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Where Tony Stark, Kevin Bacon & John Wayne Wandered - Treading the Alabama Hills (In California?)

Treasures found along California Rt. 395

By Joe Guay - Dispatches From the Guay Life!!Published 24 days ago 6 min read
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Photo by Joe Guay

“We’re going to go up the back way,” my partner Eddie says.

Fine by me.

An always-energetic explorer of California, the route rarely matters to me. I'm like a happy dog with its head sticking out the window on road trips, wind buffeting my smiling face at 65 miles per hour, tongue hanging out.

If you’re heading north/south, there are four main options in California.

  • Interstate 5 — The fastest, most direct route, about as dull as a 7-hour sideshow of the same dusty beige photo on repeat.
  • California Highway 1 — Time for a Dramamine and lots of patience. Clinging to the coast, meandering through every little beach town, it’s for when you’re absolutely in no rush.
  • U.S. Route 101 — A nice midway option — not as fast as Interstate 5, but only two lanes in some places — almost like wishing traffic on yourself.
  • U.S. Route 395 — A scenic route along the backbone of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, near the Nevada border.

In our parlance, “the back way” is beautiful Route 395, and yippee, it’ll be my first time on it.

The Alabama Hills of California | Photo by Joe Guay

My go-to font of road-trip inspiration, Sunset Magazine, has an article showcasing the Rt. 395 journey and my eyes can’t help but be drawn to an odd wording on the map — The Alabama Hills.

Hmmm? In California? Strange name.

And it seems they’re right at the base of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the original 48 states. (Mt. McKinley/Denali is higher, but it’s in Alaska).

I’m intrigued. Looks like we’re gonna have to stop. The plan is to see the stunning Mammoth Lakes area (in the non-snow season) and to drive the June Lake Loop — another Sunset Magazine “highly-recommend” special—so we’ll have time to check out the Alabama Hills along the way.

As we roll into the town of Lone Pine and the turnoff to Mt. Whitney, a colorful building beckons. I’m such a sucker, an appreciator of good wall mural art, and the Lone Pine Film Museum lures us to stop.

Photo by Joe Guay

Mural art on the side of the Lone Pine Film Museum | Photo by Joe Guay

As denizens of Los Angeles and actors ourselves, Eddie and I have a love/hate relationship with the film industry. Sound stages, film locations and Hollywood memorabilia are old hat. Yet this fun museum in the most unassuming of places is a goldmine in showcasing so much movie history that occurred right in “them there” hills behind the parking lot.

Inside, we learn that as early as the 1920s, Hollywood scouts discovered Lone Pine and fell in love with the snow-capped mountains towering above otherwise inhospitable-looking desert crags. My mind swoons as I picture Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Barbara Stanwyck wandering these parts.

Literally hundreds of Westerns and not-so-Westerns have been shot right here, in this dusty corner in the middle of Eastern California, including Ironman, Django Unchained, Hop-Along Cassidy, Around the World in 80 Days and too many “cowboy and Indian” pics of yesteryear.

Just look at this list — here.

We depart the museum and decide to explore these historic Alabama Hills, once known as “a good place to lose a horse.” If you’re having a hard time picturing what these unique hills might look like, then we’re gonna have to do a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon exercise here.

Allow me to remind you of the movie Tremors!

Remember? Reba McEntire sporting a rifle? Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and cast members scrambling atop these giant rocks in the middle of harsh desert to escape a below-ground creature? Yep, filmed right here.

Eddie sitting atop a boulder in the Alabama Hills area | Photo by Joe Guay

Photo by Ed Forsyth

The breeze whips past our ears and we step carefully upon these magnificent and sometimes jagged rocks. You can see why Hollywood scouts loved it - shoot in this direction, it looks like Utah or Mexico.

Shoot this direction, with Mt. Whitney towering above in white, suddenly you’re in Montana or Colorado. And a quaint little base camp town of Lone Pine just two miles back, ready to feed a hungry crew.

The hills are along what is known as “the portal” to Mt. Whitney, and many an overloaded jeep of hikers zips past us to the base. Intrigued — hell, we’re right here — we drive up, up, up to the parking lot to discover a basecamp of hiker types kibbitzing, comparing gear, telling war stories and giving advice to those about to start.

Mt. Whitney looms large | Photo by Joe Guay

At the Whitney Portal, the official start of the ascent | Photo by Joe Guay

A fun fact about this area of California that keeps blowing my mind.

Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states. But the lowest point in the United States, at 282 feet below sea level, Death Valley, is only 135 miles to the southeast. To recap, the highest point and the lowest point in the U.S. are both in the same state and are only 135 miles apart. That’s one hell of a 15,000-foot elevation gain in such a short expanse.

Sometimes things just make ya stand there and scratch your head in wonderment. Amazing.

But time to keep on moving to see more of the beauty of Rt. 395.

The June Lake Loop and Mammoth Lakes

Our route from Southern California up to Lone Pine | Photo by Joe Guay

Our route from Lone Pine to the June Lake Loop and Mammoth Lakes | Photo by Joe Guay

Gosh it’s quite the scenic route, this “back way” along the backbone of the Sierras, paralleling Sequoia National Park, but with no real way to enter from this side, for the mighty mountain range blocks your way. Those in the know have used this route to take a lesser-used entrance to Yosemite National Park or to even coast all the way up to mighty Lake Tahoe.

But for this trip, we’re hitting the June Lake Loop. It’s just so darn fun to say. Go ahead, proclaim it aloud — the June Lake Loop!!

If you look at the map shots above, you’ll see the Loop is at the top of our journey. Alas, not enough time for this to be a full-on Yosemite Trip. But you don’t need the big-name, famous parks alone as your only option, for so much of California is glorious without the hefty entry fees.

We turn into the Loop and proceed from the very top and head south, about to encounter a procession of four or five individual lakes, leaves turning color and stunning scenery.

Autumn in the June Lake Loop area | Photo by Joe Guay

A photo I captured of a brave swimmer exiting the cold alpine lake | Photo by Joe Guay

While my camera isn’t the latest iPhone model, I’m still able to frame moments of quiet beauty — this mountain peak through the yellow leaves, a solitary swimmer standing at water’s edge through the kayaks. Eddie captures a pensive shot of yours-truly taking in the supreme silence on the boat dock.

Pondering life at Silver Lake | Photo by Ed Forsyth

It’s one of those seeing-God moments that I’ve come to live for — those nature-is-my-church moments. It’s the reason I road-trip.

You don’t need international travel and bank-busting moments selected only for Instagram status. There are thousands of little pieces of heaven peppered throughout your own state, in your own backyard, if you remain always curious and open.

Rt. 395 offers so many you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me postcard moments. As I aim my camera at Gull Lake along the June Lake Loop, this lovely powerboat edges its way into my shot, making it even more perfect.

The tranquility of Gull Lake | Photo by Joe Guay

Ahhhh. Final stop, heading back south, I’m curious to see the usual skiing mecca of Mammoth Mountain, but without the snow and more, yep, you guessed it, wonderful California lakes — Lake Mamie, Lake Mary, and the chance to view the cascading lakes from above.

Throngs, hordes of humanity really, are at this very moment fighting for a parking space and room to breathe within Yosemite National Park’s main valley, and here, less than 100 miles away, in the stunning Sierra Nevadas, can be found pure, clean beauty and the ability to feel nature and let it permeate your soul.

Eddie taking in the falls after a hike | Photo by Joe Guay

The beauty of Mammoth Lakes | Photo by Joe Guay

Indeed, it seems strange being so close to famous Yosemite and not go in, but alas, this is a journey that’s all about “the back route,” the lesser known corridors full of potentially more private moments to savor.

Thank you, oh venerable Sunset Magazine. Thanks for always steering me right, always giving me little nudges to create my own itineraries, to create my own travel dreams and head out into the great unknown. If you hadn’t told me about those weird Alabama Hills, I might never have taken the time to do the June Lake Loop to face the Devils Postpile near Mammoth.

Eddie silhouetted below the Devil's Postpile Monument | Photo by Joe Guay

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Wikipedia informs me the hills in this quiet corner of California were thus named in the 1800s after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship during the American Civil War, when some Confederate sympathizers named their mining claims in honor of the sunken ship, and eventually the name was applied to the whole range.

Indeed, odd.

But hey, the name was enough to get my inquiring mind working, and hence, this entire trip. When one is smart enough to keep unending curiosity and wonder at the forefront, it leads to a wonderful life.

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About the Creator

Joe Guay - Dispatches From the Guay Life!!

Joe Guay is a recovering people-pleaser who writes on Travel, Showbiz, LGBTQ life, humor and the general inanities of life. He aims to be "the poor man's" David Sedaris. You're welcome!

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