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Rich film history in focus in Alabama Hills, California

Lone Pine, California, is a laid-back town of about 2,000 people in the Owens Valley in the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevada.

You might have heard of it because Lone Pine serves as a base camp for hiking Mount Whitney, just 12 miles west. But what you might not know is that Lone Pine is also home to the Alabama Hills, which draw people from around the world for their recreational opportunities and rich film history.

Weather-wise, now is a wonderful time to visit this area. The elevation in Lone Pine is 3,727 feet, so expect daily high temperatures in early to mid-November in the high 60s, with lows dipping into the 40s.

The 30,000-acre Alabama Hills National Scenic Area is just a couple of miles west of town and has two claims to fame. This landscape of granite in fantastical shapes has been the backdrop for hundreds of movies, TV shows and commercials. It’s also one of the best places to explore the back roads by car or mountain bike. On foot, you can explore the many small, boulder-filled canyons.

Southern sympathizers mining in the area during the Civil War named the Alabama Hills.

Showbiz history

Hollywood discovered this area around 100 years ago. The first feature film shot here, in 1920, was a silent Western starring Fatty Arbuckle. From the 1920s to the 1950s, more than 300 films were shot in the Alabama Hills, mostly Westerns.

One of the largest productions was the 1939 epic “Gunga Din.” The film starred Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sam Jaffe and used the Sierra Nevada as a substitute for the Himalayas. The large village, the temple and the swinging bridge in the film were all built for the movie. A tent city was erected to house the expansive cast and crew.

To see that location, head west from Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Road for 2.7 miles and turn right onto Movie Road to begin your adventure. After a half-mile, turn right and you will find the site of that tent city.

Another popular spot is Lone Ranger Canyon, less than a mile ahead on your right up Movie Road. Turn right onto the gravel road and find a parking spot. You just might see some familiar sites from the adventures of the Lone Ranger, Tonto and Silver.

Pick up or download the Movie Road Self-Guided Tour brochure, which gives locations and directions for other movie and television sites. It’s available at the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce or online at inyocountyvisitor.com.

Movie museum

Before heading for the hills proper, you might want to visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine and refresh your memory about some of the classics. The 10,000-square-foot museum features movie props and other Western film memorabilia. Look for exhibits from midcentury icons such as the “Lone Ranger” series to more modern films such as “Tremors” and “Iron Man.” There is also a 15-minute orientation film that’s well worth seeing.

As of Oct. 1, the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays. All visitors, staff and volunteers are required to wear masks and maintain distancing of at least 6 feet while on the museum grounds. Up to 25 people are allowed in the building at one time. The theater remains open, but at 25 percent capacity. It’s easy to find, along U.S. Highway 395 at 701 S. Main St., Lone Pine. Call 760-876-9909 or visit bit.ly/westernmuseum.

Spectacular sights

This lovely area is also great for hiking. One route for just about all ages, and often one that you might have to yourself, runs to Mobius Arch. It can be done as a loop of eight-tenths of a mile from the trailhead, located at about 4,700 feet. From Whitney Portal Road, take a right on Movie Road and follow for about 1½ miles. Go right at the fork, and the parking area and trailhead are on your left. Follow the obvious path. If you make the trek at dawn, it’s a spectacular sight to see Mount Whitney in the morning glow, framed within the arch.

One of the advantages of this trip is you’ll get to travel through Death Valley National Park on your way to Lone Pine. It’s a spectacular drive depending on if you are taking the route into the park via Beatty or Pahrump. Allow about 4½ hours for the drive from Las Vegas to Lone Pine.

For more information on camping, lodging, restaurants and other services, contact the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Information Center, 126 South Main St., at 760-876-4444 or lonepinechamber.org.

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