Alabama Hills, California
I've often wondered why the Alabama Hills and Whitney Portal have not been designated a national park or even a national monument. As it is, the Alabama Hills are a BLM managed recreation area and Whitney Portal is simply part of the Inyo National Forest. That these spectacular natural areas remain close to the bottom of the federal lands classification system brings to mind a couple of conspiracy theories that I'll mention below. Whitney Portal is the area just beneath the Eastern side of Mt. Whitney which is the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. The Alabama Hills are an area of unique rock formations with arches and other spectacular features just down slope of Whitney Portal. Partly because of their lack of special designation and lack of development, these two areas are not widely visited and remain unknown to many people. These areas do receive a steady flow of visitors but this flow is a trickle when compared to the traffic at California's national parks. Development of trails, roads, campgrounds and other facilities is minimal at Whitney Portal and almost nonexistent in the Alabama Hills.
The Alabama Hills have been used extensively as a filming location by Hollywood since the 1920s. Have Hollywood interests applied political pressure to keep this location unregulated, empty and available for filming?
The Alabama Hills and Whitney Portal are just above and within sight of Owens Lake which is an environmental catastrophe created by the insatiable thirst of Southern California- specifically by the Los Angles Department of Water and Power. Have politically powerful Southern California water users made an effort to hide the dead lake and toxic dust storms in the Owens Valley from wider public attention?
Whether the lack of recreational development in the Alabama Hills and Whitney Portal is intentional or not, it is nice to be able to visit and have the place mostly to yourself.
BLM's Alabama Hills Recreation Area is just 3 miles east of Lone Pine. Lone Pine has a number of affordable motels, groceries and restaurants. Most of my trips to the Alabama Hills have been to the areas off of Movie Road which is a right turn off of Whitney Portal Road. Movie road is the main entrance to the recreation area but is not well marked as such. After leaving Whitney Portal Road, Movie Road quickly turns into a well maintained dirt road with many intersections with smaller unmarked dirt roads.
Camping: The smaller roads off of Movie Road in some cases lead to dispersed camping areas and in some cases lead nowhere. Dispersed camping is allowed at sites that have been traditionally used as camp sites. It is often unclear what exactly this means. Most of the good spots have been taken every time I've visited. It seems likely that some people essentially live at these sites. Trailers and vehicles are more or less permanently parked at some of the most scenic, wind sheltered, dirt road cul-de-sacs (overview of the main camping area below). The winds are ferocious most afternoons and evenings, sometimes until late at night. Unless a site is well sheltered from the wind, tent camping is next to impossible. I have spent fruitless afternoons driving around looking for a spot to camp. It's good to have a back up plan of driving to one of the near-by developed campgrounds or a motel in Lone Pine. The National Forest Service's Lone Pine Campground is a great nearby option.
The main attraction at Alabama Hills is hiking around the rock formations and especially the arches. The trails are not well marked. Off trail wandering can be a lot of fun but the terrain can be difficult and paths are sometimes blocked by towering boulders. Mobius Arch (pictured below ) is on a short trail that passes a few other arches and interesting formations. The trailhead and parking for the trail are not marked but are obvious if you know what you're looking for. Here's a link to a google map of the trail head parking area. It's the first parking area encircled by stones off of Movie Road. It's just after the first 90 degree turn on Movie road, 1.6 miles from Whitney Portal Road. Mobius Arch is on many landscape photographer's bucket list of things to shoot. Everyday pro and semi-pro photographers hike the short trail to the arch with tripods and bags of gear. The arch is much smaller than it looks in many photographs. It's about 6 feet tall. The classic photo, which I'm sure you've seen has Mt. Whitney framed in the center of the arch. It's a beautiful and very short tail to the arch. Beyond the arch, trails wander off into the boulder fields in a couple of directions. There are no restrooms and no water in the recreation area.
Movie Road continues past the Mobius Arch parking area for several more miles through interesting rock formations. There are several dispersed camping areas further down Movie road as well as unmarked trails, small dirt roads and places to park and walk off trail. There are more rock features to explore on the other side of Whitney Portal Road that can be accessed via Horseshoe Meadows Road. The turnouts for trails and campsites South of Whitney Portal Road are within a few hundred yards of Whitney Portal. Beyond that are ranches and other private property.
The Lone Pine Campground is 3.7 miles East or up the hill from Movie Road on Whitney Portal Road. The road climbs steadily out of Lone Pine and by the time it reaches the campground is at 6,000 feet. The city of Lone Pine's elevation is 3,800 feet. This can make a difference in the winter. There is rarely snow in the Lone Pine Campground but it does get cold in the winter. Campsites are nicely sheltered from the wind and reasonably private. Sites are $19. In the winter, if you continue climbing (heading East) on Whitney Portal Road, past the Lone Pine Campground you will probably encounter snow. The Road is closed near the intersection of Hogback road all winter. Whether the road is closed or not, it's possible to continue heading up the mountain either on foot or in a vehicle. Whitney Portal Road heads straight up the side of the Mountain after Hogback Road and quickly climbs to 7 and 8 thousand feet. There are panoramic views of the Alabama Hills and Owens Valley at the first switchback on Whitney Portal past Hogback (picture below). There is a high elevation campground which is closed all winter at just under 8,000 feet. Whitney Portal Road ends 3 and a half miles from Hogback Road at the Mt. Whitney trail head. A very difficult to get permit is required to hike to the top of 14,505 foot Mt. Whitney. There are other trails accessible from the parking area though. The snow at the end of Whitney Portal in the winter is usually very deep. I'm usually in the area in the winter because I like to combine a trip to the Alabama Hills with a visit to nearby Death Valley National Park. Badwater Basin in Death Valley is only 134 miles from the end of Whitney Portal Road. This trip takes you from the highest to the lowest points in the 48 states in under 3 hours and the route passes through some of the most incredibly scenic landscape in the country.
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