Lone Pine, California is a laid-back town of around 2,000 people in Owens Valley on the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevada. You’ve probably heard of it because it’s used as a base camp for hiking Mount Whitney, located just 12 miles west. What you might not know is Lone Pine is also home to the Alabama Hills, which draw people from around the world for their recreational opportunities and their rich film history.
Weather-wise, now is a wonderful time to visit this area. The elevation in Lone Pine is 3,727 feet so expect daily high temperatures through October in the 70s, with lows dipping into the 40s.
The 30,000-acre Alabama Hills National Scenic Area is just a couple of miles west of town and has two claims to fame. This landscape of granite in fantastical shapes has been the backdrop for hundreds of movies, TV shows and commercials. It’s also one of the best places to explore the back roads by car or mountain bike. On foot you can explore the many small, boulder-filled canyons.
The Alabama Hills received its name from Southern sympathizers mining in the area during the Civil War. The CSS Alabama was a confederate warship.
Hollywood discovered this area around 100 years ago. The first feature film shot here, in 1920, was a silent Western starring Fatty Arbuckle. From the 1920s to the 1950s more than 300 films were shot here, mostly Westerns.
One of the largest productions filmed here was the 1939 epic “Gunga Din.” The film starred Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sam Jaffe, and used the Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains as the Himalaya Mountains in Asia. The large village, the temple and a swinging bridge in the film were all erected and, of course, plenty of elephants were brought in. The cast and crew were so numerous a tent city was erected to house them.
To see that location, head west from Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Road for 2.7 miles and turn right onto Movie Road to begin your adventure. Just 0.5 miles up this road go right and here you will find the site of that tent city.
Another popular spot is Lone Ranger Canyon, located 0.8 miles on your right up Movie Road. Go right onto the gravel road and drive 0.1 miles and park. Start exploring and you might see some familiar sites from the adventures of the Lone Ranger, Tonto and Silver.
Pick up or download the Movie Road self-guided tour brochure that gives locations and directions for other movie and television sites. It’s available at the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce.
Before heading for the hills proper, you might want to visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine and refresh your memory about some of the classics. The 10,000-square-foot museum features movie props and other Western film memorabilia. Look for exhibits from midcentury icons, like the “Lone Ranger” series, to more modern films such as “Tremors” and “Iron Man.” There is also a 15-minute orientation film that’s well worth seeing.
As of Oct. 1 the museum reopened to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Mondays. All visitors, staff and volunteers are required to wear masks and maintain physical distancing of at least 6 feet while on the museum grounds. Up to 25 people are allowed in the building at one time. The theater remains open, but at 25 percent capacity. It’s easy to find, along Highway 395 at 701 S. Main St., Lone Pine. For more information, contact 760-876-9909 or www.museumofwesternfilmhistory.org.
While you’re searching for movie sites, be sure to get out of your vehicle and maybe take a few hikes. One super hike for just about all ages, and often one that you might have to yourself, is to Mobius Arch. It can be done as a 0.8 mile loop hike from the trailhead, located at about 4,666 feet. From Whitney Portal Road, take a right on Movie Road and follow for about 1.5 miles. Go right at the fork and the parking area and trailhead are on your left. Follow the obvious path. If you make the trek at dawn, it’s a spectacular sight to see Mount Whitney in the morning glow, framed within the arch.
One of the advantages of this trip is you’ll get to travel through Death Valley National Park on your way to Lone Pine. It’s a spectacular drive depending on if you are taking the route into the park via a Nevada gateway town of Beatty or Pahrump. Allow about four and one-half hours for the drive from Las Vegas to Lone Pine.
For more information on camping, lodging, restaurants and other services contact the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Information Center, 126 S. Main St., at 760-876-4444 or visit www.lonepinechamber.org.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.
Take U.S. Highway 95 North 142 miles to Nevada Route 374 South Main Street in Beatty. Continue south for 26.6 miles onto Daylight Pass Road and California Route 190 west into Inyo County. Turn right onto California Route 190 and head west for about 68.5 miles. Continue onto California Route 136 west for 17.5 miles until you reach U.S. Highway 395 and Lone Pine.