Photographing Sunrise at the Alabama Hills

A dirt road at sunrise with views toward Lone Pine Peak and the Sierras, Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
A dirt road at sunrise with views toward Lone Pine Peak and the Sierras

One of the great things about camping in the Alabama Hills is that you can get up early and see the sunrise from amongst the spires, rocks, and arches.  Watching the first rays of sunlight hit Mt. Whitney and then bathe the High Sierras in pink and then gold light is a breathless, gorgeous experience.  I did it – twice – on crisp November mornings when there weren’t too many people around, so it was easier to walk around the formations without disturbing other campers.  (I hear the area can be quite busy during Spring Break.)  The golden light on the rock formations is also well worth getting up early to see.  And if it’s summer, it will be one of the few comfortable times of day to wander around the rock formations – you can always take a nap in the heat of midday, right?

Quick Stats

Round Trip Length: Varies Trail Type: Multi-spur or loopElevation Change: Varies Pets: Yes Fees: None

Lone Pine Peak through an unnamed arch in the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Lone Pine Peak through an unnamed arch

I got up about half an hour before sunrise and put on my winter jacket, earmuffs, and fingerless mittens.  Then I checked my camera, grabbed my camera bag, and set out for some rock formations I’d seen the day before that I thought would make a nice setting for a sunrise photoshoot.  But before I could even leave my campsite, I saw Orion perfectly set over Lone Pine Peak.  Wow!  (I should have set up the tripod right there!)

The constellation Orion over Lone Pine Peak from the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
The constellation Orion over Lone Pine Peak

In the south, the sun was starting to rise.  What colors!

Pre-sunrise colors to the south of the Alabama Hills, California
Pre-sunrise colors to the south

The moon was still up, but it was light enough (soon light enough, anyway) to safely scramble around in the formations.

A sliver of a moon over the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
A sliver of a moon

And then, finally, the light began to hit Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Peak.  Wow!

Sunrise on Lone Pine Peak (left) and Mt. Whitney (right) from the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Sunrise on Lone Pine Peak (left) and Mt. Whitney (right)

We wandered around on some of the roads, enjoying the sunshine and the early morning.  There are so many rock formations in the Alabama Hills!

Lone Pine peak and rock formations along a road in the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Lone Pine peak and rock formations along a road

Our second sunrise, I’d found an arch where I could frame Mt. Whitney.  I was there and waiting before the sun hit the Sierras, so it was an awesome experience to watch through the little window.

The first rays of sunshine on Mt. Whitney through Window Arch, Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
The first rays of sunshine on Mt. Whitney through Window Arch

If I moved slightly, I could frame Lone Pine Peak instead.

Lone Pine Peak through Window Arch, Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Lone Pine Peak through Window Arch

Just wow!

Walking back up the road after photographing through Window Arch, Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Walking back up the road after photographing through Window Arch

I hear that the view is also excellent through Mobius Arch at sunrise, but I decided not to walk quite that far from our campsite.  Basically, if you can see the Sierras, the sunrise will be gorgeous!

Lone Pine Peak after sunrise from the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Lone Pine Peak after sunrise

Other thoughts: The low light can make a tripod useful if you’re taking pictures.  Dress in layers – desert nights are usually pretty cool, but it can get warm quickly once the sun hits the land.  If you can keep your camera somewhere similar to the temperature outside before you set off to photograph the sunrise, your results will probably be better.  Be sure to pay attention so you can get back to your vehicle, as the roads are a maze and trails are virtually non-existent.  Mt. Whitney is easy to spot at sunrise – it’s the very first peak to be lit by the sun!

Mt. Whitney at sunrise from the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Mt. Whitney at sunrise

Round Trip Length: However long you want to make it.  You don’t even have to leave your vehicle if you don’t want to.

Facilities: None

Fees: None

Pre-dawn Sierras - see how Mt. Whitney (right) is lighter than the rest of the mountains?  Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Pre-dawn Sierras – see how Mt. Whitney (right) is lighter than the rest of the mountains?

Trail Notes: Except for the Mobius Arch Trail, there are only a maze of dirt roads that you can follow.  Or, if you know what you’re doing, you can scramble around the rock formations.  Either way, make sure you know how to self-rescue and find your way back to your vehicle or campsite.  The Alabama Hills received its name from named by local Confederate-sympathizing miners in memory of the CSS Alabama, a commerce raider that 1) had only a 2-year career, 2) never docked in a Southern port, and 3) was sunk by a Union ship off the shore of France.  I guess it had some good propaganda surrounding it!

The moon over rock formations in the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
The moon over rock formations

Trail ★

Road ★

Signs ★

Scenery ★

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★

Overall Rating: ★

Dawn but not yet sunrise over the Sierras from the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Dawn but not yet sunrise

GPS Coordinates for Sunrise in the Alabama Hills

Arch 9 (Window Arch): 36.6080000°, -118.1147333° (N36° 36.480′ W118° 06.884′ / 36°36’28.8000″, -118°06’53.0400″) (4,587ft.)

Otherwise, just scramble around and explore!  Most of the images here were taken from south or west of Window Arch.

Rocks and hills at the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Rocks and hills

I did not do GPS tracks of my sunrise strolls.  Just scramble around – the view is good from almost anywhere!

Lone Pine Peak, Mount Whitney, and rock formations from the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, California
Lone Pine Peak, Mount Whitney, and rock formations

Getting to the Alabama Hills

In the town of Lone Pine, locate Whitney Portal Road (yes, this is the road that climbers use to access the trailhead for climbing Mt. Whitney).  Whitney Portal Road begins in Lone Pine 1.9 miles north of the US-395 junction with CA-136 (which is the route you’d be taking if you’re coming from Death Valley National Park) or about 80 miles north of Ridgecrest or about 45 miles south of Big Pine.

The Alabama Hills and Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney just after sunrise, California
Just after sunrise

Drive 2.7 miles west on Whitney Portal Road; you’ll pass a few signs for the Alabama Hills (including an information station with kiosks) and some rocks that have been painted.  This area is owned by the City of Los Angeles, not the BLM, so camping and most other things aren’t allowed.  Turn right onto Movie Road (there is a road sign) – it’s a dirt road, but it’s just fine for most vehicles in dry weather.  Drive 1.6 miles to the parking area for Mobius Arch or else find a good place to camp and explore!

Rocks and the Alabama Hills, California
Rocks and the Alabama Hills

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