like Gunga Din and The Walking Hills to The Lone Ranger and more recent movies like Django Unchained, the Alabama Hills have provided the setting for the deserted canyons and rugged hills you’ve seen in these movies.
In fact, when you are out walking around in the Alabama Hills, away from people at Movie Flats Road, you half-expect cowboys on horses to come careening around the next bend in the trail, or the sound of pistol shots to break the silence.
You can tour some of the famous movie locations, such as Lone Ranger Canyon, Gunga Din Canyon, or Roy Rogers Movie Flats. All are superbly scenic, making for great photo ops. Also stop by the commemorative Movie Plaque, at the corner of Whitney Portal and Movie Road!
If you are a local history buff or Western movie aficionado, stop by the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine on your way into the Alabama Hills. At the museum, you can pick up a brochure that details some of the more popular movie locations, to help you identify them as you tour.
Enjoy Outdoor Activities
Other than auto touring and walking around to view the more famous arches and rocks, you can also enjoy a variety of outdoor pursuits in these scenic surroundings.
Hiking is the most popular activity in the Alabama Hills, and since there aren’t many clearly identified trails, you can explore at will, being careful to preserve vegetation and practicing leave no trace principles. Rock climbing or scrambling, mountain biking, and horseback riding are other options to explore. Note that you can only drive or bike on existing roads or trails.
Speak with rangers at the Lone Pine Visitor Center or the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to identify activities suitable for you and your companions, and safe places to explore. The area is reported to contain mine tunnels and shafts that may give way.
Observe the Night Sky
The Alabama Hills are one of the top spots in the Eastern Sierra for night sky observation. Away from light pollution sources, the skies here shine bright with millions of stars on a clear moonless night. Full moon nights offer the chance to view the moon behind the arches of the Alabama Hills for a different night sky experience.
If you want to see the Milky Way, visit between late summer and fall, when the Milky Way is higher up in the sky. Bring a paper night sky map to help identify heavenly bodies. A telescope, of course, is very helpful, or even powerful binoculars, but you can see bright constellations with the naked eye.
Remember that your eyes take a while to adapt to the night, so plan on staying out for a bit until your eyes adjust and you can see the sky light up with stars.
Enjoy the local flora and fauna
Vegetation in the Alabama Hills is sparse, making the rock formations the star of the landscape. But if you visit in the spring, you will find the area bright with wildflowers, from the pink prairie smoke to the red desert paintbrush.
Birders should bring their binoculars: some of the birds that have been spotted here include the California quail, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and rock wrens.
You may see lizards and other small creatures, but bird sightings are much more likely during the day. There are rattlesnakes that call the Alabama Hills home, so watch where you put your hands and feet and give the snake plenty of room if you encounter one.
Getting to The Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills are located in the Owens Valley, west of the town of Lone Pine. Coming from LA or Palm Springs and points south, get on US 395 North. From Lone Pine, take Whitney Portal Road to the sign for Alabama Hills Recreation Area, which comes up in about 2.5 miles.
Coming from Mammoth Lakes or points north, take US 395 South to Lone Pine and then take Whitney Portal Road to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area.
Where to Stay when You Visit the Alabama Hills, CA
The Alabama Hills are a dispersed camping area, with no facilities and no fees. You can pitch a tent or park your RV is a secluded spot to enjoy the wilderness, but you have to bring your own water and pack out your garbage and waste. Be careful to camp only in obvious clearances so you don’t harm vegetation, and leave no trace.
There are numerous established campgrounds in the area as well, with tent camping or RV hookups. Tuttle Creek Campground is open year round and the fee is modest. Whitney Portal Campground, with several tent-only sites, and Lone Pine Campground, particularly popular with RV campers, are other options. Visit recreation.gov to view availability and amenities, or to book a site.
If you don’t own an RV but would like to tour the Alabama Hills in one, check out Outdoorsy to find the perfect vehicle for your trip!
If you’d rather stay in a hotel or Airbnb while you explore the Alabama Hills, the town of Lone Pine offers lodging, dining, and shopping.
This beautiful Airbnb home has a stunning location in the Alabama Hills, with large decks from which to appreciate the views. The home is located just a 10-minute drive from town. Stylish furnishings, heating and AC, a full kitchen, wifi and Roku are just some of the mod cons this home offers. Book a stay here!
The West Wind on Lone Starr is a cabin retreat for two. With a large private deck to take in the views and comfortable living and sleeping spaces, this retreat makes the perfect desert escape. Book a stay here!
