These Public Lands Have Been Featured in Hundreds of Hollywood Movies
Sullivan Barth is a communications fellow at the National Wildlife Federation.
Just 200 miles north of Los Angeles sits the Arabian desert. Or is it the Himalayas? Or Utah? Or Mexico? Or is it the moon? With a camera and a little imagination, the Alabama Hills have been all of these places. .
Long a treasured location for the movie industry — most recently “Iron Man,” “Django Unchained” and “Gladiator” were filmed there — this Bureau of Land Management National Scenic Area serves as the gateway to the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and provides some of the nearest dispersed camping opportunities for the millions who live in Southern California. These lands are defined by the large mounds of school-bus-sized boulders that stick out of the Owens Valley and line the iconic Movie Road. Over millions of years, erosion has smoothened the rock formations and created dozens of natural arches and narrow canyons. Just past the Hills to the west, Mount Whitney rises a staggering 10,000 feet over the Valley floor to a total of 14,500 feet, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
The contrast between the smooth boulders and the jagged peaks, along with the natural framing provided by the arches makes Alabama Hills one of the most preeminent spots for photography in California. Every morning before dawn, campers all throughout the Hills wake up in the dark to watch the sunrise. They don’t look eastward, toward the White Mountains or the sun itself. They look westward as the first light hits the top of Mount Whitney and descends into the valley below.
What makes Alabama Hills invaluable is that it strikes the right balance between being rugged and pristine, while still being accessible and manageable. It is off the grid, yet only a few miles out of town. Some live there self-sufficiently for weeks and some are just there for the afternoon. It allows you to feel remote without being exclusionary. You can experience the awe of camping below the most prominent peaks in the lower 48, in a free campsite and be back in Los Angeles before noon the next day.
Alabama Hills are not without controversy — in this case stemming from the name itself. During the Civil War, confederate sympathizers in California named the area after the CSS Alabama to honor its success in sinking a Union ship. In recent years, this name has come under scrutiny, with local environmental groups, including Friends of the Inyo, calling for a return to the Indigenous name of Payahuunadü from the original Paiute inhabitants of the Owens Valley.
Despite the division surrounding its name, there was unity in celebrating its protection as a National Scenic Area in 2019. The Alabama Hills are emblematic of what public lands can be. They protect wildlife, preserve natural features, provide support for nearby communities, and enjoyment for all — whether it be rock climbers, hikers, photographers, film buffs, locals or families. While the Alabama Hills are famous for their use in fiction, their value is very much real.
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