The Alabama Hills: A 100-Year Love Affair with Hollywood… The Highway 395 Series

The Alabama Hills as seen from Lone Pine with Lone Pine Peak looming above.

I’m back! While the three months of hanging out at our home and taking care of my brother may not seem like long, it felt like an eternity.  I have one more post to write on the experience but it is going to have to wait. It’s play time. While Peggy decided that she needed a kid/grandkid fix and headed east, I decided I needed a road trip. I loaded up Quivera the Van and took off down Highway 395 along the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, one of America’s most scenic and interesting drives. 

My journey started in Reno visiting the National Automobile Museum. Even if you don’t care a rat’s behind about old cars, I can pretty much guarantee Bill Harrah’s collection will awe you. (Rat’s behind? I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” and have been inspired by his colorful choice of words.) From there, I headed south, enjoying the sheer grandeur of the mountains with side trips to Virginia City where Samuel Clemens assumed the name Mark Twain, the ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake with its strange, other worldly tuff towers, a mountain of obsidian, the World War II Japanese internment camp of Manzanar, and finally the Alabama Hills next to Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney. 

I stayed in summer-touristy but interesting towns, visited local museums, learned about water wars, and ate some great food. I’ll take you inside the ‘world famous’ Schat’s Bakery in Bishop where simply stepping through the door guarantees that you gain five pounds, and we will stop at the Copper Top, a hole in the wall front yard family bar-b-que in Big Pine that was named America’s best restaurant in 2014 by Yelp. Yep, its ribs and tri-tip are to die for. When the restaurant is closed, you can get the tri-tip from a vending machine.

Originally, my goal was to head farther south to where Highway 395 intersects I-15 and ends. The road had originally gone all of the way to Mexico but had been done in by bulldozers and Southern California freeways. You can still follow the highway to Canada through remote country where there are fewer people and bulldozers. My primary objective had been to visit the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans museum in Victorville near the highway’s terminus. It wasn’t that I was so interested in Roy and Dale, I wanted to see Roy’s horse, Trigger. The singing cowboy had him stuffed. Visiting the horse had been on my agenda for a long, long time. Boy, was I out of date. Googling Trigger, I discovered that the museum had closed in 2003 and the horse had been moved to Branson, Missouri. (I’ve been to Branson; there are lots of strange things there.) Trigger never achieved the stardom in Missouri that he had out West, however. It could be that most of his fans from the 40s and 50s have ridden off into the sunset. Maybe if Dale had stuffed Roy…

Along the way, I was going to make a side trip to the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest with its focus on the petroglyphs of the Coso Range. That trip ended up on shaky ground, however. The 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes near the town at the beginning of the month persuaded me that the museum could wait. I just read that there have been thousands of aftershocks since. That’s a whole lot of shaking going on.

Today I will restart my blog— get back in the saddle, so to speak— with a drive through the Alabama Hills, which I think you will find unique and beautiful. I did. Having the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains as backdrops doesn’t hurt. The set locators, directors, actors, script writers and film crews of the over 400 Hollywood movies made in the area starting in the 1920s obviously found the hills attractive. But I will get into the details of the movies in my next post when I will take you into the Lone Pine Film History Museum where Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger rub elbows with the likes of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Ann Francis and Spock, not to mention Trigger, Silver, Rin Tin Tin and Buttermilk. Buttermilk!? Hmmm. Okay, you trivia fans, who was Buttermilk?

I first thought that the Alabama Hills had been named by some homesick prospector from the East. That happened a lot in the 1850s, 60s and 70s. Heck, the lonely miners were even known to name mountain lakes after their favorite prostitutes. What I learned, however, was that Southern sympathizers named the hills after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate War ship that had caused the Union considerable strife by taking some 66 merchant ships valued at over six million dollars during its brief two-year career. Its success was finally ended when the Union sloop of war, the Kearsarge, caught up with the ship at Cherbourg, France and sank her. Other prospectors in the Lone Pine area who were sympathetic with the North, named their mine the Kearsarge. The name lives on in the Kearsarge Pass along the John Muir Trail.

A painting of the CSS Alabama.
My nephew Jay and I on Kearsarge Pass. Even at 16, he was towering over me. You may recall that Jay, now in his 30s, backpacked a hundred miles with me last year when I was hiking down the PCT.

But enough on background. Let’s rock!

