Home Story My Adventure Playground: The Alabama Hills
Feature type Story
Read time 10 min read
Published Oct 25, 2022
Author Ben Horton
Photographer Ben Horton
BASE Collective member and adventure-photographer Ben Horton uses what3words to pinpoint a selection of special locations scattered across the Alabama Hills in Southern California. In describing each, Ben reveals how the locations are perfectly positioned for varied adventure activities but also takes up the challenge to use one particular location to capture an image that encapsulates the spirit of adventure in the American wilderness.
The vast majority of our world has been explored, people have stood on top of every significant peak, crossed every ocean, jungle, desert, and have descended to the furthest depths of the ocean. Exploration has had to change in the modern age, most of it now arguably happens through a telescope or a microscope.
But those of us whose appetite for exploration and adventure is etched in our DNA, need to think laterally and imaginatively; if we do that, we see territories differently that we might recognise or be intimately familiar with. We can look again at the options around us with fresh eyes and a different lens. We don’t always have to put serious airtime between our regular dwellings and where we let loose on adventures. New opportunities present themselves all the time if we remain open to them. And, oftentimes, those opportunities are closer to home than we might presume.
If you’re like me, you might at times suffer from city fatigue, urban burnout. It’s something of a necessary evil but I spend most of my time in a built-up environment. Los Angeles is an incredible city, but it can also be smoggy and suffocating. I need an ‘out’ – and I need to know it’s in ready reach. I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing this sensation.
One of my very favourite places to explore that is accessible from my home in Southern California is the Alabama Hills, in the Owens Valley. It’s a labyrinth of rocky outcrops, formed millions of years ago as magma pockets below the Earth’s crust, rising up as the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate smashed together forming the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains. And the best part? It’s only a three hour drive from Los Angeles. From the Alabama Hills you can look up at Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, but you’re only about 100 miles from Death Valley, the lowest point in North America. In that 100 miles, there’s almost 15,000 feet of elevation gain, going from extreme heat and desert, to icy glaciers and alpine forests.
I’ve always found it interesting how the scale of a map can completely change the way we see the world.
Together with the team at what3words, we wanted to put together a shortlist of locations in the Alabama Hills that begin to reimagine this beautiful but severe landscape and make it easier to access. We wanted to provide great starting points, to get a lay of the land, and serve as reference points for those who might want to explore here too. Each location we talk about is special but they are associated, at least in my mind, with different adventure activities, so we’ve highlighted those connections too.
People often say the Alabamas are best explored using a mix of engine power and footwork and some of these locations definitely meet that description. We were lucky enough to have a Land Rover Defender to capture the starscape project you’ll see later in this article but you can actually use what3words addresses in a whole range of other cars too. If you’re in a car with what3words, you just input one of these three word addresses directly into the navigation bar and hit ‘navigate’, even in a wilderness like the Alabamas.
These rocky outcrops form an excellent foreground for photos of Mount Whitney, adding depth and perspective to the high peaks. But the Alabama Hills has something else going for it, it’s one of the darkest areas in Southern California that you can access easily. The desert air has very little humidity, so astrophotography can be incredible here. Some of my best Milky Way photos were taken right next to my campsite. If you want it to really stand out, use the jagged rocks as a foreground to contrast the incredible stars. If you get the set up right, the shadow on the rock clusters can also look lovely and velvety.
We actually got the best image near midnight. No Milky Way that time, but a stunning starscape taken remotely with a Sony A7R III with a 150-500mm Tamron lens, 173mm f/5 8.0 Sec and ISO 1250.
People have been climbing in the Alabama Hills for decades. Besides being a great place to warm up before heading into the alpine routes the Sierras are famous for, it can be a pretty great destination in and of itself. There are plenty of classic routes to choose from, starting with every route on the Shark’s Fin, the most iconic rock in the area. But I personally prefer to wander up into the hills; there’s so much rock here, intriguing cracks in the vast granite walls that have you wondering if they might just be climbable. Chances are your route probably has been climbed before, but it’s so much more satisfying to find it and enjoy it without reading the play-by-play.
Climbing to certain points and height can help you capture exceptional photography too. Which leads us to the next location…
This one is on my list of things to do in the very near future. Paragliding in the Owens Valley is some of the most awe-inspiring we have in the USA, and although I’ve gotten to fly in the Owens a few times, I’m still waiting for the right day to launch from Walt’s Point. It’s truly the territory of experts who want to push the limits of the sport.
On a decent day, you can ride thermals up to 18,000 feet (the legal limit for paragliding in the USA) or beyond if you aren’t careful. Launch is right above the Alabama Hills, and once you catch a decent climb, you can fly over Mount Whitney to start a cross-country adventure.
Flights that cross hundreds of miles into Nevada have started here, but the enormous terrain can generate some of the wildest conditions imaginable. The Sierra Wave is a weather phenomenon where the westerly winds create huge upwellings of the atmosphere, only to come crashing back down. Sailplanes that can handle these conditions much better than a slow paraglider or hang glider have ridden the wave over 43,000 feet.
One of the great things about Alabama Hills National Scenic Area is that it is situated entirely on BLM land (that means it’s overseen by the Bureau of Land Management). As a result, there is no fee for visiting. It’s located in Inyo County; ‘Inyo’ is the Indian name for the mountains in its area, meaning “dwelling place of the great spirit,” which just adds to the mystique.
The best way to explore here, as I mentioned earlier, is almost certainly by balancing driving and walking. You can drive to the jump off points or trailheads and then either follow those trails or make your own way across the fiery orange rocks, either to the collection of naturally formed and creatively named arches just to find another vista, or soak up the weird wilderness.
I love the solitude of the Tuttle Creek Ashram, an abandoned set of stone buildings, built for spiritual or religious purposes, tucked away under the shadows of Mount Langley. A 4×4 is advisable to get to the trailhead. It’s a good half day session but it is steep. At the end though, the sheer ravine views down toward Lone Pine can steal your breath in every sense but will still give you the stillness and space to savour that moment.
We’ve collated all the what3words addresses here into a handy link so you can add them into your what3words app and save them for later adventures.
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