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"A focal point for Native American life for over 10,000 years, this area [Alabama Hills]    
of unique rock formations and home to miners is now a movie backdrop for the
Hollywood filming industry for movies, commercials, and TV shows
beginning in the 1920s and continuing today . . . There are over
100 stone arches scattered through the area, the largest of
which is Mobius Arch just off Movie Road."
~ by photographer Cheryl McDonald, in an article in the
2015 Scenic 395 guide we got at the visitor center in Ridgecrest, CA

Today we had a long but fun and interesting day drive to several scenic areas to the north of Ridgecrest on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Range.

Although there were certain things we knew we wanted to see, my pre-trip research wasn't exhaustive so we kept an open, inquisitive mind to exploring other places we might learn about along the way. And we found some of those, too!

Snowy peaks in the Sierra Nevada Range are framed by the Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills.


Lone Pine has been on my radar since 1990, when I began training to run ultra-distance trail events. One of the most iconic ultramarathons in this country is Badwater, a 135- to 157-mile foot race from the lowest point in the Lower 48 states in Death Valley to the highest point in the Lower 48 on Mt. Whitney.

Lone Pine is a small town near the end of the race before runners head up the road to Whitney Portal, the official finish line at about 8,360 feet elevation. That's 135 miles of running/walking and about 13,000 feet of elevation gain.

Some of the runners continue on up another 11 miles to the summit of Whitney at 14,497 feet -- if they have the desire and can get the necessary hiking permit from the Forest Service. Then they have to descend back to Whitney Portal, a total distance of 157 miles and an elevation gain of over 19,000 feet from Badwater Basin. Total gain and loss is even more than that.

Ground level view at Badwater Basin later this week;
282 feet below sea level = the lowest point in the western hemisphere.

If this event sounds like fun to you, have at it! The only part that appeals to me is the climb up and down Mt. Whitney. I love climbing 14ers that don't require technical gear.

Jim and I never aspired to run this event when we were still running ultras. It's held in mid-July, when temperatures in Badwater Basin can reach 130 F. It's run on even-hotter paved roads where the soles of participants' shoes can melt, it requires more than one crew member, it is difficult to gain entry, and it's doggone expensive.

Race management has morphed over the years. Currently, a company called AdventureCORPS manages the invitation-only event. Some veterans of the race, folks who can't get in, people who don't agree with all the rules and regulations, and runners who just like to do their own thing run the route solo -- with or without a crew -- at another date.

Others like ultra legend Marshall Ulrich challenge themselves even further by doing Badwater "doubles" or "quads," going out-and-back on the course once or twice, usually unsupported and pushing a cart with their supplies. That's totally bad-ass, and they have our respect!!

Jim looks out over Badwater Basin from Dante's Overlook in Death Valley NP, even more 
certain than ever that he doesn't want to participate in a Badwater ultramarathon!

So even though the race itself (or a solo run) never appealed to Jim or me, I've always wanted to climb Mt. Whitney and we are both intrigued by the photos and stories about Death Valley. Since neither of us has ever been to this area of California, we put it on our "Go See" list this spring.

Today we got to see the little town of Lone Pine and drove most of the way up the road to Whitney Portal; the last part of the route was closed because of the snow pack. Then on Thursday we took another day trip to visit Death Valley National Park, driving on a lot of miles of the roadways runners use in the Badwater Ultra. 

Now we have even more respect for all the runners who have ever completed the Badwater 135, 157, or have done a double or quad!


Here is today's route, highlighted in yellow. We didn't record the total mileage but it was probably close to 200 miles.

The RV park on base is marked with a yellow dot, the Lone Pine-Alabama Hills-Whitney Portal area with a purple dot, and Kennedy Meadows via Nine Mile Canyon with an orange dot:

It was only 42-63 F. at Ridgecrest/China Lake NAWS today at about 2,200 feet elevation and chillier at higher elevations where we traveled -- up to 7,535 feet on the way to Kennedy Meadows.

This is a picture of the weather board at the visitor center in Lone Pine, showing predicted high and low Fahrenheit temperatures for today at 3,700 feet elevation in town, 13,000 feet on Mt. Whitney, 8,300 feet at Mammoth Lakes, and 200 feet below sea level in Furnace Creek/Death Valley NP:

We got into several brief snow showers but there wasn't any snow sticking on or near the roads. One disappointment today was not finding any snow for Cody and Casey to play in.

The only places we could see snow on the ground were above ~ 8,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada and Coso Mountains.  

