Just about three hours North of Los Angeles is one of my favorite towns on the planet: Lone Pine.
It’s an unassuming little town; a few blocks of residences straddling California Hwy 395, which doubles as its Main Street. If you blink, you might miss it as you drive from LA to Mammoth Lakes. A scattering of hotels, restaurants, and gear shops attend to the needs of tourists, or those just using it as a convenient resting point on an otherwise fairly barren stretch of highway.
There are a few things that bring attention to Lone Pine though, the largest of which is Mount Whitney.
While you may not recognize the name “Lone Pine,” I think you’d be hard pressed to find an outdoor recreation enthusiast who hasn’t heard of Mt Whitney. Reaching an elevation of 14,508 feet, Mt. Whitney is highest peak in the continental United States. This fact alone compels over 30,000 people each year to attempt to reach its summit. Lone Pine is by far the closest town, and the easiest Portal to the Whitney Zone. During the typical climbing season, late spring to early autumn, it’s crowded with enthusiastic hikers and climbers.
But none of that is what makes me love Lone Pine. My love is derived from an area that thousands of hikers and climbers drive through without notice, on their way to Mt Whitney: The Alabama Hills - Specifically in winter.
During the winter months, Lone Pine is almost empty. While Mt Whitney is still technically climbable, it is a much longer, difficult, dangerous, and less popular trip. The few people you will see tend to be just passing through, on their way to either Mammoth, or Bishop. And the glorious Alabama Hills are essentially deserted.
For me, a perfect quick and easy weekend trip goes something like this:
Friday Evening we drive the short 3 hours from Los Angeles to Lone Pine and check-in at the Dow Villa Motel. Right in the center of town, it's probably the most convenient lodging around. While the pool isn't open in the winter, it's usually too cold at night to bother me much. A room with a comfy king sized bed is welcoming after the drive, and a great place to let my fussy child decompress after the car ride.
For Dinner friday, and lets be honest, Saturday too, we'll walk to the nearby Merry-Go-Round Restaurant. While the also have American options, the Merry-Go-Round makes the best Chinese food I’ve had in California. Orange Chicken for me, Roasted Duck for Blair. We might be a little obsessed. While I've been told that Season's is also good, I just haven't had the heart to cheat on our favorite yet.
Saturday Morning always starts with breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe. Breakfast burritos with bacon or chorizo. Cinnamon Swirled French Toast with strawberries and whipped cream. Fried Eggs and Bacon. All great options for starting a day of hiking or climbing. It might have an unassuming exterior, but your taste buds will thank you.
We might start our morning off with a quick hike to warm up, and one of our favorites takes us on a short loop through bizarre granite formations to "Mobius Arch." You can pick up a list of other arches in the area, but Mobius is the real draw, and provides a great place for a photo op.
One of my favorite things about the Alabama Hills, and Lone Pine is how CONVENIENT it is. After a morning hiking and working up an appetite, you can continue in the vein of the lazy adventurer, and take the short 10 minute drive back to town for lunch. Something light perhaps? After a hefty breakfast, and looking forward to more orange chicken, I like to stop in at the Lone Star Bistro for a quick and fresh sandwich. Turkey, tomato, sour dough bread, alfalfa sprouts and avocado pair nicely with a Death Valley Root Beer. Sufficiently fed, it's time to meet up with some friends and go Rock climbing.
Imagine taking the fantastic, bizarre rock formations from Joshua Tree National Park and setting them off against the majestic, snow capped, jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and you’ll have an idea of what the Alabama Hills look like. Being composed of the same weathered and cracked monzogranite as the Joshua Tree formations, you’re presented with hundreds of rock-climbing routes of the same style. For your viewing pleasure, I present the "Sharks Fin." A monolithic granite boulder with a variety of bolted sport climbing routes, it provides climbers with easy to moderately difficult climbs and epic views.
To make it even better, since lots of the climbs have minimal approach hikes, you can bring the whole family. And Snacks. And camera gear.... Needless to say, even the youngest adventurers are welcomed.
Happily exhausted from full day, it's time to head back into town. With a long cold winter's night ahead of you and muscles sore from hiking and climbing, beers, food, and beds await. Sunday's activities can be planned over dinner.
Are you starting to understand why I love Lone Pine, and the Alabama Hills so much? So much adventure within such easy striking distance of such comfort and convenience. With minimal planning a wonderful weekend of climbing, hiking and exploration can be had.
While everyone else has been fighting over camping spaces in Joshua Tree, or waiting in line to climb the classic routes, my friends and I have enjoyed entire weekends without seeing a single other climber. And at the end of a fun, but exhausting day on the rocks, I can sleep away the long cold winter nights in a comfy bed with a stomach full of delicious orange chicken.
Hmmmmm…. Come to think of it… why am I giving away my secrets?