Visiting Alabama Hills
If you are thinking you’ll need to head to Alabama to see these hills, think again. The Alabama Hills are located east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
If it’s in California, why is it named the Alabama Hills? The area is actually named for a Confederate warship, the CSS Alabama. After the sinking of the Union man-of-war Hatteras in 1863, the area was named by prospectors who sympathized with the southern cause. There is a movement today to rename the land.
Alabama Hills is neither a state park nor a national park. It is public land under the care of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This distinction makes it free to use and visit. This means you can camp on this land just about anywhere. In California, about 15% of the land is managed by the BLM.
Given its bizarre landscape and public use distinction, many commercials and movies have utilized the area for filming. I recently spotted a Toyota commercial capitalizing on the adventurous landscape. Countless western cowboy films used Lone Pine and Alabama Hills as their setting. Other notable films include Iron Man, Gladiator, and Django Unchained. Because of the film history out here, the area is sometimes called Movie Flats.
Attractions in Alabama Hills
You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see Miss Alabama, a large face painted on some rocks near the beginning of Alabama Hills. After that you can reach the Mobius Arch by hiking the half mile Mobius Arch Loop Trail. Along the way, keep your eye open for the small Heart Arch, which you can spot right off the bat at the beginning of the same trail.
Another notable thing to see is Mt. Whitney, which is visible from the area to the east. Additionally, one of the historic Japanese and Japanese-American internment camps, Manzanar, is located 10 minutes north of Lone Pine. It features a drive through, self guided tour with opportunities to get out and explore preserved aspects of the camp. I encourage people to visit this place and read about what happened to many Americans and immigrants during World War II.
You can reach Alabama Hills off of the 395 Highway. From Los Angeles, it takes about 3 hours to get there. Whether you are arriving from the north or the south, you’ll exit the highway at the town of Lone Pine. From there you’ll fairly soon find yourself spotting the rock formations.
In this small town, you’ll find several restaurants, groceries, and gas stations. There are both big name fast food chains and small local cafes. It’s the most charming town for many miles in either direction. However, since it is also a popular rest stop for many, it is somewhat commercialized. Lone Pine is your best bet if you are looking for accommodation and are not planning on camping during your visit.
The main campground is named Tuttle Creek. As of fall 2020, the nightly rate is $8 for numerous well maintained pit toilets and spacious camping spaces with picnic tables and a fire pit. I would (and probably will) stay here again; I liked it that much. While there are not a ton of trees (it’s the desert…) the spots are reasonably spaced out to give guests some privacy. They do not take reservations, as it is first come first serve.
The beauty of Alabama Hills being a public land and administered by the BLM is that you can also camp practically anywhere in the BLM area for free. This is known as dispersed camping. You generally should pick a spot that appears to already have been used as a camping spot, as opposed to unnecessarily flattening out vegetation. A drawback of dispersed camping is that there are no toilets (and you’re in a desert so not a lot of places to hide when duty calls). You also will have to save yourself enough daylight hours to explore the area to find where you want to camp. An advantage of this though is that you can camp as remotely from people as you like, granted you have the vehicle that can get you off the beaten path. Ideally though, you should do your best not hurt the natural habitat with dispersed camping.
Related: How to Leave No Trace
Good to Know: Road Quality and Cell Service
During your visit, you’ll likely stick to three main roads to explore. You can find a helpful PDF map here. Whitney Portal Rd is a well paved road that will take you east to the mountains or west into Lone Pine. See the picture below for a view from this road.
Horseshoe Meadows Rd will take you to the main campground as well as a few other cool rock formations out off on their own. This road is also paved, but not quite as nice as Whitney Portal Rd.
Movie Rd links with Hogback Rd to create a loop that will take you all throughout the Alabama Hills. This road is not paved. It is a dirt road that is maintained. I drive a 2010 Honda Fit and only drove part way down this road before turning around. Honestly, my car probably could have done just fine, but I didn’t want to risk it. Part of Hogback Rd is unmaintained, so passenger vehicles may have to turn around instead of doing the loop.
Another helpful thing to know is that I had decent cell signal in the area. It is still best to plan as if you won’t have signal, but nevertheless odds are you will have a few weak bars of service for your data and calls.
Related: 2 Days in Joshua Tree National Park
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Los Angeles, California