Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Stepping Into Another World: The Arch Trail at Alabama Hills

May 18, 2018
Place: Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California
Coordinates: 36.611840, -118.124910
Length: 1.5 miles
Level: easy

The Alabama Hills is one of those places I always make the time for to stop by whenever in the area. I've been there many times, but never got around to write about it here. Maybe it is because I don't really hike there, just roam around and climb the rocks.
Last year, however, I did arrive there with the intention of hiking the Mobious Arch loop trail. I went there with my friend Anenet, the morning after the day we hiked around Convict Lake.
We first stopped by Brenda.
Well, no. We first stopped by the creek near the Whitney Portal Rd. to look at a patch of lovely white flowers that bloomed there. Then we continued to Brenda. My friend raised her eyebrow - painting rocks in Nature is defacing them. Brenda, however, has been painted there for as long as I remember, and probably longer than that.

 Below Brenda bloomed a few buckwheat shrubs. This species is pretty common in many areas of California but in the desert it has very little competition and stands out nicely in its spring coat of flowers. 
California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum

 Little lizards run here and there on the sand and rocks. They didn't seem all too alarmed by our presence. Perhaps they could sense we meant them no harm.
Side-blotched Lizard
Alabama Hills are part of the remains of a very old mountain range, predating the Sierra Nevada of today. The assortment of crumbled, weathered rock formations, very reminiscent of some rock areas in Joshua Tree National Park, are what's left after millions of years of weathering.

If not for the vegetation (scant as it was) and the blue sky dotted with white, fluffy clouds, the scenery would look like the moon.
After paying our visit to Brenda we got back in the car and drove to the Mobius Arch trailhead.

Outside the car we saw the delicate yellow flowers of the desert trumpet plant which is another buckwheat species.
Desert Trumpet, Eriogonum inflatum. 
I took a sweeping look around. To the southwest I saw the now familiar sight of Horseshoe Meadow Road to the Golden Trout Wilderness where I had backpacked the summer before. That was a hard trip but now I looked longingly at the switchbacking road. Later i would drive up there with my friend to see if any spring bloom had started yet (very little has).
Horseshoe Meadow Road

Alabama Hills area is a desert, and there was more exposed soil than vegetation-covered. But many of the plants that do grow there were blooming at the time.
Little-leaf  Horsebrush, Tetradymia glabrata 
Some of these I recognized only on hindsight, remembering seeing them in other places, other times. Like this winterfat that I remembered seeing on that fantastic unplanned drive that day we tried to bypass an enormous traffic jam near Boron.
Winterfat, Krascheninnikovia lanata 
Alabama Hills host a plethora of pretty rock formations, including nice rock arches and rings. The trail we were on meanders between some of these. We started, however, by dipping into a dry wash then climbing up a higher plateau from which rounded slabs stood erect, rubbing the sky.

The rocks let precious rainwater collect below them, making the crevices at the bottom of the rock formations the perfect place to a cactus to thrive. We were there a bit too early to see these in bloom.
Cottontop Cactus, Echinocactus polycephalus 
But we had the perfect timing for the herbaceous plants bloom.
Fleabane, Erigeron sp.

We strolled slowly between the rock formation, looking for the small dots of color shining brightly between the reddish brown stones.
Mono Ragwort, Senecio flaccid var. monoensis

The rock formations are the work of weathering - water and winds curve holes and dig ruts, turning rock into sand and beautiful sculptures.

These rock formations were an inspiration to many artists over the years. Alabama Hills are also known to be a backdrop for many movies. There is a museum in Lone Pine about the cinematic history of this place. So far, however, despite many visits to Lone Pine, I had never seen the inside of this museum. I had always preferred the outdoors ...

My previous lengthy visit to Alabama Hills was shortly after having a knee surgery, which had diminished much my ability to enjoy the rock formations in a 3-D manner. This time, however, I was taking every opportunity to climb the lovely rocks. Still carefully, though.

A few birds flew in and out of the crevices and the dry washes that curved the rock masses. I caught one of them on camera as it perched on a small rock buttress holding on to its catch of the day: a Say's Phoebe.
Say's Phoebe
The trail led us to the rock formation that we've seen from afar when we just started our hike. What looked like a simple hole in the rock from far away now looked to me like a loving couple fused together in an eternal kiss.

Here too we found the desert globe mallow in bloom. It wasn't as advanced as the one we saw the day before on our way to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest but we were no less excited to see it.
Desert Globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua 
In between the ridges, buttresses, and rock piles stretched small alluvial flats dotted with Creosote bushes. Look as hard as I might, I saw no roadrunners.
Not focused on the little things, the view was spectacular. The high, snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada made the perfect backdrop for the bare, smooth formations of Alabama Hills.

