California’s Alabama Hills, located in Owens Valley in the shadow of the high Sierra, is among the most spectacular locations for movies about the old West.
Early light on Lone Pine Peak, viewed from the Alabama Hills
A hint: the Alabama Hills are NOT in Alabama! Actually, the Alabama Hills are in California’s dry Owens Valley, at the base of the high Sierra. They were named by local confederate-sympathizing gold miners during the “War of Yankee Aggression.” At that time, the confederate warship CSS Alabama darted about the Atlantic Ocean, sinking ships bound to supply the Yankee states. Alas, the confeds met their match and the Alabama was sunk off the French city of Cherbourg, by the USS Kearsarge. When news of this battle reached the California desert and mountains in 1864, union sympathizers named a peak, a mine, a town, and a mountain pass after the Kearsarge. So the war over naming rights ended in a draw, and the rival names have stuck in a most un-Civil War place.
But enough of ancient History. What everyone really wants to know is the celebrity status of the Alabama Hills, and here they shine like an actress strutting the red carpet in a designer gown during the Oscars. Actually, if they gave a movie location an Oscar, the Alabama Hills would get a shiny statue for “Lifetime Achievement,” because over 150 movies and a dozen TV shows have been filmed there. The location is perfect for westerns, with sagebrush flats and weathered brown boulders for the gunfighting and horse chase action, against a backdrop of the snowy Sierra Nevada.
Classic old movies were made here, including such chestnuts as How the West Was Won, Gunga Din, and High Sierra. More recently, parts of The Gladiator, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, GI Jane, Star Trek Generations, Dinosaur, and Iron Man were filmed here. These weathered rocks have watched Humphrey Bogart, Demi Moore, James Stewart, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Patrick Stewart, and scores of other Hollywood actors playing their roles with passion. The Lone Ranger and Gene Autry television shows were filmed in this dramatic location, as have been scores of TV commercials.
Can you imagine a stagecoach careering around the bend, with masked riders chasing it and shooting their Colt 45s and Remingtons at the driver?
Even more exciting than the Hollywood history is the geologic history! Well, maybe to a nature nerd like me. Suffice it to say that these round and weathered rocks are NOT sandstone, despite their superficial resemblance to the red rock formations of southern Utah. They are actually spheroidally weathered granite of roughly the same age as the peaks of the high Sierra towering above. Owens Valley, where the Alabama Hills are located, is a graben (a technical geologic term that sounds inspired by Tolkein), which is a fault block basin, in which a valley dropped between two mountain ranges, in this case the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains. The easiest way to explain this is to imagine the West as a giant torture rack, in which California is being pulled away from the Rocky Mountains by the unbelievable tension of tectonic forces. Giant stretch marks appear because of the tension, which are actually the valleys that dropped between mountain ranges. That’s my Field Geology 301 lesson for today. There will be a quiz tomorrow …
Karen and I spent an afternoon, night, and morning in the Alabama Hills, taking a hike to the Alabama Hills Arch, getting yelled at by the campground host because I was driving too fast, and photographing exquisite morning light on the hills and mountains. A road runs through the hills; actually it is more of a road complex, with lots of spur roads and dead ends. The main road is appropriately named “Movie Road,” for reasons referred to above.
Granite showing spheroidal weathering
The Alabama Hills are administered as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area by the Bureau of Land Management, a prior employer of mine that moves with the speed of molasses in January, except when approving mining and grazing leases … but I digress. The recreation area was designated in 1969; the first summer I drove to California to fight forest fires. Now, 41 years later, there are ATV trails everywhere, few amenities, and almost nonexistent interpretation. But BLM says it’s working on a management plan.
If you go, you’ll find that the Alabama Hills have some of the most splendid western scenery in the West, and you can relive the experience by watching scores of movies and TV shows that will take you back to the old West. Can’t you just hear the longhorns mooing as John Wayne waves a dramatic start to the cattle drive?
Alabama Hills Arch
A crescent moon, showing craters, sets over the Sierra
Mount Whitney from Lone Pine Campground
Weathered granite formations reminiscent of a Henry Miller sculpture
Lone Pine Peak and the Alabama Hills
Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney at dawn, from the Alabama Hills
Fire-killed Pinyon Pine, Inyo Mountains distant
Evening shadows creep up the Inyo Mountains
Spheroidal weathered granite in the Alabama Hills
The high Sierra towers above the Alabama Hills
Spheroidal-weathered granite with the Sierra distant
Alabama Hills with Lone Pine Peak (l) and Mount Whitney (r)
For more information about the Alabama Hills, here are some places to start:
BLM Bishop Field Office
Movies of the Alabama Hills
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