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One Morning in the Alabama Hills, Mount Whitney

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Want to feel like you’ve driven into the middle of a real-life pickup truck commercial?  Or maybe a Hollywood western?  The odd geological formations in the Alabama Hills have played a starring role, again and again.  This federal recreation area is a great place to get outside, do some dirt-road driving, and scramble up some very big piles of rock — all while enjoying the scenery of the Sierra Nevada nearby.

Location

The Alabama Hills are located between US 395 and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, on the west side of Lone Pine, California.  From downtown Lone Pine, turn on Whitney Portal Road.  This road will take you all the way to Whitney Portal — but if you want to see more of the Alabama Hills, watch for Movie Road, and turn right.

If you’re looking for the Mobius Arch trailhead, be aware that it is poorly marked.  The parking area is located 1.6 miles after the turnoff onto Movie Road, on the left.

My Visit

When you’re on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, sunsets are not your friend.  The sun drops behind the mountains well before the photographer’s “golden hour”, leaving Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills in the shadows.  Sunrise is much more kind, as the light shines on the rounded, crumbled hills of volcanic rock, and the high mountain peaks behind them.

That’s why I got up bright and early to explore the Alabama Hills.  I left my motel well before dawn, and headed out to a good spot: Mobius Arch, the most recognizable feature in this area.  But, it wasn’t going to be a great day for photography.

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This is the closest thing I saw to a sunrise — a couple of patches of reddish sky on the horizon.  The clouds were interesting, though, so not all was lost.

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Mobius Arch is just a short hike from the trailhead.  You can find it by looking for a very big parking area along Movie Road (just after a big curve to the right).  If you’re lucky, a small sign will point you onto the trail.

I got a much better picture of Mobius Arch during my 2009 visit to the area, when skies were clear. But, today’s pictures were alright, too.

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The arch is fun to photograph.  Shoot it one way, and you can frame up some mountain peaks.  From another perspective, you’ll see more of the Alabama Hills in the distance.

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Drop down the hill just a bit, and it looks like you’re putting the pieces of a puzzle back together.

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I waited around at the arch for a while, hoping the weather might improve.  It never did.  So, I moved on to another of my favorite places in the Alabama Hills.

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There’s one spot where the dirt road squeezes through the rocks, while twisting through a nice S curve.  I’ve seen this exact spot photographed for truck commercials before.  Chances are, after you visit, it will be no time at all until you notice one.

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Movie Road continues on for miles, and there are dozens of turnoffs and parking areas where you can camp, climb, or take some pictures. It’s almost overwhelming, when you’re trying to decide what to photograph.

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I drove out Movie Road for a while…

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… then turned onto a side road, which curved back towards Mount Whitney.  This side-road was rougher than the main road, and I was glad I had a four-wheel-drive.  Eventually, though, I decided to turn around and backtrack, since I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going.

Movie Road passes numerous filming locations used in older westerns, including Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy films.  It’s also been used for filming newer movies like Tremors, Star Trek Generations, and Iron Man. You can pick up a guide to filming locations at some of the businesses in Lone Pine.

I returned to Whitney Portal Road — the paved road from Lone Pine — and headed towards the mountains.  In the summer, Whitney Portal Road will take you all the way up to the trailhead for the popular hike up to the 14,505′ peak.

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In winter, though, it’s closed, well before you reach the unplowed snow.  I parked in the turnaround area…

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… and took a walk up the road for a short distance.

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The further you go, the better the view gets. Down below, I think you can see the dirt road that I was on earlier.  I wasn’t sure where it ended up, but it looks like it goes here.

The Bottom Line

The Alabama Hills are beautiful, and they provide a great place to camp, or just to drive around and explore.  Kids will love climbing on the rocks.  The photographic possibilities are endless.  A drive up to Whitney Portal is also beautiful, as it allows you to look down on the entire area.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the time-lapse video of the drive around the Alabama Hills:

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