You have been there – many, many times. Nearly every pickup truck commercial seen on television has a portion taken from the Alabama Hills. Wide screen movie productions like Gladiator, Tremors, Django Unchained, Star Trek, The Shadow, Iron Man and others have found the unique combination of rocks formations and mountains a strong backdrop for their movie story. “Westerns” by the hundreds were filmed on Alabama Hills locations. So many movies were made that ‘Movie Road’ is the name of main packed dirt route through the area.
The Alabama Hills lie on the dry side of the Eastern Sierra mountains in California. Their name comes from the Confederate ship, C.S.S. Alabama, a raider of Yankee shipping off the coast of Great Britain during the United States Civil War. The exploits of the Alabama inspired Southern sympathizing prospectors in the area to coin the name, Alabama Hills.
The 30,000 acres of the Alabama Hills National Scenic Recreation Area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The travel and camping rules are generous compared to other national recreation areas. Numerous back dirt roads are accessible, some easy to navigate while others absolutely require high clearance four wheel drive. Dispersed camping is popular. This translates into to a large area for photographers to explore and find the solitude of landscape photography.
The amazing rock formations offer foreground for images. One type of rock is an orangish volcanic flow from approximately 175 million years ago. A second type is a geologically newer, light colored rock rounded by weathering. These appear as sandstone, but are quite rough to the touch and not something on which to take a spill while scrambling for a better photo position.
The Alabama Hills are home to over 400 arches of all sizes. These rock formations present interesting framing for mountains, the sky or both. Some of the arches are easy to reach while others are hidden away and even yet to be discovered.
The high desert is a challenging environment for wild flowers, but dozens of species have adapted and bloom throughout the spring and summer. Most sit close to the desert floor which makes close up photography easier, especially in the wind.
Whitney Portal Road the main highway across the mountains and offers access to Mt. Whitney. It is the highest mountain in the continental United States at over 14,000 feet. During the summer the intrepid can actually hike to the summit. Lone Pine, the small town at the base of the Alabama Hills is a center for climbing activity.
The Milky Way and movement of the stars has intrigued humans for eons. Many photographers find the night sky both an interesting and challenging subject. Street light pollution is low in the Alabama Hills. The easy road access and camping provide excellent conditions for night sky photography.
The Alabama Hills are a wonderful location for photography any time of the year. For me, the shoulder season is special when snow fills the mountains. High winds blow across the peaks creating long snow trails. When the warm sun reaches the summits dramatic clouds form and reach high into the sky.
Just 10 minutes north of Lone Pine on Highway 395 is the Manzanar Relocation Center where Japanese Americans were held during World War II. The stark conditions of the camp serve as a reminder of irrational fear and hate.
Ansel Adams found the the plight of the detained individuals and families a compelling story and produced a book during the war that was very controversial. One of his most famous photographs, Mt Williamson from Manzanar, was taken from a location about a mile behind the interment camp.
The Alabama Hills are a beautiful backdrop to explore and enhance your skills in photography. The combination of rock formations, unique vegetation, mountains, snow, and clouds with easy access are a special mix to create great images.
Greg Czarnecki is a retired professional photographer. With his wife, Sue, they pursue the inspiration of amazing natural locations. Their work can be viewed at cdphotogroup.zenfolio.com
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