Nestled between the steep and snowy eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada and the historic town of Lone Pine, California, sits the unique landscape of the Alabama Hills. This remarkable area (Payahuunadü) is on the traditional land of the Paiute and Shoshone (Nüümü and Newe) people. Mt. Whitney—the tallest peak in the lower 48—looms to the east. Your gateway to Lone Pine and Alabama Hills is U.S. Route 395, one of the most scenic drives in California.
Even if you’ve never been to Alabama Hills, you probably recognize the landscape. The twisting, rounded rocks have played host to 400 film productions, including High Sierra, Tremors, The Postman, Gladiator, and westerns dating to the silent film era. Alabama Hills is also a high-priority destination for outdoor enthusiasts like rock climbers, photographers, horseback riders, hikers, mountain bikers, and campers.
A New National Scenic Area
With the John D. Dingell, Jr Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019, Congress designated Alabama Hills as a National Scenic Area and tasked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with developing a management plan within 3 years. The BLM worked closely with local groups to create a plan that serves the needs of the entire community.
The resulting management plan included stakeholders from the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group, Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Inyo County, and the Lone Pine community, according to a press release.
The end result is a plan that retains the primitive and semi-primitive nature of the area while creating infrastructure to help minimize impact. “The only thing that’s going to protect this place is for people to understand how special it is, how fragile it is,” said Kathy Bancroft, president of the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group in a video on the BLM’s Alabama Hills National Scenic Area website. “And we want to keep it in this semi-primitive way because that’s where its beauty lies. We need everybody’s help to do it.”
The new plan took effect this fall. It includes strategies to maintain roads, routes, and trails, add interpretive material, and develop climbing infrastructure that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the most immediate changes mainly concern where camping is allowed.
Immediate Changes and Where to Camp
The changes most likely to affect campers revolve around an area known as Movie Flat. Large areas to the west of Movie Road are now designated as “No Camping,” as seen above.
Additionally, certain areas within Alabama Hills will now be marked with a “No Camping” sign. Campers can expect to encounter these signs by March of 2022. Dispersed camping is generally allowed on BLM land (except when specified otherwise), but for maximum stewardship of resources and minimized impact in the Alabama Hills, the BLM recommends camping at BLM-managed Tuttle Creek Campground, the Inyo National Forest-managed Lone Pine Campground, and the Inyo County-managed Portuguese Joe Campground.
Alternative Alabama Hills Camping Details
Tuttle Creek Campground is located at the southern tip of the Alabama Hills and is open year-round. It offers 83 RV or tent sites, has 10 pull-through trailer spaces, and can accommodate RVs up to 30 feet in length. Every site has a fire pit, a lantern holder, and a picnic table. There are no hookups, and potable water is only available seasonally (not in the winter). The dump station fee is $5 and it’s closed in the winter. The campground fee is $8 per night and no reservations are required. Lone Pine is only 5 miles from this campground.
To the west of Alabama Hills is the Inyo National Forest’s Lone Pine Campground. This campground has a vault toilet and bear boxes, and is open in the winter for no fee—though it’s not serviced in the winter. In the summer season, you can reserve a site for $26 per night by calling 1-877-444-6777 or visiting Recreation.gov.
A third available campground in the area is the Portuguese Joe Campground, located 2.4 miles east of the Alabama Hills area via Whitney Portal Road. This campground sports 20 spaces, tables, grills, potable water, vault toilets, and can accommodate RVs up to 30 feet. The fee is $14 per night with $5 for an additional vehicle. You can make a reservation for Portuguese Joe Campground here.
Additional changes to camping availability in Alabama Hills will crop up as the BLM continues enacting the management plan. Eventually, dispersed camping in Alabama Hills will be limited to the areas circled in purple on the map below.
A permit will be necessary to utilize those spots, but the system will be a gentler sort of permit than many campers might be familiar with.
“It’s an informational permit only,” said Sherri Lisius, Assistant Field Manager, Recreation and Lands, of the BLM’s Bishop, California, office. “It will not be a permit that gives you a reservation.”
The permit will be similar to the California Campfire Permit in that it will likely entail some sort of video with an associated short quiz, with the end goal being “to learn about how to ‘Leave No Trace’ and camp in the Alabama Hills,” according to Lisius. At the time of writing, the BLM is not sure when the system will go into place.
“We are working through the kinks of how it’s going to be provided to people, which is why we haven’t put it out yet,” Lisius said. The permit might be available on the Alabama Hills website or on a partner website, but according to Lisius it will certainly be available in person for those who don’t have access to the internet.
According to the BLM, the Alabama Hills Management Plan includes a “strong adaptive management component and employs an implementation strategy that allows for monitoring results and adjusting accordingly based on desired outcomes.” Lisius acknowledges the new plan is a shift for regular users of the Alabama Hills. “We are going to be quite kind in our implementation of all these things because it’s a lot of change,” she said.
For now, Lisius stresses checking the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area website regularly for updates, especially before planning and executing a trip to the area.
If you do plan to use dispersed camping in the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area before the new limitations go into place, please make use of the six portable toilets placed in the area as part of the new plan—or pack out your waste using a WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) Bag or similar tactic. Eventually, the BLM will place trash facilities and toilets in strategic locations around Alabama Hills as the management plan moves forward.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction about the location of prohibited camping areas.