Do you love camping? Do you love camping in unique landscapes with epic views of majestic mountains? Even better, do you love camping in unique landscapes with epic views of majestic mountains for FREE? Then an Alabama Hills camping trip is the perfect adventure for you! The Alabama Hills are a popular spot just west of the towering Sierra Nevada mountains filled with unique rock formations, up-close views of the tallest peaks in the lower 48, and plenty of amazing camping spots! In this article we will give you all the information you need to have one of the best camping experiences of your life in the Alabama Hills!
- About the Alabama Hills
- Details | Alabama Hills Camping
- Logistics | Alabama Hills Camping
- Other useful resources
Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, two nomads road tripping across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home month to month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking, and exploring new places!
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About the Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills are a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated recreation area known for many unique geological formations, incredible camping spots, fun hiking trails, and for being the popular site for many classic movies, including Gladiator, Iron Man, Django Unchained, and How the West Was Won, just to name a few.
Officially designated a National Scenic Area in 2019, the Alabama Hills have been growing in popularity over the past several years due their natural beauty and incredible camping opportunities.
Camping in the Alabama Hills
Because the land is owned and managed by the BLM, camping is free throughout the Alabama Hills area!
Of course, free camping is great, but the Alabama Hills are also one of the most spectacular natural landscapes we have seen. Nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada, right where the desert meets the mountains, you can look up and see the snow-capped peak of Mount Whitney (the tallest peak in the lower 48) while surrounded by unique rock formations only found in desert landscapes. It is truly one-of-a-kind!
Quick Stats | Alabama Hills camping
Cost | free
Total time | 1 night/2 days
Epic-ness rating | 6.5
Road conditions | moderate (washboard dirt road, but typically passable with 2WD)
Difficulty | easy
Crowd Level | medium
Before we get into the details, let us break down the top highlights and lowlights of our experiences camping in the Alabama Hills.
- Epic views of the Eastern Sierras
- Free camping with great views and good campsites!
- Easy to get to and decent road conditions (as far as dispersed camping goes)
- Great hiking trails nearby (Inyo National Forest)
- Can get crowded (especially on weekends), making it tough to find a spot/find privacy
- No services (restrooms, running water, etc)
- No campfires (typically)
- Hiking trails in the Alabama Hills are limited
Where are the Alabama Hills?
The Alabama Hills are located in Inyo County in south-central California between Sequoia National Park to the west and Death Valley National Park to the east. The closest town is Lone Pine, just a few minutes away. The Alabama Hills are located conveniently close to Highway 395, a popular thoroughfare in the eastern part of California.
Below we’ve included the distance from the Alabama Hills to some popular locations below for reference (all times approximate):
- Inyo National Forest: 20 minutes to 1 hour
- Death Valley National Park: 1 hour
- Yosemite National Park: 2.5 hours in the warmer months; 5.5 hours when roads are closed in colder months
- Los Angeles: 3.5 hours
- Las Vegas: 4 hours
- Sequoia National Park: 4.5 hours (this one is particularly annoying because the park is just over the mountains but you have to drive all the way around the mountains to get to the park. I guess you could just climb over the mountains instead…!)
- Kings Canyon National Park: 5 hours
Details | Alabama Hills Camping
Although the focus of this article will be how to camp for free in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area, there are some nearby campgrounds that have more utilities but come at a cost. We will provide information on those campgrounds if having running water or toilets is more your style.
How to go camping for free in the Alabama Hills
Because the Alabama Hills are a recreation area managed by the BLM, day use of the area and overnight camping are always free. However, this also means you won’t have many of the “luxuries” found at typical campgrounds, such as access to running water, bathrooms, or electricity. Free camping in the Alabama Hills is dispersed camping.
What is Dispersed Camping?
Being from the crowded and congested East Coast, we had no idea what dispersed camping was until we made our way our way out west. For those who aren’t familiar, dispersed camping is when you camp in an otherwise undeveloped area with no designated campsites or facilities.
The best way to describe it is somewhere between car camping at a campground and backpacking. You’ll have your car with you so you don’t need to hike in or anything, but there is no running water or bathrooms. If you’re lucky, you might have a fire pit. However, there are no fire pits in the Alabama Hills.
You also don’t have an assigned campsite and you don’t need to register or book in advance. You simply drive until you see a spot that looks like it has been used before, pull your car over, set up your tent, and you’re good to go!
Finding a Campsite in the Alabama Hills
The great thing about the Alabama Hills is that there are tons of awesome dispersed camping sites! We have been to other places where we’ll drive for miles looking for a good spot, only to settle on some tiny little piece of flat ground.
This is not the case in the Alabama Hills! There are plenty of spots, most with epic views and, because of the large rocks throughout the area, some privacy. That being said, don’t get stuck in the trap of being too picky! When you see a good spot, snag it! The Alabama Hills will get busy so don’t risk ending up with a worse spot because you are being too picky from the start.
New Camping Rules
It is important to note that the rules for dispersed camping in the Alabama Hills are changing. Previously, there were very few rules on where to camp. You just had to camp in a spot where others had camped before. This isn’t any different than most places and the idea is to reuse sites so as not to disturb the surrounding landscape.
