The Alabama Hills are often, quite literally, overshadowed by their taller brother, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. But whether you are actually heading up to Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, or just passing through Lone Pine while cruising further north on Highway 395, the Alabama Hills are an excellent place to spend an afternoon, a full day, or an entire weekend. And with the amount of things there are to see and do in the hills, I recommend the latter. So get out the camp gear, load up the trunk, and head out for a weekend amongst the otherworldly rock formations of the Alabama Hills!
NO PLACE BETTER
WHAT KIND OF CAMPER ARE YOU?
First and foremost, remember that camping inherently involves leaving the comforts of home behind. With that said, there are some things that people just aren’t ready to do without (a toilet, for example), even for two to three days. For those who wish to have some of the bare-necessities while still enjoying the ruggedness of a sleeping bag and a tent, there are campgrounds like the Tuttle Creek Campground. There, for five bucks a night, you will have the luxury of a pit toilet (a glorified porta-potty) and potable water (shut-off in winter), while still enjoying incredible views of multiple 13-14,000-foot peaks and a short drive to some of the amazing rock formations.
CAMPGROUND AMONGST THE ROCKS
For those of you who want the rocks to be your table, your chairs, and – depending on how empty the cooler is at the end of the night – maybe your pillow, go spend your weekend camping and getting lost (hopefully not for too long) out in the endless numbers of granite boulders that form the Alabama Hills!
CAMPING IN THE ALABAMA HILLS
Get ready to enjoy your public lands! The Alabama Hills is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which means they are your lands and camping is open and free!! Despite what it appears some people think that means, Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics are still important to practice. In other words, pack out whatever you pack in, don’t crush the brush (and definitely don’t use it for fuel!), and stay on maintained trails to avoid causing unnecessary erosion. Those ethics also mean that you should not build your own fire-pit or have a fire where the rock may become black with soot. These are lands for everyone to enjoy!
And really, there is no need to do any of the above. While the camping is open (and did I mention free!?), there are plenty of spaces for everyone and built fire pits tend to be abundant.
CAMPFIRE WITH A VIEW
Much of the camping can be found north of Whitney Portal Road, along a winding, well-maintained dirt road known as Movie Flat Road. That name is no accident, as the incredible formations with the majestic Sierra Nevada backdrop has been a favorite for big screen movie productions since the early twentieth century. Does the location from the opening scene of Iron Man look familiar!?
For some of my favorite primitive camping spots in the Alabama Hills, just keep on driving up Movie Flat Road until you find yourself with a great vantage point above the hills and a magnificent view of the mountains. Lone Pine Peak, at 12,943-feet, commands this view so much that it is hard to believe that Mount Whitney is over 1,500-feet taller!
DRIVING INTO THE PERFECT VISTA POINT
Whether it is a full moon or a starry, moonless night, the nighttime views are unforgettable. During the summer months, this is one of the best places I’ve found in the Eastern Sierra to catch the Milky Way show.
If you decide to head out for a weekend in the winter, do your best to make it line up with a full moon. The reflection of the moonlight off the snowcapped peaks and granite boulders provides enough light for you to forget what time it is. If you forgot your headlamp, you’ll be alright.
Make sure to try and get a little bit of sleep, because you’ll want to wake up for sunrise to enjoy the magic of the Alpenglow.
LONE PINE PEAK ALPENGLOW
Once you’ve been thoroughly impressed by the display of light, get your breakfast and coffee taken care of, then head out and take advantage of the amazing place you’ve decided to spend your weekend!
REACHING FOR COFFEE
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
If you are used to just driving right on through Lone Pine on Highway 395, then you may not even know that there is such an interesting world only a 10-minute drive away. Do you like to explore? Take pictures? Scramble? Climb? Well, you can do all of those in one day.
The Alabama Hills are well-known for the climbing, especially sport climbing, that is abundant within. There are over 200 bolted climbing routes and many climbers with a wide range of skill levels enjoy the distinctive formations and breathtaking scenery.
SHARKS FIN CLIMBING
If you aren’t into the whole climbing thing, there are plenty of places to explore. With the amount of boulder-covered terrain, you are sure to have a full day. You can choose your own path! If you happen to visit in summer, you will likely be met with some uncomfortably high temperatures during the day. If the shade of the rocks is not enough to provide relief, make the drive up to Whitney Portal. A 15-minute drive will take you up 4,000-feet to more manageable temperatures and some pretty delicious burgers at the Whitney Portal Store!
Whatever you decide to do, make sure you visit the oft-photographed Mobius Arch. The quarter-mile trail is well-marked and it makes a perfect frame for Lone Pine Peak or Mount Whitney. If you are looking for something a little less photographed, check out Cyclops Arch. While the rock formation is not as photogenic as Mobius Arch, you can be fairly certain that you will be the only one there for sunrise.
The Alabama Hills really have a lot to offer, and camping there can make for a very memorable weekend. You’ve worked hard this week; take a short road trip this weekend, you’ve earned it!
Always check the weather forecast before heading out. The Alabama Hills will have cool nights and hot days during the summer, and can be downright cold during the winter. Add a little wind to below freezing temps and you’ve got a bad combination. Plan, and be prepared!
The Alabama Hills are an important resource, both historically and naturally. While it is public land, certain etiquette should be followed. It is recommended that all those visiting stop by the Chamber of Commerce to pick up a code of ethics sheet. The BLM asks that people primitive camping in the Alabama Hills drive at least 1.5-miles down Movie Road before setting up camp. This is to avoid overuse of areas closer to Whitney Portal Road and to limit the number of camp sites at the base of climbing areas.
If you plan on having a fire, you will need a campfire permit. The permit is FREE and all it requires is a computer and a printer. Watch a couple minute video and answer a few questions on a quiz and then print out your permit. The permit is good for one year and covers all federally managed land (i.e., BLM, National Park Service, Forest Service). Visithttp://www.preventwildfireca.org/Permits/ to get yours today.
Peter Carey is an archaeologist, photographer, and climber/mountaineer based in California. You can follow his adventures through his Instagram @peteracarey.