We saw some interesting terrain along US 395 to Lone Pine, including volcanic rocks near the road.  Some of the hills are more colorful than others we've seen since we left northern Arizona in October.  We enjoyed the farms, ranches, and mountain scenery on this route.

The clouds were low over the southern end of the Sierras as we drove west toward
US 395 from Ridgecrest, and they hung over the mountains all the way to Lone Pine.

Snow showers in the Sierras as we drove toward Lone Pine

Attractive ranch on the east side of US 395; Coso Mtns. in the distance

We passed a long, narrow reservoir on the east side of the road . . . 

 . . . and the large, mostly-dry Lake Owen, where cows were grazing in several places down near the lake bed:


Some snow in the Coso Mtns.

When we got up to 4,000 feet near the town of Olancha we saw some Joshua trees along the highway.

We noted four roads along US 395 where there are trails (Sand and Short Canyons), a waterfall (Fossil Falls), and Nine-Mile Canyon to Kennedy Meadows. We were surprised there wasn't more traffic on US 395, which is part two-lane and part four-lane limited access divided highway.

Our first stop was at the visitor center in the little town of Lone Pine so we could get more verbal and printed information.


Sad to say, the solitary pine for which the town is named got washed away from the bottom of Lone Pine Canyon during a storm. (Maybe they should call it Lost Pine now?)

The town continues to thrive, however, mostly on tourism. This area is a popular destination because of its scenic beauty, numerous recreational opportunities, and history -- from  mining to making movies.

Heading west out of town toward the Alabama Hills and the high Sierras

The valley in which Lone Pine is located was inhabited in the warmer months for over 10,000 years by Native Americans in the Paiute and Shoshone tribes.

The town was founded in the 1860s to provide supplies to gold and silver miners who had claims in the area. Mt. Whitney was discovered in 1864 (nobody knew it was there before that???) and first climbed in 1873 by three local men.

In addition to transient miners and folks who have ranches, orchards, and other businesses, the town has been home to construction workers building the California Aqueduct in the early 1900s and has hosted people involved with the movie business since the 1920s.

During WWII, thousands of Japanese Americans were confined seven miles up the highway in the Manzanar relocation camp. Manzanar is now a national monument.


Our first stop in Lone Pine was at the handsome multi-agency visitor center so we could get more information about the area.


Richard, a National Park Service ranger, gave us lots of info about the Alabama Hills Recreation Area, which is on BLM land, the road to Whitney Portal, and other things he thought we might enjoy seeing.

We also spent time browsing the exhibits and picked up several brochures.

Sometimes there are fabulous views of Mt. Whitney and its other high neighbors from inside the visitor center and out on the grounds.

Not today, however. Despite all the sunshine, complete views of the peaks were obscured by low clouds moving in and out all morning:

View of range with Mt. Whitney from the visitor center

The next wide-angle shot that someone took with no clouds over the mountains is a section of the Eastern Sierras that is displayed at the visitor center to help visitors identify the peaks.

Since Whitney (under red dot I added) is behind some of the other mountains, it appears to be shorter than some of them from the viewer's perspective down in this valley. At 14,497 feet, however, it's the highest peak in the Lower 48 U.S. states. 

I kept my eyes on those peaks the whole time we were going up Whitney Portal Road and looping through the Alabama Hills but I didn't know until later, when I was editing my photos and comparing them with that picture above, if we ever saw Whitney's summit.

By gosh, we did! That's Mt. Whitney under my red dot:

Ironically, even Josiah Whitney, leader of the California Geological Society's team that discovered the peak in 1864, thought he was the first to climb to the summit of "his" mountain in 1873 -- but he actually climbed Mt. Langley, not Mt. Whitney. Langley and Whitney are separated by three other mountains, as shown in the next picture below.

His later ascent of Mt. Whitney became the fourth confirmed ascent of that mountain.

The next picture is a section of that wide-angle photo at the visitor center that identifies some of the peaks that can be seen from the valley near Lone Pine. I marked Mt. Langley with a yellow dot and used two red dots for Mt. Whitney and Whitney Portal, the trailhead to reach the summit: 

I can understand Josiah Whitney's confusion, with several 14ers close together and views from the valley often obscured with clouds. Back then there were no trails up the mountain and definitely no Whitney Portal Road to guide him toward the right peak.


For us, driving through the Alabama Hills just outside Lone Pine was more about the scenery and accessing Mt. Whitney Portal than about searching for the locations where hundreds of movies, TV shows, and commercials have been filmed in the last hundred years.

