The California Senate proclaimed the fourth Saturday in July National Day of the Cowboy for perpetuity. The recognition comes as no surprise to those of us who grew up on cowboy westerns, a majority of those filmed in and around Lone Pine. This western version of Cannes is a real family affair, with something to please everyone: stars, movies, campfires, movie location tours, interesting presentations and shoot-outs.
You may not know the Alabama Hills by name, but when you see the weather-beaten rock formations of the heavily mined hills, you may very well recognize them from hundreds of movies and commercials. Not far from Death Valley on Highway 395 is the Lone Pine area, tempting with its own rugged brand of mountain beauty that has served as the high desert stomping ground for film crews and western movie legends since the 1920s.
The Lone Pine Film Festival
Every Columbus Day weekend the tiny berg of Lone Pine (population 1,600), about an hour’s drive from Bishop and in the towering shadow of nearby Mt. Whitney, hosts one of the world’s most unique film festivals—the Lone Pine Film Festival, which attracts more than 5,000 visitors from all over the world.
The otherwise quiet town, normally a welcome refuge for hikers preparing for (or recuperating from) a trek up the 14,494-foot peak of Whitney nearby, transforms for a long weekend into a western set itself. Hopalong Cassidy and John Wayne look-alikes walk the streets, horses prevail over cars and western flicks fill the screens.
Fatty Arbuckle saddled up in the 1920 movie, The Round Up, filmed here. Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) starred in dozens of films and eventually made the area home with a cabin on Tuttle Creek Road. He and Roy Rogers trapped wild horses in Lone Ranger Canyon, and Gene Autry made the same canyon the setting for his 1950 movie, Cow Town.
How the West Was Formed
A horizon-less sea of golden-colored granite boulders that rise up dramatically from the desert floor make up the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine. The rounded mounds and twisted, stacked and balancing rock formations came about by the current of thawing Ice Age snow that first sharply chiseled the igneous stone and the pursuant winds that shaped the rough edges into smoothed -over hills with east-west looking archways. Only nature could create such a perfect movie set ripe for gunfights, bad guy hideaways and long, dusty trail rides.
Just three miles west of Lone Pine, western film devotees may follow the path of taken by their western movie favorites up Movie Road. If you can’t attend the film festival, you can still look up your favorite movie locations with a self-guided map from the chamber—just be prepared to maneuver through some dusty narrow trails that have challenged more than a few wagon trains over the years. Stop at the Lone Pine Film History Museum for a touch of film magic with imaginative displays.
Exploring Town and its Mountain
The town of Lone Pine is named after the lonely pine tree that sat at the mouth of Lone Pine Canyon. Don’t waste time looking for the namesake tree—it has been gone for years, a victim of flooding. As the gateway to Mt. Whitney, Lone Pine is an outdoor lover’s dream destination in itself without the cowboy lure.
Less than a half hour up Whitney Portal Road from town, past inspiring views of the Sierras and the Alabamas is the beginning of the Mt. Whitney-Portal Trail. It takes about 15 hours to make the climb to the top, but hikers may structure their own day trip or few hours’ journey along the challenging switchback-laden path that climbs well over 6,000 feet from its beginnings past streams, pines and lakes. A perfect day hike either begins with a gigantic pancake breakfast or ends with a mouthwatering hamburger and homemade fries lunch at the famous Store restaurant at the trail head.