Camping in the Alabama Hills is an absolutely incredible experience- the landscape is breathtakingly gorgeous, with large rounded rock formations jutting out of the earth with the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains towering in the distance. And best of all? Camping here can be completely free!
So if you’re looking for an epic place to stay on a Southern California road trip, there’s few better options than exploring the eastern Sierras and making the Alabama Hills your home for a few nights. So keep on reading this post for everything you need to know about Alabama Hills camping to make the most of your visit- from how long you can stay to tips on what to see during your visit.
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Table of Contents
- What are the Alabama Hills and how do I get there?
- When should I go camping in the Alabama Hills?
- What should I know about camping in the Alabama Hills before visiting?
- What should I bring for Alabama Hills camping?
- Where should I explore when camping in the Alabama Hills?
What are the Alabama Hills and how do I get there?
The Alabama Hills National Scenic Area is covered with enormous rounded monzogranite boulders, sitting in the shadow of the eastern Sierra Nevadas and right outside of Lone Pine, California.
Given its unique geological formations, the Alabama Hills have become a bit Instagram-famous, but you may have also seen them someplace else other than your feed- the movies! Due to its dramatic scenery, the Alabama Hills were the go-to shooting destination for old Westerns in the 1930s through 1950s and are still used as a shooting location for movies and television today, from Gladiator to Iron Man.
The Alabama Hills’ location in Southern California is likely another reason this area has been so popular with filmmakers, located just over 3 hours from Los Angeles, 4 hours from Las Vegas, and 7 hours from San Francisco. Unless you live within driving distance from the Alabama Hills, I’d recommend flying into one of these airports (if you’re looking for the best prices on airfare, I swear by Skyscanner, which has awesome tools allowing you to compare different carriers, set price alerts, and score travel packages!) and renting a car to get to and around the area.
If you go this route, it may be a good idea to rent a high clearance vehicle- while the roads in the Alabama Hills are relatively well-maintained, they’re mostly dirt or gravel, which can get washboarded at certain times of the year. Note that some rental car companies don’t allow driving off paved surfaces, so be sure to double check the fine print before leaving the lot!
Regardless if you’re driving in a rental car or your own, you’ll reach the Alabama Hills via U.S. Route 395. The scenery along 395 is amazing, taking you from the barren landscape of Death Valley (home to the lowest point in North America), to the Alabama Hills (with Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, rising above it) and on to the incredible skiing and hot springs in Mammoth Lakes.
This area is absolutely made for road trips, so I hope the Alabama Hills are but a stop along the way!
When should I go camping in the Alabama Hills?
The best time for Alabama Hills camping is spring or fall, when the temperature is pleasant and the skies are clear (we camped in May and it was absolutely lovely!).
The summer is a popular time to visit as well, but warning- daytime temperatures in this dry, desert environment regularly exceed 100 degrees and with little to no vegetation around to provide shade, it’s probably not the best camping weather.
The winter can also be a lovely time to visit- the Sierra Nevadas will be covered with snow and daytime temperatures are pleasant (usually ranging in the 50s and 60s). However, night time temperatures can frequently dip below freezing and the Alabama Hills themselves may even get a dusting of snow- so, again, perhaps not the best camping weather.
TL;DR: it’s totally doable to camp here year round- you may just need some extra gear, depending on the season.
What should I know about camping in the Alabama Hills before visiting?
The Alabama Hills are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”), which allows camping on some of its land, for short periods of time, either for free or a nominal fee. There’s actually two camping options at the Alabama Hills.
If you prefer to camp at an established campground, the non-reservable Tuttle Creek Campground is an excellent option, costing $8 per night, with plenty of tent- and pull-through sites for my RVing fam. While the camping here is fairly primitive, the campground offers some amenities like vault toilets, potable water, and a dump station ($5 per use). Additionally, if you need decent cell coverage for working remotely or your nightly Netflix habit, this campground is likely your best bet (the service isn’t great here, but workable!).
If Tuttle Creek is too crowded or you’re like me and prefer totally free campsites- great news! The BLM-managed Alabama Hills is open for dispersed camping, meaning there’s no designated campsites or amenities and you can choose whatever campsite you please to make your home for the next couple of days.
