Wild West Day Trip: Alabama Hills and Movie Flats Road on Highway 395

Date Visited: August 7, 2011
Check current conditions: BLM, Bishop Field Office (760) 872-5000.
  • Site Hours: Safest dawn to dusk
  • Road Type: Dirt road
  • Admission: No charge.

I always enjoy my trips up 395 from Southern California to Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain.  I’m a big fan of desert landscapes, geological oddities, and the snow-capped High Sierras looming over the highway.  The relatively little amount of development along the highway lets you dream of the old west and pioneer forefathers — something that clearly has occurred to Hollywood film studios, as they’ve filmed hundreds of movies (including a few favorites of mine) in a little stretch of land just west of Lone Pine known as the Alabama Hills.

Old movie poster featuring Jimmy Stewart and the Alabama Hills.

Last year on our way to Oregon, we stopped very briefly at the Lone Pine Museum of Film History in the center of Lone Pine off 395, just long enough to get a picture of my son with his head in the mouth of one of the monster’s from Tremors.  But I was blown away with the displays and how many films had been shot in the area that I hadn’t realized, and decided that I had to take the family through the Alabama Hills next time we had an opportunity.  Ideally, I would have had us stop at the Film Museum first, and spent some time there, and then headed out to the Alabama Hills with all the movie posters and stills and artifacts still fresh in our mind, but the museum is not dog friendly, so that really wasn’t an option for us.

From 395, the hills look very nondescript and uninteresting, but that all changes when you get on the west side of the hills on Movie Flats Road.  Coming from the south, you turn left at Whitney Portal Road right in the middle of town.  Approximately 2.5 miles west, after an amusingly painted rock on the side of the road, you will come to a road sign for Movie Flats Road.  There is also a plaque there in a vacant lot next to the turnoff, that talks about the movie history of the area (plaque was dedicated by Roy Rogers!).

An "un-natural" rock formation just before the turnoff.
The sign at the turnoff from Whitney Portal Road.
Plaque dedicated by Roy Rogers at start (or end) of Movie Road.

The next 7 miles or so goes quickly from a paved road to a well-maintained dirt road (at least it was in the summer) that even a regular passenger car can navigate. It winds in and around some of the greatest rock formations you’ve ever seen, and many that you will recognize from hundreds of old western movies.  Once you’ve driven through them, you will start easily picking out the distinctive terrain in movies you watch in the future.  Kids will love climbing on some of the rock formations, and expert rock climbers can get a pretty good workout as well.

Some rock formations on the southeast end of the movie road.
Nice shot of the many layers of awesome geology in this area.

You can stick to the main road, which is pretty hard to lose, or you can take any of a number of little side roads to get closer to particular formations or to explore on your own.

Heading out to explore the rocks. That's Mount Whitney in the upper left of the picture (the highest of those rock fingers).
Great picture opportunities everywhere!

At the end of Movie Flats Road, you will run into Moffat Ranch Road, which will rejoin 395 just north of Lone Pine, and immediately south of the Manzanar National Historic Site, which we also toured last year.  We actually hit the Alabama Hills on the way home from Mammoth, so heading south on 395 we turned right on Moffat Ranch Road right past Manzanar, and then turned left onto Movie Flats Road, following it until it dropped us on Whitney Portal Road.

Another shot of layered rock formations leading back to the Sierras.
Rock formation in the foreground, Mount Whitney near the center of the background.
Welcome sign near the northern entrance of the Alabama Hills.

The entire loop from 395 to 395 is 12 miles.  It is technically only 6 miles out of the way total, but as a dirt road with many great photo and playing opportunities, you’ll want to budget about an hour–or more if you really want to take your time and enjoy the rocks or try to find actual movie locations.  To help with that, there is a self-guided driving tour brochure you can download from the Film Museum that pinpoints some of the more famous scenes from movies like Gunga Din, Rawhide, and How the West Was Won.

It doesn’t include any of the more modern movies, like Iron Man, Transformers, Tremors, or even Joe Kidd, but there are other private hobbyists that have taken the time to re-visit some of the famous locations of other movies and blogged about it.  Some day I’d love to spend more time to pick out exactly where Clint Eastwood blew that guy away hiding in the rocks with his old-school sniper rifle or where Kevin Bacon jumped onto some boulders to escape the graboids, but for now, I’m happy just being able to point at the screen every time I see a scene shot in the Alabama Hills and say, “Hey!  I’ve been there!”


Tremors (1990) (trailer) by luchagringo

NOTE:  The 395 is a very long road, so if you’re looking to break up the trip a bit, check out some of our other quick side trips along the way, or hit some on the way up, and some on the way back.  See Manzanar National Historic Site, Erick Schat’s Bakkery, the Hot Creek Geological SiteObsidian Dome, and Mono Lake, all right off the road on the way to Reno (by way of Mammoth) and worthy of a fast break or a longer investigation.


View Alabama Hills – Movie Road.kml in a larger map

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Jeff, another Jeff here. Thanks for the trail report. The video comparisons to old movies are awesome. I don’t know if you purposely have the photos set to “friends only,” but all I see are big exclamation points where the photos should be. Something in Picasa?

  2. says

    I love the Alabama Hills, so much cool stuff to see here. You could spend a whole day exploring it. I got a chance to hang out at the film museum on a recent trip to hike Mt Whitney and I hadn’t even heard of the Alabama Hills before that. Did you get a chance to check out the Mobius Arch? It is really beautiful and right off Movie Road. I posted on it here if you want to check it out
    http://californiathroughmylens.com/mobius-arch-alabama-hills

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