Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife

The ultimate 1-day Alabama Hills itinerary: 11 best hikes & arches (+ easy climbing at the Candy Store)

Something of a rising star in central California thanks to burgeoning online popularity amongst photographers and instagrammers, Alabama Hills National Scenic Area is an unlikely meeting point between the sunburnt desert and the High Sierras, a spot where orange granite warps into long arches that offer a perfect frame of Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous US. And truthfully, the hype doesn’t even begin to capture the beauty of this small sliver of BLM land.

Alabama Hills is like a miniaturised version of Joshua Tree, the monzogranite and cacti immediately familiar, but with an array of rock features that really do rival Utah’s Arches National Park. For all my attempts at comparison, though, the real beauty of Alabama Hills is that there simply isn’t anywhere like it— you can find better climbing, bigger arches, more abundant cacti, and even more impressive peaks, but you will almost never find it all in a single location. Simply put, this is one of the most visually spectacular spots in the country.

This 1-day itinerary for Alabama Hills will take you to no less than 7 arches and explores some of the area’s best short trails, all with the impossibly scenic backdrop of Mt Whitney and the Sierras. Read on to discover absolutely everything you need to know for the ultimate day in Alabama Hills, including when to visit, how to get there, where to camp, essential packing list, and a super detailed 1-day itinerary with all the best hikes and arches.

Check out other posts in my 1-day National Park & Public Land series:

Planning your trip

When to visit Alabama Hills

Located in the southern California desert, Alabama Hills is a year-round destination offering spectacular scenery and unique experiences 12 months of the year:

Summer (June to August) is the least recommended time to visit, with soaring temperatures in the high 30s (100F) and little shade on any of the trails or scrambling routes. If exploring Alabama Hills during this time, it’s advisable to hike early and then find a shady campsite for relief in the afternoon.

Autumn (September to November) & Spring (March to May) each boast comfortable daytime temperatures (20-28/70-80F), although early mornings and nights can still be pretty chilly (5-10C/40-50F). Thanks to the more manageable hiking temperatures, though, these months are the busiest time in Alabama Hills, so be prepared to jostle for the best campsites and possibly queue for photos at Mobius Arch (the others are far less popular, so it’s easy enough to escape the crowds).

Winter (December to February) can be a good time to visit, with far cooler days (10-15C/50-60F) and a relatively low number of visitors, but expect camping to be extremely cold (below freezing at night). Higher elevation spots as you drive towards Lone Pine/Whitney Portal are also likely to get snow, but this is unlikely to impact you greatly in Alabama Hills.

Alabama Hills camping hiking vanlife
Wildflowers in Alabama Hills

Entrance fees for Alabama Hills

Situated entirely on BLM land (overseen by the Bureau of Land Management), there is absolutely NO fee associated with visiting the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area— better still, you can camp for free just about anywhere (more on that below)!

The most noticeable effect of Alabama Hills being BLM land rather than a national park or monument is that there are absolutely NO facilities (no toilets, no water, no paved roads, etc), so it’s best to come prepared with everything you might need for a full day in Alabama Hills, plus a night spent among the rocks.

If you do end up needing something, though, Lone Pine town is just a few minutes down the road and has some basic shops, as well as mobile reception.

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Hiking the Arch Loop trail at sunrise

Other important things to know about Alabama Hills

  • RECEPTION: Mobile reception in Alabama Hills is essentially non-existent, so make sure you’ve downloaded offline maps and done all your research prior to entering the park. If you do need reception, it’s only a few minutes’ drive back into Lone Pine town or up into the hills (towards Lone Pine campground), where reception is pretty decent.
  • WATER: There’s no where within Alabama Hills to fill up potable water (not even a drinking fountain), so make sure you bring ALL the water you’ll need— and then some extra, just to be safe. It can get seriously hot out here!
  • COVID CLOSURES: Presently, the only COVID closure that might possibly affect you is Lone Pine Campground up the road from Alabama Hills, which falls under the Inyo National Forest and is therefore under different oversight than the rest of Alabama Hills (which is BLM). It’s unknown when the campground will resume bookings, but as of both my November 2020 and April 2021 visits, it was still closed.
  • LEAVE NO TRACE: As with every outdoor adventure, and particularly those within protected natural areas, it is critical that you take steps to reduce human impact on the environment. This includes packing out all of your rubbish (there are NO bins within Alabama Hills). I’d also encourage you to be mindful of where you go off-trail within the park— it’s absolutely part of the adventure, but not at the expense of delicate plantlife, so be sure to get your off-route kicks on the rocks or other durable surfaces.
Alabama Hills camping hiking vanlife
Scrambling in Alabama Hills

Getting to Alabama Hills

Nestled between Inyo National Forest to the north, Death Valley to the east, and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks to the west, Alabama Hills isn’t particularly close to any major city— but rest assured it’s well worth going out of your way!

You can reach Alabama Hills in about 3hrs from either Los Angeles or Bakersfield, as well as from Las Vegas via Death Valley National Park in around 4hrs.

After passing the small town of Lone Pine on the 395, take a left onto Whitney Portal Road and travel just a few minutes to find yourself surrounded by orange granite and shadowed by the magnificent Mt Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US.