There’s no charge for staying on the land, but your stay must be limited to 14 days- we saw rangers come around and write down campers’ license plates, so it definitely seems like this restriction is actively monitored and enforced, which is no surprise considering that free camping in California can be hard to come by.
So is it basically, like, a giant free-for-all and anyone can camp anywhere and do anything in the Alabama Hills dispersed camping area, so long as they stay within their 14 day limit? Not quite…
The Alabama Hills is a beautiful place, but has an incredibly fragile ecosystem. While I firmly believe that free and public places should be equally accessible to everyone, it’s important that we all treat this uniquely gorgeous plot of land with the care and respect it deserves. So with that in mind, please be sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles while you’re visiting, especially:
- Plan ahead and prepare: Research what the weather will be like during your stay and be sure you have adequate camping equipment.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces: You should only camp on durable surfaces like rock, gravel, sand, or dirt and don’t rip up or crush any vegetation to make your camp.
Along the same lines, folks have been camping in the Alabama Hills for quite some time- try to find a campsite that’s already been used by previous campers to prevent unnecessary erosion or disturbing any burgeoning plantlife.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out. You should also know how to pee and poop responsibly (yep, I went there) in the wilderness. At our campsite in the Alabama Hills, I found a horrifying bucket of someone else’s poop hiding behind one of the boulders at our campsite and that ain’t it.
Quick backcountry bathroom crash course- pee at least 200 feet away from trails, other campsites, and water sources. For poop, you should dig a cathole 6-8 inches deep, 4 inches wide, 200 feet from any trail, campsite, or water source (we have this Deuce of Spades potty trowel that we keep in our hiking backpacks all of the time, which, let’s be real, is worth purchasing for the name alone).
Once you’re done doing your business, pack up your used toilet paper (my husband, Justin, and I keep a couple of baggies packed away with our potty trowel for this purpose), fill in the hole, and cover it with dirt or other ground matter. Since digging that deep of a hole in the desert floor may be a challenge, it may instead be a better idea to bring along some wag bags, which you use in lieu of the cathole. Seal the wag bag after use and, since the bags use a solidifying and deodorizing agent, you can just throw the bag in a normal trash can after use.
- Minimize campfire impact: I love a good ol’ campfire as much as the next person (s’mores, am I right?), but please be sure to check whether there are any burn bans in effect during your visit. It’s no secret that California has been ravaged by wildfires in the past couple of years and, just like Smokey the Bear said, it’s important you do your part to prevent forest fires. Burn bans are frequently in effect in the dry summer season (usually from June through October), but to double check, you can call the Inyo National Forest Visitor Center at (760) 876-6200 and inquire about any fire restrictions.
- Be considerate of others: Don’t play loud music or keep your generator running past 10 pm. Pick up after your dog. Don’t leave a bucket full of poop behind for the next camper to find. Y’know- hopefully, common sense, don’t be a jerk kind of behavior.
Okay, so besides all the “let’s be nice to the Earth” stuff, any other tips to keep in mind? You bet!
- If you’re an RVer, heads up that you’re going to have a doozy of a time leveling your RV in the Alabama Hills. The campsites here are absolutely gorgeous, but almost universally are located on slopes, hills, and bumpy gravely spots. Plan on bringing along your leveling blocks, your level, and your best leveling game- you’re going to need ‘em!
- The Alabama Hills are famously windy- if you’re camping in a tent, try to find a previously used site that’s between some boulders or, at least, near some to offer a bit of wind protection. Make sure your tent is really well-staked down before you leave your campsite to go out exploring- the gusts of wind here could easily blow away a shoddily-staked down tent!
- Once you get past the first couple of campsites in the dispersed camping area, cell service is non-existent. Justin and I snagged one of the first couple of spots and had decent enough signal (with AT&T and T-Mobile) to work remotely for several days, using our mobile router and MIMO antennae.
So if you need the internet or cell service during your stay, try to aim for some of the campsites closest to the town of Lone Pine- we made it work and you can too! Even if you don’t need cell service during your visit, It’s also a good idea to download offline maps on your Google Maps app before you reach the Alabama Hills, given how spotty the signal is.
