1-minute hike: The Alabama Hills in California

Difficulty: Easy to moderate. Several footpaths, lined with rocks, travel through the rock formations of the Alabama Hills over uneven desert floor. Expect small hills, slippery sand and fairly short trails. For example, the Arch Loop Trail, a popular hiking trail in that visits a natural stone arch called the Mobius Arch, is about 0.5 mile long.

How to get there: In the town of Lone Pine in southeast California, the Alabama Hills is easily accessed from Whitney Portal Road, which leads from Route 395 into the conservation area. Off Whitney Road, the trails of the Alabama Hills are accessed by two dirt roads: Movie Road and Horseshoe Canyon Road. While driving in the area, watch out for jackrabbits, stray cattle and wild elk.

Information: Located in Owens Valley, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in southeast California, the Alabama Hills Conservation Area is an usual desertscape that has been featured in hundreds of movies and television shows, including recent blockbusters Iron Man, The Lone Ranger and Gladiator.

Named after a Confederate warship that sank in 1864, the Alabama Hills — along with the much taller nearby Sierras — were thrust up from the earth millions of years ago, then eroded by wind-blown sand into domes and arches. What you see today is actually just the top of a mountain range, buried by thousands of feet of sediment, possibly by earthquake activity, according to the Museum of Western Film History, located in the nearby downtown area of Lone Pine.

Surrounded cacti and desert flowers, these rounded rock formations are contrasted by the nearby Sierras, which forms a jagged, snow-capped line to the west. The shape of the Sierras is so different from the Alabama Hills because they’re much taller and were weathered by the continual freezing and thawing typical of higher altitudes, rather than sand. Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet above sea level, is a part of this breathtaking backdrop.

Mount Whitney through the arch.

Most of the Alabama Hills is public land administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which maintains a number of easy public hiking trails on the property, as well as wider multi-use trails that are used by bicyclists and horseback riders.

The BLM also issues about 30 to 40 film permits a year for movies, TV shows, commercials and still photo shoots on the property. Permittees agree to certain practices to prevent disturbing wildlife, vegetation and artifacts. They’re also expects to remove all trash and enforce fire safety practices.

For the most part, the Alabama Hills have been used by filmmakers to represent the iconic American West. For example, back in 1920, it was the setting for The Roundup, a silent western starring Fatty Arbuckle. And in 1994, the hills served as the setting for Maverick, a movie starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner. However, the area’s odd rock formations, dark crevasses and barren terrain has also been used by filmmakers to depict far off places, such as India, the Middle East, the Gobi Desert, China, Africa, and even other planets (in Star Trek).

For recreationists, the Alabama Hills is a popular spot for family-friendly hiking, biking, camping and rock climbing. It’s also a nice place for wildlife watching. While there, you’re almost certain to spot a variety of lizards scurrying across the sand and leaping from rock to rock. Jackrabbits are also common, and the bird community changes throughout the year.

For information, visit www.lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org or call the BLM Bishop field office at 760-872-5000.

A lizard I saw there.

Personal note: About a week ago, my husband Derek and I took a plane — or three — across the country to attend a wedding in Big Pine, a small town in southeast California. While there, we took the opportunity to see several natural wonders, including the Alabama Hills. With a small group of family and friends, we headed south to the nearby town of Lone Pine and easily found the famous site. We entered the hills on Movie Road and at the first major parking area, we left the rental car behind to hike the Arch Loop Trail.

One of several types of cacti we saw.

It was my first time hiking in the desert, and I was thrilled to discover a number of different cacti growing alongside the dusty trail. In fact, some of the cacti were in bloom, displaying bright pink and yellow flowers. I sat down beside a “prickly pear,” pretending to embrace it as Derek snapped a photo. Then, a few minutes later, I discovered fine yellow spines protruding from my hands and legs. We paused on the trail to pull them out, laughing at my folly. I promised Derek I’d stop hugging cacti.

The Alabama Hills was unlike any place I’d ever seen. As the trail wound through rocks, I could see how the area could be used to represent other planets. In some places, the wind and sand had carved out perfectly rounded holes in the boulders. And the naturally occurring rock archway, Mobius Arch, was truly a fascinating sight. It was large enough that you could stand inside it, as I’m sure nearly every visitor does. And if you take a photo of the arch from just the right angle, it acts as a round, rock frame for Mount Whitney.

A black-throated sparrow.

After hiking the loop trail, we explored the many dirt roads stemming off Movie Road to find people camping in tents and campers among the brown boulders. We also watched several rock climbers scaling the more impressive rocks.

We attempted to explore one more, less defined trail, which quickly seemed to fade into the desert. Unperturbed, we clambered over boulders and explored crevasses, watching our feet for scorpions and snakes. But all I saw were lizards, darting up and over rocks, and hummingbird moths, large moths that hover over flowers, drawing nectar out with a long straw-like body in much the same way a hummingbird drinks nectar through its long beak and tongue.

After hours of walking in the sun (protected by plenty of sunscreen), we drove back into town to share a cold pitcher of beer and refuel on pizza at the Pizza Factory. In the days to come, Derek and I would continue our explorations, driving through Death Valley to the lowest point of elevation in the country, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level. We’d also visit a hot spring, roam through a grove of joshua trees, hike through two canyons and visit a ghost town at an abandoned gold mine. The southwest is truly a beautiful place, but when all was said and done, I returned to Maine with a new appreciation for our dense forests and abundance of fresh, flowing water.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.