However, Alabama Hills is becoming more and more popular and BLM has recently implemented some new rules about dispersed camping. As always, check the BLM website before you go for the most up-to-date regulations. But here is a quick run-down of the new rules:
- As of October 1, 2021, the west side of Movie Road, otherwise known as Movie Flat, will be day use only. There are some other spots that have recently been designated for day use only, but Movie Flat is the most significant.
- You will need a free permit if camping in the Alabama Hills and there will be further delineation of where you can and cannot camp. As of the writing of this article (January 2022), the BLM website does not have a ton of information on these changes and it says they will be coming in the fall and winter. Again, check the BLM website before you go for the most up-to-date information.
All in all, it is hard to say how much of an impact these new regulations will have on the dispersed camping in Alabama Hills. However, when we were there throughout the spring of 2021, it definitely felt busy and I don’t think some additional rules to keep the area clean and beautiful are unwarranted!
Can I have a fire while camping in the Alabama Hills?
Like most places, it depends! Open fires are allowed in the Alabama Hills depending on the season and conditions. You can check the status of fire regulations for the Alabama Hills on the BLM website for the Bishop Field Office here. Because of high wildfire risk in the area, fires are typically not permitted during the summer.
In order to have a fire, you will need to have a get a California fire permit, available here. The permits are free and it takes about ten minutes to complete the process. Make sure to take a screenshot and keep it on your phone for future reference!
Leave No Trace Principles
If you have spent time in the outdoors, you have likely heard of the seven Leave No Trace principles. This list of seven easy steps is incredibly important when camping in a place like Alabama Hills, where the surrounding landscape is extremely fragile and many visitors come through the area.
Leave No Trace Principles
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable services
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
While all of these principles are important to remember during your stay in the Alabama Hills, it is extra important to remember to dispose of your waste properly, including poop! As the saying goes, pack it in, pack it out!
The BLM recently placed six porta potties throughout the Alabama Hills, which you should use if possible. If you can’t make it to a porta potty for number two, make sure you use either a wag bag, portable toilet, or some other means to pack out your business!
Campgrounds/lodging near the Alabama Hills
If you don’t feel like dispersed camping and would rather stay at an established campground, you have a few options near the Alabama Hills:
- Tuttle Creek Campground | Just ten minutes to the Alabama Hills, Tuttle Creek Campground is open year-round, does not require reservations, and will set you back $8 per night.
- Lone Pine Campground | Fourteen minutes to the north, this campground is a popular spot for those looking to access Mt. Whitney and the nearby mountains. Some sites are reservable on a rolling basis six months in advance, some sites are first-come, first-served. Price depends on season; free during winter, up to $26 during peak season (April-October).
- Portuguese Joe Campground | Located closer to the town of Lone Pine and just five or some minutes from Alabama Hills, Portuguese Joe Campground is open year round, with site reservable for $14 per night.
The closest town to the Alabama Hills is Lone Pine. This small mountain town has a vintage feel and seems a bit like a time machine to the 70’s. The main street is super cute with a handful of restaurants, gas stations, and other spots to pick up any essential items.
Logistics | Planning your Alabama Hills Camping Trip
In the following section, we’ll help you plan the logistics of your Alabama Hills camping trip, from when to go and what to pack to what to do while you’re there.
Things to do in the Alabama Hills
You probably won’t be going to the Alabama Hills only to camp, so what else is there to do here? There is a ton!
You can go hiking in the surrounding mountains, rock climbing on the many established routes in the Alabama Hills, capture epic photographs of the area’s natural beauty, hunt for unique arches, and enjoy the rich cinematic history. With so much to do, the Alabama Hills is the perfect spot to spend a weekend exploring!
We have written about a few of our favorite activities in the area in the articles below:
- A Treasure Hunt for Alabama Hills Arches
- Lone Pine Lake in Southern California: A Complete Guide
- How to Hike Tuttle Creek Ashram Trail: A Journey for Enlightenment
When to go camping in the Alabama Hills
The best time to go camping in the Alabama Hills is in the spring and fall. Temperatures will fluctuate but should generally be temperate. During the summer, it can be unbearably hot and winter nights can get well below freezing.
In the spring, the mountains will still have snow, making them even prettier. Therefore, we’d say the best season to visit is in the spring (March through May).
What to Pack for your Alabama Hills Camping Trip
Before setting off on your Alabama Hills camping trip, make sure that you are prepared with the essentials for car camping. We’ve compiled a complete list of our go-to road trip camping gear to help you pack for your camping trip, including a downloadable excel checklist here:
Other useful resources
Planning a road trip through southern California? We think you may be interested in these resources to help you plan!
- 9 Best Things to do in Death Valley & How to Escape the Crowds
- Ultimate Guide to Death Valley: Camping, Hiking, and Road Trip Logistics
- How to hike to Telescope Peak: the Tallest Point in Death Valley
- Backpacking to the Panamint Sand Dunes
- Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Badlands & Zabriskie Point Loop Hike
- 59 Best Songs About Travel and Adventure
For all things California: California Travel Guide
Have you been camping in the Alabama Hills? What’s your favorite dispersed camping spot? Let us know in the comments section below!