- Did I mention the Alabama Hills are located in a dry desert? Be sure to bring plenty of water (perhaps more than you’d think you’d need), as the arid environment just seems to zap all moisture out of your body and you’ll need it for all your water-y needs (i.e., cooking and brushing your teeth).
Whether we’re hiking or camping, Justin and I bring along our big reusable water bottles, which keep us nice and hydrated, but are more friendly to the planet (and our wallets) than disposable plastic bottles. We also keep a refillable jug of water in our car so that we can refill our individual bottles whenever we need to.
What should I bring for Alabama Hills camping?
Now that you’re prepared to set up camp at the perfect Alabama Hills campsite, what should you actually bring along for your trip?
There’s a few different ways to camp- by car camping (i.e., sleeping in your car), tent camping, or RVing. While you could write entire books about what you need for each of these things, I’m just covering the very basics below:
- Car camping: Sleeping in your car can be a handy option as it can provide better shelter from wind and cold than a tent and, depending on what kind of car you have, you can actually have a pretty comfy sleeping set up. For car camping, I’d recommend bringing along:
- A sleeping pad, like the Sea to Summit Self-Inflating Foam Sleeping Pad or, if there will be two of you, the Sea to Summit Comfort Deluxe Double (before you buy anything for your car, be sure to measure to make sure everything will fit!).
- A sleeping bag, like this Keltic Tuck Synthetic Sleeping Bag. Since it gets so cold in the Alabama Hills, I’d recommend picking up a sleeping bag that’s rated for 20 degrees (or even lower)- nothing is worse than being chilly while you’re trying to sleep!
- For a pillow, if you’re driving from home, I’d just recommend bringing along your own pillow or, if you’re flying here or need something a bit smaller, you could bring along a camping pillow, like the Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight pillow.
- Tent camping: Not all cars are well-suited for car camping and there’s something to be said about how special it feels to unzip your little cozy tent and see the dazzling landscape around you. So if tent-camping is your jam, bring along:
- Shocker, but you’ll need a tent for this one. We have the North Face Stormbreak 2, which we use when we go on backpacking trips, and absolutely love it! You should also get a footprint to go under your tent, which prevents your tent’s floor from getting torn or damaged from any rocks or twigs along the ground. And with Alabama Hills’ rocky terrain, you’re going to need it!
- If you’re at all interested in backpacking (see my post about what you need as a beginner backpacker here), it probably makes more sense to get an inflatable sleeping pad like this Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat Sleeping Pad, rather than a foam or air mattress (recommended above for car camping). If you’re investing in camping gear, you might as well be able to use it in a variety of contexts, and, with backcountry camping, you’re probably not going to want to carry a foam sleeping pad up a mountain with you, due to weight and bulkiness concerns.
- You should also bring along a sleeping bag and pillow, as recommended in the car camping section above.
- RVing: RVing certainly will ensure you have the comfiest experience while visiting the Alabama Hills and your basic shelter needs will be met. But remember that you’ll be boondocking- so before you roll up to the Alabama Hills, fill your fresh water and propane tanks, dump your gray and black tanks, and make sure you have a method to power your RV, like a generator or solar panel setup.
If I had one thing to recommend with respect to packing clothes is to be sure to bring layers– as mentioned above, the Alabama Hills can get pretty toasty during the day but literally drop below freezing at night.
Pack a base layer (like this one for men and this one for women), an insulating layer, like a cozy fleece (like this one for men and this one for women), and a really warm outerwear option (like this one for men and this one for women).
If you’re RVing, I assume you should be covered on the cooking front, but what do you need to cook if you’re tent or car-camping?
- Food: Again, what to eat while camping is a whole different article, but you’re going to want to pack shelf-stable food (or at least things that shouldn’t spoil in a cooler). For snacks, I recommend things like Clif bars, trail mix, and fruit and for meals, dishes that are based on canned or dry goods, like oatmeal, chili, golden lentil curry, or ramen noodles. Note that the small town of Lone Pine is a short drive away, so you should be able to pick up most essentials you need during your stay.
