From Santa Barbara, the roughly five-hour drive to Lone Pine along Highway 395 beneath the Eastern Sierra Mountains is one of the most scenic in California. Looming Mount Whitney garners the majority of the region’s attention, and rightfully so. At 14,500 feet, it’s the tallest peak in the lower 48. But there’s more to this high-desert realm than just those majestic granite spires.
At the base of Whitney lies the Alabama Hills, home to iconic movie locations of clustered granite boulders that have provided backdrops for Joe Kidd, Nevada Smith, Gladiator, and Django Unchained, among other feature films. For more info, grab a map from Lone Pine’s visitor center. Movie Road is a good place to start.
Lone Pine is situated in the Owens Valley, where the Lower Owens River lay compromised for about a century, its waters diverted by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) around the turn of the 20th century. That all changed in 2009, when it was discovered that LADWP was pumping groundwater illegally at nearby Olancha; recently those waters have been diverted back to the Lower Owens, transforming it from an arroyo littered with cow dung to a renewed waterway with dense reeds and cottonwoods. Birdlife is prolific, and tule elk frequent the river. It’s also an amazing kayaking and stand-up paddling locale beneath the epic backdrops of Whitney, Mount Langley, and Mount Russell, three of the state’s 14,000-plus-foot peaks.
As part of the recovery of the Lower Owens River, Owens Lake has also returned, thanks to the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project. After a century of dormancy, Owens Lake has been revived. For years it took on the semblance of a vast and glaring wasteland; now it’s a major migrant stop for shorebirds, songbirds, and waterfowl. The area also features four miles of easy hiking trails with overlooks where a keen eye can potentially spot the American pipit, red-necked ducks, Wilson’s phalarope, and western snowy plover, to name a few among any birder’s delight. So don’t forget a camera and binoculars.