(If you are visiting as a family or a group of four, the host of West Wind also offers the larger 2-bedroom, 2-bath, East Wind on Lone Starr, with a wraparound deck and sliding doors to take in the amazing views.)
Prefer a hotel? The Dow Villa Motel offers spacious rooms rated clean and comfortable. The motel has an outdoor pool and hot tub, and is located close to shopping and dining. Some rooms feature mountain views. Book a stay here!
The Best Time of Year to Visit the Alabama Hills in California
Every season in the desert is beautiful in its own way, but spring and fall are the best times to visit the Alabama Hills. Temperatures during these seasons are moderate, and daytime weather is perfect for hiking and being outdoors.
Spring brings the dramatic colors of wildflowers to the desert landscape, and fall brings changing leaf colors. A lone tree in the Alabama Hills is the subject of many a photo when it turns bright yellow in the fall.
In the spring, while temperatures at the Alabama Hills are pleasant for exploring, the Sierra Nevada mountains are still usually draped in snow, making for fabulous photo ops. Lone Pine, and the Alabama Hills, are on our list of favorite places to visit in California in the spring!
In the summer, daytime temperatures are high, getting into the mid-90s, making it inadvisable to spend extended amounts of time outside. In the winter, nights can be really cold, but you can bundle up and explore during the day.
Our tips for visiting the Alabama Hills
Find out and follow safety guidelines and rules
The Alabama Hills is wilderness, with no facilities or services. It is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Visit the BLM website for information on safety, rules for enjoying the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, and proper day use and overnight use.
Also speak with rangers at the Lone Pine Visitor Center (in the town of Lone Pine) or the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center (on US 395) for advice and recommendations for enjoying the Alabama Hills safely and responsibly.
Bring the appropriate vehicle
Movie Flat Road is graded dirt and considered passable to regular vehicles in dry conditions. Most other dirt roads in the Alabama Hills may require 4WD and high clearance.
Arrive in a vehicle appropriate for the driving routes you plan to cover on your trip! If you plan to rent a vehicle for your trip, check out Discover Cars. They scour multiple providers to get the best price and find one with the lowest one-way rental surcharge if there is one.
Carry plenty of water and food
No matter what season you visit, always carry (and drink) adequate amounts of water, especially if you are outdoors, hiking or touring.
There are no services in Alabama Hills, so bring in the food and snacks you will need. Alabama Hills Bakery & Cafe in Lone Pine opens early and offers tons of choices for breakfast and lunch. There are grocery stores in town as well.
Do not count on cell reception
Cell reception is poor to non-existent in the Alabama Hills. Download and print all maps and brochures you will need prior to your visit. These resources may prove useful:
- The fascinating book called Arches of the Alabama Hills. The book has maps, color photos, and GPS coordinates for several dozen arches and other natural features in this fascinating area. Buy it on Amazon!
- The Garmin Fenix 6 is a premium model GPS watch, with all the functionality you could ask for in terms of mapping, GPS, music, and monitoring. It’s great for any wilderness excursion. Buy it on REI | Buy it on Amazon
- Or check out the Garmin Instinct, a more affordable option, on REI or Amazon. It features GPS, heart rate monitoring, and a 3-axis compass. The construction is solid and it has a good battery life.
- The affordable InReach Mini functions as a great backup resource for navigation. With a satellite subscription, it enables you to send and receive texts when there is no cell phone reception. It weighs only 3.5oz, and has tracking and SOS capabilities as well. Buy it on REI | Buy it on Amazon
Use sun protection
Most trails in the Alabama Hills are fully exposed. Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, a sun hat, and sun-protective clothing.
Dress in layers
The weather can change quickly, so bring a waterproof jacket and warm layers on hikes. Also wear sturdy walking or hiking shoes, depending on the trails you plan to attempt.
Bring your camera and binoculars
Even if you aren’t a serious photographer, you may want to bring a camera with a good lens to capture all the beauty around you! We love the Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70, which takes great photos, while being small and light enough to fit in your jacket pocket.
Our go-to binoculars: the compact Celestron Trailseeker: they are waterproof and great in the low light of early morning and twilight.
Planning to explore more of California’s natural beauty? Check out some of our other articles for inspiration!
- The Most Beautiful Lakes in California
- Inside California’s National Parks
- The Best Waterfalls in California
- Carrizo Plains National Monument: The Complete Guide
- Visiting Devils Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes
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