Western ghosts in the Alabama Hills

There must be a cowboy in here somewhere.

A storm rolls in over the neighboring Sierra Nevadas.
  • A storm rolls in over the neighboring Sierra Nevadas.

When thinking of the Owens Valley along Highway 395 in Central California, you might consider it a gas-station stop on your drive to ski Mammoth Mountain, or maybe a great fishing area with numerous lakes well stocked with trout.

I think it abounds with the ghosts of old cowboy actors.

The Alabama Hills are a five-hour drive north, just off Highway 395.

The Alabama Hills are a five-hour drive north, just off Highway 395.

Of course, they don’t inhabit the entire Owens Valley, but are concentrated in the relatively small area around the town of Lone Pine and adjacent Alabama Hills.

We were first attracted to the Alabama Hills because they were a place where you could camp “wild” among huge jumbled rocks. Lots of hiking, rock climbing and some off-road driving was right there and easily accessible. The scenery was breathtaking because only a few miles to the west were the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains towering more than 14,000 feet above you.

But where do the cowboys come in?

Dead giveaway.

Dead giveaway.

As we explored the area, we quickly figured out that when there's a road named “Movie Road” something else is going on. A stop at the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, where a booklet was thrust into our hands promising real movie locations and featuring photos of actors in cowboy garb, was another clue. But the most convincing evidence that cowboy ghosts existed was a tour of the Museum of Western Film History followed by our exploration around Movie Road.

Museum of Western Film History

In the museum we saw photos of old cowboy stars like Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, the Lone Ranger, Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy with scenes shot in the various sites we had been exploring. So they had been here, alright — but were their ghosts still hanging around?

Our next step: grab the booklet and, using the maps and descriptions for ten different films, find the specific film sites. It was lots of fun lining up background mountains with specific rocks in the foreground to match movie scenes in the booklet. All we needed now were some boots and cowboy hats and maybe a horse or two.

After immersing ourselves in all that film lore it was really easy to feel the presence of the Lone Ranger calling out “Hi Ho Silver,” or Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers riding and singing “Tumbling Tumble Weeds”.

I swear I might have seen Roy disappear around a rock just as I quickly turned my head to check out the possible smell of gunsmoke wafting through the rocks.

Maybe all this is wishful thinking, but if you follow the directions and put yourself into the scenes it’s easy to imagine that the cowboys from all those hours and years of filming might still be roaming the area.

The only way to know for sure, though, is to check it out for yourself — so take a drive up 395 and let your imagination run wild.

Alabama Hills

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