The Golden State of California is home to a diverse collection of national treasures. From downtown L.A.’s chaotic nightlife to Lake Tahoe’s serene calm, California has something for everyone. Spanning some 840 miles in length, the coastline is scattered with world-famous beaches, stunning viewpoints, and hiking trails.
The Alabama Hills are a range of slopes located just off the eastern shelf of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They’re a popular visiting spot for outdoor types, providing a vast landscape of ethereal terrain and unique geographical formations. Their proximity to the Owens Valley makes them a popular detour for mountaineers, hikers, and tourists.
Geographically speaking, the Alabamas are not part of the Sierras. However, they share the same formation history. The region provides some of the most beautiful and unique rock gatherings on the Pacific coast.
Planning a Trip To The Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills are easy to get to from several main roads. While there are plenty of interesting things to see and do there, they also provide some of the best views of the Sierras. The scenery has made the region a popular area for filming, with several high-profile movies and TV shows shooting scenes there.
Situated just west of Lone Pine town, Inyo County, in central California, the Alabama Hills are a 15-minute drive from civilization. However, after following the trails and climbing routes, you’ll quickly find that you’re in the wilderness.
This is one of the main qualities the Alabamas have to offer. While it isn’t a secret location, it’s definitely underappreciated, ensuring it doesn’t get too crowded.
There is little to no cell phone service in the area. If you rely on the internet for maps, communication, or hiking navigation, do your research and preparation before you go. Take an old-school map and compass, and mark your routes by hand.
Most map and trail hike applications have an offline mode, so you can download the locations and routes before you get to the hills. If you’re planning a day trip, be sure to take all the food, water, and supplies you need for the entire duration.
Traveling between viewing points, lakes, hiking trails, and other landmarks requires a lot of driving. Fill your gas tank before your trip to avoid a fuel emergency in the hills.
Where Alabama Hills Got Their Name
The Alabama Hills got their name from a Confederate warship that was used during the American Civil War. The CSS Alabama was built in the United Kingdom, in Birkenhead, near the city of Liverpool. It was used as a commerce raider to attack merchant and naval vessels throughout the Atlantic Ocean.
The CSS Alabama served the Confederate Army for around two and a half years, from 1862 to 1864. It was sunk in a battle on the French coast (near Normandy) by the USS Kearsarge. Despite never docking on the Pacific coast of the United States, news of the ship’s demise spread to Confederate sympathizers in California.
In an homage to the ship, the Confederate prospectors in Sierra’s mining district named several mines and areas after the CSS Alabama. Eventually, the entire area and range of hills became known as the Alabamas.
Recently, protesters have moved to change the name of the Alabama Hills. The Confederate ties have caused unrest among certain Californians who believe that the name of the range doesn’t reflect the values and beliefs of modern U.S. society. Changing the name of the Alabamas could become a federal issue, so it may take some time before we see an official motion to rename the region.
Alabama Hills Natural Arches
The Alabama Hills are perhaps best known for their collection of natural arches. These impressive landforms developed due to centuries or even millennia of erosion. Several varieties of arches can be found throughout the Alabamas. Seeing these alcoves is one of the most popular activities for visitors.
Many of the most notable arches are located near the region’s main attractions, like Mount Whitney and Movie Flat Road. If you aren’t familiar with Alabama Hill’s arches, there’s a good chance you’ll have seen them in a movie, TV advertisement, or printed media. These formations are a favorite of nature photographers and filmmakers alike.
While there are scores of interesting natural arches in the area, some are far more well-known than others. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most iconic landforms scattered throughout the Alabamas.
Mobius Arch is the most popular natural arch in the Alabamas. It’s conveniently located on Movie Flat Road and can be accessed easily by a half-mile trail. Although Mobius Arch is quite easy to find, there is no road signage indicating where to go, so make sure to research the route before your journey.
You’ll recognize the 6-feet high arch as soon as you see it. It remains beautifully preserved, with no graffiti or trash defacing its natural allure. The Mobius Arch is distinctly round, and its location means it stands out immediately. It’s named after a Mobius strip because it closely resembles one.
Although it looks great from any position, the true appeal of the Mobius Arch comes from one particular angle. After coming upon the arch on the trail side, proceed to the other side. Step back a few feet, and you’ll find the arch perfectly frames Mount Whitney and the surrounding peaks. It’s one of the most camera-friendly views in the entire Alabamas.
Lathe Arch can be found along the same trailhead as Mobius Arch, so naturally, you’ll visit both on one trip. In fact, it’s a mere 20 or so feet from Mobius, further back along the trail. However, it’s somewhat hidden, so you might not see it until it’s right in front of you. Lathe arch is also considerably smaller than Mobius.
This flat arch resembles a log crossing as it connects two large boulders. In contrast to many other arches in the area, Lathe doesn’t bow or sag.
As well as its unique appearance, Lathe arch appeals to amateur and professional photographers as it frames Mount Whitney. It offers an alternative photo opp, displaying a stunning angle of the rugged Sierra skyline.
Eye of Alabama Hills Arch
Another noteworthy arch is the Eye of Alabama Hills Arch. This one is a little harder to find, but the arch’s views are some of the best in the area. You can walk or hike to the eye from the Mobius trail. However, since you have to travel down Movie Flat Road, driving is generally a lot easier.
