The Alabama Hills is the gateway to Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in California as well as the highest summit in the lower 48. The jagged formation of the mountain makes it a beautiful sight, especially when covered in snow.
I’ve driven by it in the Eastern Sierras a few times on my way up to Burning Man and Mammoth Lakes, but what I didn’t know is that the Alabama Hills was nestled right below, just begging to be explored and photographed.
The Alabama Hills is an area of BLM land, meaning it’s owned by the public, with arches, beautiful views of the Eastern Sierras, and lots of Hollywood history.
This guide will help you enjoy the Alabama Hills in terms of when to visit, camping, and photography:
The Alabama Hills is so gorgeous, if you’re into photography at all you’ll want to work this into your visit. These were some of my favorites:
Mobius Arch at sunset
This is the most famous arch in the Alabama Hills, and still I had it all to myself when the sun set (though I had some help taking this photo prior). It perfectly frames Mount Whitney and you can watch the sunset through it. It’s also a fantastic spot for night photography. As you travel along Movie Road, you’ll see a turn off to the left for the arch loop trail. It’s an easy, three minute walk from this trail to the arch. You can also see the heart arch, which is a tiny little heart formation in the rock, on the same trail. You’ll notice it from the parking area for the loop trail.
I thought the Boot Arch would be perfect for some night photography, and it was! This one is pretty easy to reach as well. You will have to turn off the main road and move onto a smaller road that says it’s not meant for low clearance vehicles. I was alright in my Volkswagen SUV. On the right you’ll see a small turn out that’s meant to be a camping spot and from there you can walk to the arch. I used off-line maps to help navigate. If you continue along the same road you can reach the Cyclops Arch as well.
That Insta-famous shot
There’s a spot on Movie Road where the road sharply turns downhill. There’s a little parking spot to the right as you come up the hill. If you’ll be taking photos here, just be careful as cars might be coming and might not see you so it’s good to have someone on the lookout. Also, please just pull off the road to take the photo rather than blocking the road. Then everyone gets a turn! I didn’t find any blogs that specifically mentioned where this was, so I dropped a pin to share it with you because sharing is caring. You can find it on my maps.me.
I saw Miss Alabama out of the corner of my eye on my way back to town. She’s a beauty, right?
The Alabama Hills got its name from miners in the area who named it after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship. The area retained its name, which is pretty much the only connection to Alabama. Once you lay eyes on the metamorphic volcanic rock formations, you’ll see that it’s entirely different.
The Alabama Hills is a popular movie location, particularly for Westerns. Over 350 movies have been filmed in the Alabama Hills since the 1920s, perhaps most notably, How the West Was Won. Personally I never watch movies unless I’m on a flight, so the movie history wasn’t the biggest draw for me. However if you’re particularly curious about the filming locations, you can check out this post.
Since the Alabama Hills is Bureau of Land Management land, this means that you can camp within it for free. The general rule is as long as you remain on offshoots of the road, as in no off-roading, and are not visible from the main street, you can camp on BLM land. It’s quite obvious where to go as there are little campsites already established in Alabama Hills. You’ll see rocks for fire pits set up.
You’re also allowed to bring your dogs, and you can feel free to rock climb, horseback ride, or mountain bike.
Please remember to practice Leave No Trace principles, meaning you pack out absolutely all trash and waste. Please stick to the areas where there are clear footpaths and give the wildlife a chance. Deserts are more vulnerable environments than we realize.
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, the Best Western Plus Frontier Motel is pretty nice and they have a solid breakfast as well. I stayed there and I enjoyed it, plus it’s practically across the street from the Alabama Hills!
When to Go
The best time to enjoy the Alabama Hills is in the winter or the spring. In the wintertime, you can see snow on the mountain tops, and sometimes snow in the Alabama Hills themselves! Plan for very cold nights and brisk days.
In the springtime, there are swaths of wild flowers in bloom.
The summer can get unbearably hot so just take caution and bring lots of water with you if you plan on hiking (here are some trails) or exploring the Alabama Hills in the summertime.
I also highly recommend going in the afternoon to catch the evening late, going into sunset. Stay for the beautiful stars, and catch the sunrise as well!
Be sure to download this offline, and/or plot into a maps.me offline map, which I find is often better for trails, prior to going.
Most of the main sites in the Alabama Hills can be viewed all in one day or even within a few hours. So stop by next time you’re on the 395 en route to Mammoth. It’s one of the most beautiful roadside stops you can make in California!