Movie Magic in the Alabama Hills

Eastern Sierra Backdrop Featured in Numerous Films

Alabama Hills Natural Arch | Credit: Sonya Van Dam

While furiously pedaling my mountain bike up a steep and winding Eastern Sierra road, all I could hear was my steady breathing 5,000 feet above sea level. Silhouetted against a multitude of fading stars and the first light of a new day, the tallest mountain peaks in California dominated the wide-open western horizon.

Then, on my right, I heard the rush of a stream. Tuttle Creek was cascading down the high desert realm, feeding the expanse of the Owens Valley below. Continuing my ascent, I dipped into a gully, then shifted gears and pedaled madly up again. A slight chill wafted across my path, a hint of winter emanating from the granite slabs.

Just off Highway 395, Movie Road and its decades-long Hollywood career transports you to the American Southwest and Old Mexico. | Credit: Sonya Van Dam

After another ascent, I found the turn-off to my destination, one of the greatest, most unique motion-picture backdrops in America right here in the rugged Alabama Hills. In the shadow of Mount Whitney ― the tallest peak in the lower 48 states ― the fortified clusters of granite boulders at the base of these snowcapped mountains have provided breathtaking backgrounds for myriad television series, commercials, and films.

Just off Highway 395, Movie Road and its decades-long Hollywood career transports you to the American Southwest and Old Mexico, and all the way to places like India, Argentina, and Spain. Hopalong Cassidy rode these gritty hills. The Lone Ranger and Tonto knew every nook and cranny. Clint Eastwood fought a ruthless land baron. But westerns weren’t the only movies filmed here. Demi Moore in G.I. Jane visited, as did William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000) with Mount Whitney towering in the background. 


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In 2012, after summiting Mount Whitney, I remember driving back down to Lone Pine and noticing a film crew busy at work. They were putting the final touches on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, specifically the scene by a campfire where Jamie Foxx and Christopher Waltz strategize their business arrangement as bounty hunters.

Over so many thousands of years, this mystical setting was formed by chemical weathering, when the climate was much wetter and streams of water percolated down porous crags and separated the bedrock into massive clusters, ledges, and rock arches.

Stop by the visitor’s center in Lone Pine to pick up a map of Movie Road. An easy self-driving tour takes film buffs back in time to their favorite flicks. Visit lonepinechamber.org for more information.

But there’s nothing better than wandering off on your own into the Alabama Hills before the sun creeps above the daunting Inyo Mountains jutting out of the east. On several occasions, I’ve scrambled up to the apex of those granite clusters and stumbled across archways perfectly framing Mount Whitney, Mount Russell, and Lone Pine Peak. It’s easy to see why this stunning, one-of-a-kind background continues to inspire.


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