As most full-time employees know, weekends are precious. Saturdays and Sundays fly by and the next thing we know, we’re back at the office. You only have 48 hours, just enough time to make a drive up to Alabama Hills in Inyo County, CA, for an overnight camping trip. You may give up the luxury of extra sleep or lounging on the couch, but I guarantee the short adventure will rejuvenate you for the next week.
From the Orange County area, Alabama Hills, just south of Mammoth, is only a three hour drive. We packed up a Volkswagen Jetta and headed north. By packed, I really mean packed. A full trunk that took some muscle to slam shut with barely enough room for a small kid (or a petite adult like myself) to squeeze in the back seat. We gathered all our camping gear by mostly borrowing, if you ask nicely you can really save some money with our only expenses being gas and groceries. We probably spent the most on a well-deserved breakfast to recap the adventures we just had.
To give us plenty of time to explore the area, we left as early as three girls who don’t camp a whole lot could and got to the campsite by 10:30 a.m. After driving on the main road (Hwy 395) for approximately 230 miles, you can’t miss the cozy town of Alabama Hills with two of the best breakfast restaurants in town. Shortly after the McDonald’s on the left, make a left turn at Whitney Portal Road. The best part about this hiking area is that you can almost literally park anywhere and have your own semi-private secluded area behind the rocks.
Head down Movie Flat Road to find all the Instagram-famous areas that you see in your favorite photos. The historical significance is easy to see as most of the rocks in this area are 82-200 million years old. Once you arrive you will realize why there have been hundreds of movies filmed here including 1938’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ and 2000’s ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’. There’s really no map that provides exactly where each rock formation and arches are, but all the photography locations are all fairly close (and are all amazing for night photography). Here are a few of my favorites, all which can be visited in less than a day.
In the heart of the rocky landscape, this arch can be accessed by the Mobius Arch Loop Trail. It’s an easy hike, only 0.6 miles, and should only take less than an hour to visit. When you look through the key hole, Mt. Whitney shines through especially when the sun sets behind it. The trail head is easy to spot, in between Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney trail head off Whitney Portal Road. There’s plenty of parking once you get there.
Shortly after the Mobius Arch parking area, find the Boot Arch also known as Lady Boot Arch named after the shape the rock creates inside, do you see it? Follow the road as it bends to the right, then slightly to the left once again. You will be able to spy the arch to the left easily as rocks will start to get more sparse in this area.
I’m not sure if it has an official name, but it’s the most photographed road I’ve seen in this area. From the top of the straight and narrow road, you can capture the essence of Alabama Hills rocks, along with a clear view of the snow caps of Mt. Whitney and all the smaller mountain ranges in between. The best time of day is to come here at sunrise, just as the sun is creeping up above the mountain. Keep in mind other photographers have the same idea as you, so be respectful of each other while you get your perfect shot. The lighting is phenomenal and the view from the top of this road is perfection.
Where to Camp
The best part about this area is the freedom of choosing your overnight stay. The easy-to-access and well-paved road stretches a couple miles, all which have smaller access roads with plenty of semi-private areas behind the rocks. Pick your favorite spot, park close by, and unload your camping gear.
Bring easy-to-cook meals like Jambalaya or pasta. No need to get fancy, just use packets and bring your own meat or sausage in a cooler. Easy to make and easy to clean. Plus, you’re in the outdoors so gourmet need not be part of your diet while camping.
Animals here are interesting yet harmless like the Great Basin kangaroo rat and southern grasshopper mouse. Keep your food and perishables in the car if you’re worried about animals getting to your leftovers and your trash bags over 100 yards from your site just in case they get curious.
Set up your tent during the daytime. Everything gets more challenging after the sun sets. This seems obvious but the excitement of exploring sometimes overshadows being practical while camping. Choose a flat area to sleep comfortably and behind large rocks in case the winds pick up. The dirt of Alabama Hills is compact, so using large rocks to anchor your tent may be necessary.
Keep your valuables locked in the car and keep your keys in your pocket. Electronics can freeze during the night so keep them in your sleeping bag with you to prevent from cold-weather damage. Even better, if you’re sleeping with pockets, keep your smaller items close to your body warmth.
What to Bring:
(If you don’t have everything you need, someone will. Borrowing is key!)
- A tent for 3-4 people
- Zero degree sleeping bags (I like mummy style similar to this Hyke & Byke one from Amazon)
- Extra blankets (To sleep comfortably over, as extra warmth, and for the front of the tent to deter dirt from coming inside)
- Pots and pans for cooking
- Plates, bowls, utensils and cups
- Cooler and ice
- Water (Bring plenty for cooking, drinking, washing, etc.)
- Firewood (Buy this from the local market less than a mile from the camp site)
- Fire starter
- Long-reach lighter or torch
- Trash bags (bring out what you bring in, always!)
- Anti-bacterial wipes or soap
- Toilet paper (you know why)
- Light sources
- Head lamps are useful when walking to and from the car or going to the restroom at night
- String lights are useful for lighting up your tent (plus they’re great for photos)
- Charger cables for cameras, phones, etc.
- Portable speaker (unless you prefer silence)
The best part about Alabama Hills is the fact that it is much lesser known than it’s famous neighbors – Mammoth, Yosemite, and the Sierra National Forest. Plus, unlike its neighbors, no permits or reservations are required to camp here. It’s a great place to camp as a couple or with a group of friends. If you have a few extra days or you are looking for a greater challenge, there are plenty of hiking areas nearby including the tallest peak in California – Mount Whitney.