- Campstove system: To heat up your water and to cook your food, you’ll need some kind of campstove. If you’re interested in ever going backcountry camping, I’d again recommend getting gear that you can use in that context as well- you can get a really small and packable burner (we have this affordable lightweight one that packs down super tiny), a fuel canister (we use MSR IsoPro Fuel Canisters), and a lighter (we usually pack two Bic lighters you can just pick up at a gas station).
If you’re using this kind of set-up, you likely will be a bit more limited in the kind of meals you can make (i.e., boiling water to make ramen noodles will be more your speed as opposed to cooking a big pot of chili).
If you’re really only going to be interested in camping in or near your car or you want to cook more complex meals during your camping trip, consider investing in a two-burner stove, which is going to be much easier to actually cook full blown meals on. Coleman even makes this great foldable camping oven that sits on top of their two-burner stoves. We frequently use it in our trailer to bake tofu, fries, and vegetables.
- Cookware and utensils: Again, I’ll bifurcate my recommendations into whether you’re interested in reusing your gear to go backpacking. If you’re in the backpacking camp, Justin and I get a ton of use out of this Stanley cook set, which comes with two thick plastic cups that we use for coffee or wine and a lidded pot that cooks up to 24 ounces of water (usually the perfect amount to make meals for two people).
The cook set fits nicely into this 18 ounce stainless steel cup with folding handles, which is helpful for holding a bit more volume (like when we make soup) than the smaller cups that come with the Stanley set. As for utensils, consider something lightweight and packable, like this titanium foldable spork.
Only interested in car- or tent-camping? Assuming you have a two burner stove, you can just bring utensils and pots and pans from home or, if you plan on camping a lot and it makes sense to have a separate set for this purpose, you can consider getting a frypan, saucepan, and utensils.
Anyone who is tent- or car-camping will need some kind of plates (like this set) and having a foldable table will give you a stable and more comfortable place to cook and eat.
- Cooler: One of the benefits of camping in or near your car is being able to pack a cooler, which will allow you to store things that should be kept cold (like beer, duh).We have one like this and use it all the time for road trips or camping excursions.
- Water: As mentioned above, bring water. Lots of it!
Friendly reminder that you’re going to have to clean your dishes between every use, which can be surprisingly challenging without running water and a sink. Make sure you’re using biodegradable soap and know the appropriate way to dispose of greywater created in the course of cleaning your cookware (this video by Leave No Trace covers everything you need to know).
Don’t feel like dealing with cooking in the wilderness? The town of Lone Pine is about a five minute drive away and offers a range of food options, where you won’t have to clean up after yourself!
Where should I explore when camping in the Alabama Hills?
While seeing the Alabama Hills is an experience in and of itself, here’s some other options to explore while you’re in the area:
- Hiking: The Alabama Hills are at the foot of the gorgeous Sierra Nevadas, so it should come as no surprise that there’s some killer hiking options around.
If you want to explore the Alabama Hills themselves a bit more deeply, the Mobius Arch is an easy and popular trail, leading to a photogenic natural arch framing the snow-capped mountains. If you’re up for something a bit more strenuous, the most epic hike in the area, of course, is climbing Mount Whitney, which requires snagging a highly coveted permit year round.
Not a lucky permit winner? A great alternative is the Mount Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake trail, where you can climb a portion of the way up Whitney to a beautiful alpine lake.
- Mountain biking: The Alabama Hills Loop is a popular, 14.7-mile single track descent (after a grueling initial climb, of course) through the area’s massive boulder fields and in the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas.
- Museum of Western Film History: For something a bit different, check out the Museum of Western Film History, which chronicles Western films throughout American history, as well as movies of all types that have used the Alabama Hills as a shooting location.
While I know next to nothing about western films, the museum’s stunning array of Western memorabilia and movie artifacts was a glimpse into a side of Americana I rarely think about and well worth the $5 admission fee.
- Photography: For a shutterbug like me, the Alabama Hills are a photographer’s playground- there’s so many textures, layers, and colors to play around with, from the rounded enormous boulders of the desert to the jagged peaks and weathered slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. If you want to really get some epic shots, be sure to check out our photo guide to the famous Alabama Hills Movie Road.
There you have it- everything you need to know about camping the Alabama Hills. Let me know how your camping experience is and any other tips or tricks I missed, in the comments below!