From the Mobius Arch car park, head east down the hill of Movie Flat Road for just under a mile. Look to your right, and you should be able to see the arch from the road. The eye sits a cluster of rocks aloft and is surrounded by other tall formations. It can be hard to spot, so take your time and look closely.
A small car park is located just past the arch, so if you see this, you know you’re at the right place. You can hike or walk to the arch from the car park in just a few minutes. Please beware that the hill is a little steep, so tread carefully. However, the Eye offers phenomenal panorama views of the Alabalams, making it well worth the effort.
It also provides great photo opportunities. The backdrop is simply stunning. You can actually sit inside the eye, offering scale to the vast landscape surrounding it.
Alabama Hills Weather
One of the greatest advantages of visiting California is the year-round weather. Although winter can be hard to predict and summer brings the occasional storm, spring and fall offer consistently great weather for outdoor activities.
During these seasons, you can expect moderate daytime temperatures with minimal chance of rainfall, providing the perfect conditions for hiking or visiting the natural arches.
Springtime is particularly beautiful as wildflowers begin to bloom across the arid desert landscape. Likewise, the sparse trees and flowers experience color changes throughout the fall, casting a yellow and orange hue over the terrain.
If you plan to visit the Alabama Hills in summer, be prepared for high temperatures and intense sun exposure. During the daytime, temperatures regularly hit the mid-90s and higher.
Since there are no amenities in the immediate area, it’s not a good idea to spend a lot of time in the baking heat. Plan according to the weather, and be sure to take plenty of water, food, sunscreen, and cover to protect yourself from the sun.
Alabama Hills Winter
Many tourists are especially curious about winters in the Alabamas. The dry climate and lack of cover mean winters get very cold, especially at night. In December, January, and February, temperatures often reach the mid-20s (Fahrenheit). Although these aren’t ideal temperatures for exploring the wilderness, they won’t necessarily stop you from seeing the sights.
Appropriate layering and good-quality hiking gear prepare you for a winter expedition in the Alabamas. In fact, winter is a great time to visit the hills and arches if you don’t mind braving the cold. The Sierras are typically covered in snow during this period, making for impeccable views.
Things To Do in Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills are not known for having an abundance of recreational activities. The focal point of the region is its natural beauty. To enjoy a true Alabama Hills experience, keep it simple and relish in some of the climbing spots, hiking trails, or campsites.
Try Alabama Hills Climbing
The Alabama Hills are home to plenty of beginner-friendly rock climbing faces. What’s more, many of these routes are easy to access and are within a 10-minute walking distance from car parks. There are approximately 300 established crags in the Alabamas, many of which have bolted supports.
If you’re looking for an entry-level climb, consider the Western Wall or the Shark’s Fin. However, their accessibility occasionally gets a little crowded in peak season. For a more challenging ascent, try the Loaf.
Go Alabama Hills Hiking
Perhaps the best way to enjoy the beauty of the Alabamas is by venturing across the many trailheads. The Mobius Arch Loop is a must-visit since it takes you through the main natural arcs. It spans around 0.6 miles, so it’s accessible for virtually everyone.
Another popular hike is the Shark Fin trail. It’s twice as long as the Mobius Loop but poses little to no obstacles. It’s suitable for pretty much any level of hiker. The Shark Fin Loop is conveniently located along Movie Flat Road so you can tackle this route after visiting the arches.
One of the best things about the Alabama Hills is their accessibility. Countless walking paths lead you to mesmerizing rock formations and breathtaking viewing points. Much of the Alabamas are suitable for hikers and cyclists.
If you’re after a more challenging hike, check out our article on the Sierra Nevadas. You can find month-long expeditions and extremely challenging routes throughout this huge range.
Camping in the Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills are a dispersed camping area, allowing visitors to pitch a tent or pull up an RV wherever they please, with no fees. However, campers are obliged to bring their own supplies and are held responsible for safely disposing of garbage and waste. Visitors are encouraged to leave no trace after a visit.
The clear skies and lack of air pollution make the Alabama Hills a great place to watch the stars. If you time it right, you can clearly see the Milky Way. If you’re very lucky, you might even catch a meteor shower. The best time for star gazing is usually during a new moon.
Changes To The Rules
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently reported that the spike in frequent visitors negatively affects the Alabama Hills’ ecosystem. RV campers are now discouraged from staying overnight.
Fortunately, plenty of campgrounds in the area won’t break the bank. Recreation.gov is a great source of information if you’re planning a camping trip.
Alabama Hills Movies
The rugged terrain of the Alabamas has made them a historic location for filming. They were used for major Hollywood movies, including The Round-Up, Iron Man, and Django Unchained. The movie Flat Road is aptly named as a reference to the many movies sets the hills have seen.
Movie buffs can learn more about cinematic history at the Lone Pine Film History Museum. It’s well worth the visit, with a 10,000-square-foot location dedicated to exhibits, displays, and memorabilia. The museum is the best place to uncover the 100-year cinematic history of Inyo County.
What attractions are near Alabama Hills?
The main attractions near the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area are the natural arches, multiple rock climbing faces, campsites, and the Lone Pine Film History Museum.
What hotels are near Alabama Hills?
Some of the most popular hotels near the Alabama Hills are the Best Western Frontier Motel, the Dow Villa AAA Motel & Historic Hotel, and the Whitney Portal Hostel & Hotel.