Dawn light on Lone Pine Peak through Mobius Arch, Alabama Hills, Inyo National Forest, California
The eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in California are full of superlatives. From Mount Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous United States), to the Bristlecone pines (the oldest living trees on earth), the Owens Valley, nestled between the Sierra and the White Mountains, is itself the deepest chasm in North America.
So it’s no surprise that driving up Highway 395, through quaint high desert towns in the shadow of some of the continent’s loftiest peaks, is a visual feast. This is a land of extremes, not only in elevation and longevity, but climate zones and geology. And with so much variety, anyone traveling this route needs to think carefully about their itinerary as there is far too much to explore and experience in one visit.
One exceptional spot that should not be missed is the Alabama Hills Recreation Area just west of Lone Pine. This is a wild landscape of graceful arches and giant boulders strewn across the desert floor. In stark contrast to the snow-capped peaks above, this area has been a favorite of advertising agencies and Hollywood studios going back to the silent movie days and it’s easy to see why. The warm dawn light here has a special quality that seems to illuminate the rocks from within, and beautifully accentuates the transition from the desert to the alpine environments.
Over the years, the Alabama Hills have grown in popularity both as a photographer’s paradise and a traveler’s escape where camping is free and easy in a gorgeous setting. Unfortunately because the area is under BLM jurisdiction and lacks the protection afforded other similarly dramatic sites, it has seen its share of vandalism. Many have advocated for it’s wilderness designation over the years, but in another strange form of contrast it seems its fame and accessibility are likely to prevent any further protection.
So enjoy this treasure, its beauty and the unique sense of freedom it provides, but be sure to take only pictures and leave only footprints. And if you do happen to discover a new arch, you might just want to name it and keep it to yourself.