Alabama Hills camping hiking vanlife
Scrambling in Alabama Hills

Getting around Alabama Hills

The best way to explore Alabama Hills is with a blend of driving and walking— it’s a fairly compact area, so all of the points described in this itinerary are within walking distance of each other (with the exception of the Candy Store, which would be quite a long walk).

Not only is there no service in the area, there’s also no visitor centre or ranger station within Alabama Hills to provide maps or directions to points of interest. Make sure to either download the Google Map linked below or save a copy of the BLM map to your phone!

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Camping in Alabama Hills

Where to stay in Alabama Hills

Although there is some hotel accomodation in the nearby town of Lone Pine, the absolute best way to experience Alabama Hills is by tent or car camping amongst the rocks.

BLM allows dispersed camping for free almost anywhere in Alabama Hills— so long as there’s no posted sign prohibiting camping and you’re off the road, you’re pretty much good to go! This is almost the entire Alabama Hills area, and there’s genuinely just amazing campsite after amazing campsite to be found. As always, aim to camp on durable surfaces to reduce your impact on the environment and pack in/pack out all your rubbish (including poo, yay).

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Lone Pine campground beneath Mt Whitney

Most people choose to camp within the rocks, as these provide limited privacy, sound insulation, and even very desirable shade from the afternoon heat. You can find some seriously incredible spots down here, but on weekends/holidays (when things can get a bit crowded) or in extreme heat, it’s also an option to head up into the hills closer to Mt Whitney.

There are some free spots to camp off the road up here that are accessible with 2WD (but you’ll definitely need aggressive tires, reasonable clearance, and a confident driver), as well as the absolutely fantastic (although not free) Lone Pine Campground, pictured above.

Alabama Hills camping hiking vanlife
Scrambling near Cyclops Arch

Packing list for Alabama Hills

Although this is not intended to be a fully comprehensive packing list, here are some absolute essentials to pack for your day exploring Alabama Hills:

  • Day pack | I love my REI Flash 18 summit pack for short hikes and scrambles
  • Water bottle | Plan to carry a couple of litres in the car and on hikes, as there is no water available within Alabama Hills and it can get HOT; this is an awesome bottle with a built-in filter
  • Snacks | To maximise time exploring, you need to pack food for snacks and lunch, as there is nothing available inside Alabama Hills; if you plan to picnic, it can also be great to bring compact camping chairs like these awesome REI Flexlite Camp Chairs and a small table
  • Camera (+ tripod if you’re trying to capture sunrise and sunset shots)
  • Emergency communication | As there is extremely limited reception in Alabama Hills, it’s always a good idea to carry a PLB or other emergency beacon/sat phone for off-trail adventures; I love my Garmin In-Reach Mini
  • Hat | I wore my Akubra Traveller throughout Alabama Hills and loved the sun coverage (not to mention all the compliments!); this is an Australian-made hat, but you can find it online at select retailers in the US and it is SO worth the money
  • Boots or sturdy walking shoes | You can explore most of Alabama Hills in sturdy walking or hiking shoes, but I personally prefer boots when scrambling and did all of the activities on this itinerary in my square-toe 1306 Blundstones (also from Australia, but available in limited styles online in the US)
  • Layers! | In autumn, spring, or winter, it is absolutely essential to have lots of layers, as temperatures can vary widely from early morning to mid afternoon; I always pack a down jacketmountain jacketfleece jumper just to be safe!
Alabama Hills camping hiking vanlife
Dancing our way around Alabama Hills

*1-day Alabama Hills itinerary

The following itinerary packs the must-see highlights of Alabama Hills into a single day, and unlike some of my other itineraries in this series that hardly scratch the surface of a park within 24hrs, you can actually see a LOT of Alabama Hills in a day!

Beginning with a few stops as you enter on Whitney Portal Road, featuring awesome hikes and scrambling, and then driving out along scenic Movie Road, this itinerary finally concludes with some climbing at the Candy Store, a great beginner top-roping spot just a few minutes back towards town. Whether packing it all into a single day or spreading these recommendations out over a longer period, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with this magical spot in central California.

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Nightmare Rock greeting you at Alabama Hills

1 | Nightmare Rock

Providing a rather starling greeting to Alabama Hills as you enter along Whitney Portal Road, Nightmare Rock is the first point of interest— and thankfully not representative of the sights still to come.

Apparently the rock is painted and repainted by locals at sporadic intervals, so you may see a slightly different face than the one pictured above, but it’s become something of a novelty among visitors to Alabama Hills and taking a photo alongside it felt like a rite of passage (and who am I to argue with tradition!).

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Hiking Arch Loop at sunrise

2 | Arch Loop Hike

1km / 0.6mi loop | negligible elevation gain | 1hr

Continuing along Whitney Portal and then turning right onto Movie Flat Road, you’ll soon come to the Arch Loop trailhead, which you should be able to identify by the accumulation of cars that you’ll find no where else in Alabama Hills (to be fair, even 4 cars looks busy comparatively, since every other sight is so dispersed).

