Alabama Backdrop

Hiking among rare formations at Alabama Hills in Owens Valley California

Despite being named for a Confederate warship, the CSS Alabama, there’s nothing Southern about the Alabama Hills. This range of rocky hills between the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the town of Lone Pine in the Owens Valley is Californian to the core, embodying a mythic American West. It’s no wonder Hollywood film directors have flocked here (since the 1920s, the Alabamas have served as backdrop for hundreds of films). The area’s sun-scorched landscape startles the senses with its bold contrasts and spaciousness. Bizarre rock formations rise like petrified clouds above vast, sandy plains of widely spaced Mojave scrub and sagebrush.

To the west, the imposing Sierra Escarpment climbs abruptly from barren alluvial fans to pine forest and jagged granite peaks, including those of Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet. Hike the half-mile Mobius Arch Loop Trail to encounter one of the dozen-plus natural arches found in the 30,000-acre Alabama Hills Recreation Area. Crossing an ephemeral wash, this narrow footpath meanders over sandy hills and flats, through sparse desert flora—like winterfat, cholla cactus, and creosote bush—and boulders of brownish-orange granite weathered by millennia of water and windswept sand. The elegant Mobius Arch frames the Sierra Nevada perfectly, making it especially popular for photography.

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BONUS: Cinephiles eager to absorb local film history can visit Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History, which houses an impressive collection of original props (including a polished coupe from High Sierra and a stagecoach from Rawhide) and colorful vintage theatrical posters. In addition, the Lone Pine Film Festival—held every October—screens classic films shot in the Alabama Hills and vicinity.

Directions to the trailhead: Take US Hwy. 395 to Lone Pine. Turn west onto Whitney Portal Rd. After 2.5 miles, turn right onto the dirt Movie Flat Rd. After a mile and half, you will come to a “Y” in the road. Go right and then immediately pull into the dirt trailhead parking lot on your left. Dog-friendly!

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