Directly to the west we could see the partially clouded sharp teeth of Mont Whitney. At 14505 ft Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.A.
My friend pointed out that a huge, ancient fish has come to rest on the nearby rock pile. It took my imagination but a second to see what she meant :-)
Rock fish formation and Mt. Whitney in the background. 
I zoomed my camera on the mountain. I do have aspiration to summit it one day. It is not an easy feat, however. And I don't mean physically - I'm totally up for that. I mean my chances of securing a permit ... It has become such an attraction in recent years that getting a permit to ascend Mount Whitney can be as probable as reserving a campsite in Yosemite (that is, going into a lottery with pretty bad odds). And then there's sharing the trail with a gazillion other peak seekers. One day, however, I will put my efforts into getting that permit and ascending this pinnacle of nature.
Mount Whitney

Throughout the hike my mind and eyes kept wondering to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. So close! So inviting! If not for the strange beauty of the old rocks of Alabama Hills I would have taken us directly into the mountains.

Later that day we did go up to the Whitney Portal. But this was still morning and we were meandering along the narrow trail, appreciating the lovely rock formations.

My friend stopped by a plant and I went down one of the cracks between the rock piles. It was there that I spotted a large lizard sunning on the rock. I made sure to snap a few shots before sneaking back and becoming my friend down that rock crack. Thankfully the sunbathing reptile was still there. It was the second time for either of us to see a chuckwalla. Our first time was also when the two of us hiked together, to the Lost Palms Oasis at Joshua Tree National Park on my friend's previous is it to California.
The trail crossed another dry wash. While no water was flowing through it, it was clear that the wash bed held more moisture than the higher areas above it. The vegetation was more dense along the wash bed, and many of the plants were blooming in sweet colors.
California Bee Plant (with a bee proving the point), Scrophularia californica 
We took a break, relaxing and enjoying the wildflower display. While it wasn't as spectacular as desert superbloom can be, it was very lovely still.
Cobwebby Hedge Nettle, Stachys albens 
And there were also plants among them that I couldn't recall ever seeing in bloom before.
Mojave Eriastrum, Eriastrum densifolium 
We wandered of the trail and up the wash a little bit to see what else we could find there.
Desert Tobacco, Nicotiana obtusifolia

We also met some familiar flowers - the desert paintbrush, common along the Eastern Sierra 395 route. 
Desert Paintbrush, Castilleja chromosa
And we spotted another lizard on the rock! A nice, sunny day is perfect for them. And for us as well.

Eventually though, we made our way back to the trail and out of the wash bed. A few steps more and the Mobious Arch came into our view.

The trail didn't go directly to the arch but curved around and up the larch rock pile. From up there we had a wider view of the nearby rock ridges. My friend pointed out to me the big rock giant sleeping his siesta. This wan took me a bit longer to see. I suppose I'd never make a good Hobbit.
Sleeping Rock Giant
Eventually we made it to the arch and took turns climbing up to it and taking photos of each other sitting inside. We also too the classic image of Mount Whitney framed inside the arch (heading this post).
Other rocks look just as fabulous through the arch.

It's called the Mobius Arch because it looks like a mobius ring. Twisting or not, it is pretty in every direction.

Near the arch we found a blooming beavertail cactus. Almost blooming.
Beavertail Cactus, Opuntia basilaris 
The Mobius Arch isn't the only arch along this trail. The other one, however, is smaller, lower, and harder to spot from the trail.

I had to climb the rock and wedge myself in an awkward position to get this see-through shot. I felt like a 10 years old all over again.

We had much fun climbing on and around the arches but eventually we got back on the trail. One more dip through one more wash ...

And we were back up on the plateau, heading toward the area of flat dirt set aside for trailhead parking.

There my friend found red ants which, surprisingly were the only ones we've seen on this hike.

My friend wished to take a look at the filming site of the movie Gonna Din so we drove by there, then we exited the Alabama Hills on the southern side. We tried to find a shortcut to the Whitney Portal Rd through one of the numerous dirt roads that criss crossed the desert there but we reached a dead end and had to go back and drive on the official road. We did stop for a long while, however, to appreciate the desert bloom in the sandy wash delta close to the mountains. There it was indeed gorgeous.
Desert Dandelion, Malacothrix califrnica
The rest of the day we spent visiting the Whitney Portal, then Manzanar National Historic Site, and we even went up Horseshoe Meadow Road to see if anything was blooming there (wasn't much). But the best part of that day, in my opinion, was the visit and hike at the Alabama Hills. 

The end of that day was also the end of the Eastern Sierra part of our trip. After descending the long and winding Horseshoe Meadow Road after sunset we had a long and tiring drive through Mojave and across the Tehachapi Mountains to the west side of the Sierra Nevada. On the morrow we would go up to Sequoia National Park, and into a whole different world yet again.

Many thanks to my friend Anenet for the identification of plants!


  1. it was a really eventful day. from the wonders of the desert, to the wonders of the high mountains; from clean nature to human actions...
    thank you for a lovely post full of wonderful memories!

    1. It sure was! I wish we had the time to explore some more of that area! You'll just have to come again :-)

  2. The rock formations there are reall great!

    1. I never get tired off seeing this place :-)