Arch Loop is an incredibly flat, easy walk through fiery orange rocks, but it is undoubtedly spectacular and showcases some of the best scenery in all of Alabama Hills. You could easily race around this 1km loop in 15min, and many people do just that by stopping to photograph Mobius Arch and then returning to their car, but I’d strongly recommend taking your time on this walk— there are at least 4 natural rock arches to discover and countless scrambling opportunities amongst the grippy granite boulders.

Alabama Hills camping hiking vanlife
Mobius Arch

3 | Mobius Arch

The most famous attraction in all of Alabama Hills, you’ll reach Mobius Arch within a matter of minutes along the Arch Loop trail described above. It is particularly striking at sunrise, with the early light setting the orange ribbon of rock ablaze around Mt Whitney, but it’s truthfully worthwhile any time of day.

After visiting in both November and April, I’d definitely suggest earlier months to photographers, as Whitney and the surrounding Sierras are still blanketed in snow and all the more impressive to behold against the dry desert landscape.

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Lathe Arch

4 | Lathe Arch

Tucked away just behind Mobius Arch, this low rock is easily missed if you aren’t looking closely— I didn’t even spot it on my first visit to Alabama Hills. And while Lathe Arch may be smaller than its insta-famous neighbour, it offers an equally spectacular window onto the mountains with far fewer people.

Take your time hunting around on the Arch Loop, and who knows, you may discover even more tiny arches weathered into the rock. Such is the magic of this place!

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Sunrise through Heart Arch

5 | Heart Arch

Another favourite among photographers, Heart Arch is a rather small and unimpressive arch under most lighting conditions, but really shines at sunrise, when sun flares stream perfectly through a narrow window in the rock.

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Climbing on Shark Tooth Arch

6 | Shark Tooth Arch

Heading off the Arch Loop and onto the Alabama Hills Trail (towards Movie Road), you’ll soon arrive at yet another natural rock arch, this one likened to a Shark Tooth.

It’s far from the most spectacular arch in the area, but the journey out here offers some excellent scrambling and gets you away from the bustle of more popular spots, and for that, I’d recommend popping the GPS coordinates (36°36’52.2″N 118°07’18.2″W) into your phone and scavenger-hunting your way out here to find this hidden spot in the rocks.

Alabama Hills camping hiking vanlife
Eye of the Alabama Hills

7 | Eye of the Alabama Hills

Returning to the Arch Loop trail and completing the short circuit back around to your car, continue along Movie Flat Road a short distance to discover another rock arch, the Eye of the Alabama Hills.

Although visible from the road (out the passenger window), I’d suggest hopping out and scrambling around the area a bit— there’s a pretty awesome view over the entirety of Alabama Hills from this higher vantage point.

Alabama Hills camping hiking vanlife
Driving down Movie Road

8 | Movie Road

Leaving the Eye of the Alabama Hills behind and driving onwards, Movie Flat soon becomes Movie Road, arguably one of the most scenic stretches of road in the entire country. With Mt Whitney and the snow-capped Sierras rising above huge piles of orange granite rocks, you can truly appreciate the wild contrast of Alabama Hills, dry desert abruptly giving way to jagged alpine peaks.

The best views are actually enjoyed in the opposite direction, heading down towards Arch Loop from Hogback Road (just beyond Boot and Cyclops Arch, listed below), so make sure to have your camera ready as you drive back from the next 2 stops!

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Boot Arch

9 | Boot Arch

Continuing higher on Movie Road, find a good area to park to explore the next 2 natural rock arches, both of which are a short distance off the path.

You’ll come to Boot Arch first (and this is actually recognised on Google Maps), but Cyclops Arch is by far the most impressive on this entire itinerary.

Alabama Hills Cyclops Arch hiking vanlife
Cyclops Arch

10 | Cyclops Arch

The grand finale of rock arches in Alabama Hills is certainly Cyclops Arch, somewhat hidden among the rocks as you wander past Boot Arch. With the help of coordinates (36°37’48.0″N 118°08’06.7″W, also shown on the map above), you’ll find this incredibly impressive double archway overlooking the Sierras.

Although undeniably beautiful, much of what makes Cyclops Arch so phenomenal is the nearby scrambling— you can get in, on, and over this arch on some of the coolest rock in Alabama Hills. Stay awhile and enjoy the playground!

Alabama Hills Arch hiking vanlife
Climbing in Alabama Hills

11 | Candy Store

For those with climbing gear, you can wrap up a seriously awesome day in Alabama Hills by heading over to the amusingly named Candy Store, a collection of boulders with beginner to intermediate sport and top-roping routes.

Of all Alabama Hills’ many climbing areas, this one is extremely accessible for newbies, with most routes offering a Class 4 scramble up the backside and therefore cutting out the usual requirement to lead before setting up a top rope.

It’s not a super easy spot to find, as it’s not shown on Google Maps, but I’ve marked it on the map above and you can also navigate using these coordinates: 36°34’57.7″N 118°06’46.9″W. For extra assistance, check out the written directions on Summit Post or Mountain Project.

Cheers to a spectacular day in Alabama Hills!

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