Large, colorful rocks with a dramatic backdrop provided by mountains are what make the Alabama Hills special.
Another favorite of mine.
Quite the jumble here. Can you spot the crow resting on the far right rock?
I captured a fun shot of it taking off. I had our Canon EOS Rebel along this time as well as my Canon Power Shot. I was able to take decent telephotos!
Can’t you just see a stagecoach going full speed along this road chased by a group of desperadoes?
And then racing across this valley. Or maybe it was the Lone Ranger with his faithful companion Tonto chasing the band of desperadoes. Hi-yo Silver! Get-em-up Scout!
This sign is located at the beginning of Movie Flats.
The surrounding mountains add drama to the Alabama Hills. These are the Inyo Mountains to the east.
The Sierras are to the west. This photo features Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United State. The dark trees in the foreground are Whitney Portal, the starting point for climbing the mountain from the east. I’ve always started from the west side of the mountain. The trail to the top runs along the ridge line. There is one place only a few feet across with a thousand foot drop on each side. Some fun on a windy day!
A different perspective on the Sierras.
And another on the Inyo Mountains.
Getting back to individual rocks, this one was impressive.
So I rendered it in black and white, just like you would see in the dozens of cowboy movies dating all the way back to the silent film era.
Here are a few more interesting rocks.
The white containers protect plants.
I conclude as I started, with a photo of the Alabama Hills from Lone Pine. This time I took the photo in the evening and had Mt. Whitney as a backdrop.

NEXT POST: A visit to the Lone Pine Film History Museum.

53 thoughts on “The Alabama Hills: A 100-Year Love Affair with Hollywood… The Highway 395 Series

  1. Welcome back. Some places you mentioned seemed familiar, so I immediately went to the map and found our wanderings had hit 395 at times. But I had not focused on the whole route which does seem worth more exploration.
    I’m looking forward to your posts.

    • It is one of my all-time favorite road trips Ray. So many things worth seeing. And great variety. From the highest, Mt. Whitney, to the lowest, Death valley, to the oldest, the Bristle Cone pines. –Curt

  2. Welcome back, Curt- I’m glad to see you back again 🙂 What gorgeous shots! Those hills are such a fantastic backdrop, that it really does look like a movie set- almost unreal!
    I’m looking forward to hearing about more of your travels.

  3. Hey! Welcome back.

    I remember watching cowboy movies and considered it odd that the same rock kept appearing over and over, moving not only between towns and even states, but back and forth in time.

    “Gosh,” I thought, “how do they do that?”

  4. Welcome back! Glad to see you back on track🙂 I was just thinking of you these days, hope everything is well!
    Christie

  5. Buttermilk – I immediately knew it was Dale Evans horse, though I might not have known the answer to the question, “What was the name of Dale Evans horse?” Funny how the mind works…
    Love the big round rocks. There are similar formations in the N Scottsdale/Carefree AZ area.

  6. Welcome back Curt. I just finished reading of your’s brother’s passing. What a gift Peggy and you have given in journeying with him in the final chapter of his life. I am sorry for your loss and sending wishes for peace.

  7. Welcome back to you, Curt, and to the sorts of scenery we count on you to bring us! I must say when I saw the world “Alabama” and then the first photo of your post, there was a bit of a disconnect in my mind. Interesting to hear about the naming, and I enjoyed the larger range vistas as well as many of the individual rock clumps, many of which look like animals to me!

    • Thanks, Lexi! I have a great weakness for rocks, whether they come as individuals or mountain ranges. (grin) Others have been seeing the animals as well. Nothing like an active imagination! –Curt

  8. Hello Curt.

    Welcome back Curt. You made a wonderful post. It is was full of history with all those names, which You mentioned. Those names are familiar to me! Landscapes were like from another world in my eyes – gorgeous! Thank You.

    Have a good day!

  9. Welcome back, Curt. My brother and some of his family live down in that part of the country so I’ve seen a lot of it – but only in passing. I look forward to seeing your more detailed view.

  10. I think Twain also used the expression “bully for you” and a couple other phrases I borrowed from that book when I read it. Isn’t that the one where he tells the story of the corpse and the limburger cheese? I was a fan of Trigger since I was a toddler. My mom had a framed photo of Roy Rogers on Trigger in her house till she died. I suppose it’s still hanging there today.

    I love all of these photos. The landscape is remarkable, and I assume that’s why so many shows and films were shot here. I was identifying a creature in every single rock formation, as though they were clouds. Did you think the hole through the rock was in the shape of a heart? I did. It’s good to have you back. I hope you are still healing.

    • Peggy, who was back east playing grandmother, immediately commented on the heart, Crystal.

      I was quite amused with the status given to the horses in the early movies. They often received top billing, right up there with the star. I’ll show some examples in my next post.

      I think Hollywood fell in love with the scenery. It didn’t hurt that the Alabama Hills were within easy driving distance of Los Angeles.

      Haven’t got to the corpse with the limburger Cheese, yet. Twain/Clemens just ended his long stagecoach ride to Carson City.

  11. I find this blog very informational and authentic an as a regular follower of your blog I really find your content helpful. Keep writing more content.

  12. Good to see you’re up and running again, Curt … well, walking perhaps the better word. What better way to return than with some classic shots of archetypal American scenery? No wonder they used them as backdrops to all those movies! 🙂

    • I’ve spent so much time up on top of those mountains looking down, Dave, it was fun looking up! One of the primary reasons the area seems to be archetypal American scenery is that it was used in so many movies. 🙂 Being close to Hollywood pretty much guaranteed a certain level of exposure/fame. –Curt

  13. Welcome back Curt. My sister passed away a few months ago, after suffering through a long, debilitating disease, so I can relate to what you’ve gone through. But, it sounds like your brother is probably like my sister, in that he would be glad to know that you’re back on the road and doing what makes you happy.

    I don’t know this part of the world very well, so thanks for the photo tour. We’ve just returned from a month-long camping trip to Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, so I know what you mean about every view looking like an old cowboy movie set. Also, like you, I got a serious dose of geology, which is always nice. Welcome back buddy. ~James

    • Thanks James. Appreciated. I suspect that Marshall’s greatest regret was that he couldn’t be back out on the road himself after 17 years of constant wandering. Once you get hooked, the desire runs deep. Peggy and I are planning a couple of months in the Southwest during October and November. As many times as I have visited the area, I never get tired of it. Anyway, it will be back to Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. We are already getting excited! –Curt

  14. This rocks! Really. Some of those do look familiar – remember counting that one rock Roy Rogers went by multiple times in episodes chasing the bad guy? ( Reading back from the movie post)
    Nothing b better than big skies and open lands to make things sort of make sense. Enjoyed trailing along

    • Glad you enjoyed the journey back to yesteryear that is equally fun (and beautiful) today. I’d driven through the Alabama Hills several times when I was coming off backpacking trips that ended on top of Whitney, but this was the first time that I went to visit them specifically.

  15. It’s so good to have you back, and it’s good to finally get started with this little pile of posts that have been lingering in my inbox. Somehow, I knew that Trigger had made it to Branson, which seemed incredibly sad, and of course Buttermilk was the name of Dale Evan’s horse. As for Mark Twain’s “rat’s behind,” the only thing I can say is that it doesn’t alliterate as nicely as a similar expression!

    It’s beautiful country that you’ve shown us here, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it as you share your travels. I’ll confess it pains me a good bit to read travel blogs these days, as travel simply is out of the question for me. But I can’t miss your posts, especially as they open up so much new territory that I might get to some day, some how.

    • I laughed about your comment on the ‘rat’s behind’ and confess to having had a similar thought, Linda.

      Poor Trigger is now mouldering away in Branson. He moved from the museum to a service station that is now closed. A sad ending indeed for a once noble horse.

      I am glad to be back. And thank you. I am still having a hard time getting into a routine as far as the blog and book are concerned. But Peggy and I have some great trips planned, so the posts will continue to flow. 🙂 –Curt

      • I think you have a song for every occasion, Linda! Indeed, most things beat working for the minimum wage. I enjoyed the harmonica. Always do. Heres a fun bit of trivia I came across this morning in Rick Stevenson’s “The British Are Coming:” Ben Franklin, as you probably recall spent 20 year in England, soaking up the glory of his scientific fame. One of the things he invented was a harmonica that he loved to play— maybe after his morning air bath, where he would sit naked in his window. (Or did they didn’t teach that in American history.) “…it was an improbably contraption constructed of 37 glass hemispheres…” Mozart and Beethoven and others composed tunes for it. I wonder if any still exist?

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