But if you're interested in finding those locations, you can find maps online and various places in Lone Pine (visitor center, the movie museum, etc.) that will guide you to the right places:

Even though I'm not a big movie buff I recognize the names of many of those oldies, like "High Sierra," Gunga Din," and "Maverick," and famous stars such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart.

And I did use to watch "The Lone Ranger" on TV when I was a kid! More recent films in the "Star Trek" series and other genres were also shot here.

The Alabama Hills Recreation Area covers thousands of acres of foothills and low mountains with interesting rock formations between the eastern Sierra Nevada Range and US 395 in the Owen Valley. The land is managed by the BLM and stretches for about nine miles from south to north and a few miles east to west.

Entry is free, dogs are permitted on trails, and dispersed camping is allowed in obvious clearings.

The photogenic rounded granite rocks in Alabama Hills are the same type of rock in the chiseled, craggy Sierras but they have been worn down by erosion over the last 90 million years, give or take a few. They remind me of the boulder jumbles in Joshua Tree National Park but these have more gold and brown colors to them. The dark streaks are a result of the oxidation of iron minerals.


Many natural arches have also formed in the Alabama Hills over the millennia, adding to the picturesque appeal of the area. The largest and most famous is the Mobius Arch, which I showed near the top of this entry. I'll show more pictures from the Mobius Arch Loop Trail in a bit.

It is these unique rocks and the spectacular mountain backdrop that have drawn not only the film and TV industries to the Alabama Hills, but also lots of tourists who are interested in photographing the scenic landscape and pursuing recreational and other activities like hiking, running, cycling, rock climbing, fishing, horseback riding, camping, photography, star-gazing, bird-watching, auto-touring, and four-wheeling on the dirt roads.


Here's part of a map of the area from a Mammoth Lakes website. I marked Lone Pine with a yellow dot, Whitney Portal with an orange dot, Mt. Whitney with a red dot, and our driving route in yellow:


After visiting the impressive multi-agency visitor center in Lone Pine we drove out the west side of town on paved Whitney Portal Road and made a left (south) on Tuttle Creek Road to begin our convoluted clockwise loop thrugh the Alabama Hills.

I've already shown a few pictures from this southern part of the loop.

Here are some more that I took as we wound around and up and down through the rock formations until we emerged high enough to see the mountains more clearly (?) through the low, thin clouds that kept swirling around the peaks:

Edge of town, heading west -- what a fabulous view!!


This part of the loop is paved but narrow.






Old stock fencing and corral

When we came back to the intersection with Whitney Portal Road we turned left and drove west several miles toward Mt. Whitney to the intersection with Hogback Road.


I mentioned earlier that we weren't sure we could see Mt. Whitney until we got back and I compared my photos with another photo from the visitor center that identified the peaks. It was difficult to tell which was which because they are so close together and the clouds often obscured the summits.

We were more sure which one was Whitney as we headed due west on the Portal Road, however. In the next set of pictures I've put a red dot above each shot of Whitney:

What a stunning panorama as we head toward the Sierra Nevada Range!

You can see part of the Whitney Portal Rd. in a sideways "V" as it zig-zags up toward the trailhead.

You can clearly see where the Portal Rd. is going up ahead.

Zooming in; note the snow-covered cirque to the left that looks almost like a glacier.

As we got closer to the intersection with Hogback Road we gradually lost that perspective of Mt. Whitney and could only see its jagged south flank when we had to turn around; the remainder of the portal road was closed due to snow farther up the mountain.


We came to the road closure sign a couple hundred feet past this yellow "Trailers Not Recommended" sign and couldn't see even those jagged columns on the south side of Whitney. Our elevation was about 6,500 feet.

I was disappointed that we couldn't get up to the trailhead -- and didn't even see any snow for the dogs to play in -- but grateful for the beautiful mountain scenery we were able to enjoy today.

This was our view looking east and south toward the Alabama Hills, Owens Valley, mostly-dry Owens Lake, and Inyo Mountain Wilderness as we retraced several miles on the Whitney Portal Road on our descent to the intersection with Movie Road:



When we got to Movie Road we turned left and stopped for a minute so I could take a picture back toward Mt. Whitney and its neighbors:

The clouds were even lower then, but continued to move in and out the rest of the time we were driving and hiking in the Alabama Hills.

Continued on the next page: scenes from Movie Road and the Mobius Arch Trail in the Alabama Hills

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil