May 07, 2017

In the Footsteps of the Great Movie Cowboys

When people travel to the Owens Valley, it's often to go to the mountains.

They're either on their way up the 395 to Yosemite or Mammoth Mountain, or they're sticking around Lone Pine to climb the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mount Whitney.

But when I was in Lone Pine last weekend for the Owens Lake Bird Festival, I took off on my lunch break to explore a set of nearby hills.

The Alabama Hills.

Named after a Confederate warship named the CSS Alabama, these hills are about as old as the Sierra Nevada mountain range (one of Earth's oldest!)—but something kept them from pushing up nearly as high.

And that means that late in spring, when the peaks are still frozen and topped with snow and the valley has browned into its summer char...

...the hills are still alive...

...with the bright bloom of wildflowers.

But the Alabama Hills haven't been made famous by any "superblooms."

And while its geologic formations aren't quite as otherworldly as others...

...the landscape fascinated moviemakers enough in the 1920s... transform this area into a natural "back lot" for Hollywood.

Its distinctive rocks and a dozens of arches—including the famous Mobius Arch in the "Movie Flats" section of the hills—have served as the backdrop for over 400 films and TV shows, including Hopalong CassidyHow The West Was Won, Gunga DinThe Gene Autry Show and The Lone Ranger.

But while the public lands are currently managed by the BLM, you still might find yourself in the middle of a Hollywood film shoot—with the more modern-day productions of Django Unchained, Gladiator, Iron Man, Maverick, and Tremors having also been shot there.

Standing there, looking through Mobius Arch at the ancient landscape, it certainly feels like being in an old western movie with the likes of John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, and Errol Flynn—all of whom have areas around Movie Flats and Movie Road named after them for the movies they starred in that were shot here.

Or maybe you're in an old sci-fi B movie, where these arches and niches are home to some prehistoric monster that's escaped detection by park rangers, geologists, seismologists, and archaeologists—released from the earth's core through a fault line during some seismic event (like the big 1872 Lone Pine earthquake, which changed the area's topography visibly).

It's disorienting out there, looping through the rocks, some of which rise so high as to block out the sun.

But thankfully, Mount Whitney and the rest of the Sierras will always rise above the Alabama Hills, showing you the way back to Planet Earth in the 21st Century.

But while you're in those hills—no matter what time of year or even what year, for that matter—you'll still be in the great western landscape that's part of the ancient geologic record of an existence that predates even us.

And it's one that most other people only ever get to see on a screen, and not in real life.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Garden of the Gods
Photo Essay: Corriganville Movie Ranch, Burned to the Ground
Photo Essay: Stoney Point, at the Santa Susana Pass
Photo Essay: Landing on Another Planet, An Hour Outside of LA

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