Valdosta Daily Times

May 11, 2014

Lone Pine: Scenes from the Old West

David and Kay Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times

- — U.S. Highway 395 from Kramer Junction in southern California to the community of Alturas near the Oregon border is one of America’s most scenic drives. Between these two different environments, the highway passes through the towns of Bishop, Calif., and Carson City and Reno, Nev. The drive is especially scenic as the highway bisects rugged mountain ranges in the Owens Valley. With the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Inyo and White mountain ranges to the east, the views are unrivaled, especially during spring when snow coats mountain peaks that soar to over 14,000 feet.

No locality along this highway blends spectacular scenery, small town America, and a feel for the Old West better than the town of Lone Pine, Calif. This community of approximately 2,000 friendly souls is nestled between two impressive mountain ranges, the Inyos and the Sierra Nevada. Directly west is the Sierra Nevada’s crown, Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 feet is the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

Lone Pine is best known as the filming locale for hundreds of movies and TV shows — mostly Westerns — that featured many of America’s screen giants including Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, James Garner, Randolph Scott, Audie Murphy, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, and Roy Rogers.

Each October the town celebrates the area’s movie heritage with a three-day Lone Pine Film Festival that features the showing of movies filmed in the area, tours of important film locations, and the return of celebrities who appeared in movies that were filmed here. As you can tell from the above list of movie stars, few individuals featured in the films are still with us, requiring the festival to recruit relatives of the original stars.  

A museum with the appearance of an old movie theater near the south end of town offers an excellent introduction to the area’s history as an import filming location. Filled with posters, costumes, and exhibits, it includes a narrated film with clips from the area’s many movies. Old movie posters and photos are also prominent at many of the town’s businesses.

Just west of town, visitors can drive through the scenic Alabama Hills, a nine-mile-long scenic area of granite outcroppings and boulders where most of the filming took place. This area, named long ago by locals sympathetic to the Confederate cause, is administered by the Bureau of Land Management that maintains a series of dirt roads providing access for exploration of former movie locations. Free maps highlighting the roads and movie locations in the Alabama Hills are available in Lone Pine.

A leisurely drive through the Hills makes it evident why Hollywood directors and producers found Lone Pine such a desirable location for filming. Let your mind wander and you may imagine villains wearing black hats and six-shooters hiding behind a boulder while waiting to rob a passing stagecoach.

Lone Pine was named for the solitary pine tree that settlers discovered in the 1860s when

entering the Owens Valley. The tree at the confluence of Lone Pine and Turtle creeks was blown down in an 1876 storm, but the town name stuck. The Owens Valley in which Lone Pine is situated has a history of extensive seismic activity. It is thought that the valley formed when a major earthquake caused a drop in the earth’s surface between two major faults, one on the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada, and the other on the western base of the Inyo Mountains. A major earthquake in 1872, on a scale of the famous San Francisco quake, leveled most of Lone Pine and the surrounding settlements.  

It must be difficult for first-time Owens Valley visitors to visualize this dry high desert land as a thriving agricultural community. However, this was indeed the case. Purchase of land and water rights by the City of Los Angeles in the early 1900s was the beginning of the end for agriculture in this beautiful valley. Los Angeles continued to purchase additional water rights until it had acquired 95 percent of the valley by the 1930s.

Lone Pine’s business district is small but offers several interesting places to visit. A hardware store on the town’s main street is packed to the rafters with nearly anything a person might need. Strolling narrow aisles between the tall shelving is great fun. Likewise, the western atmosphere of Jake’s Saloon on the opposite side of the street offers a perfect place to knock back a cold one. The best stop in downtown Lone Pine is the Dow Hotel that for many years served as a temporary home for movie stars who filmed in nearby Alabama Hills. The hotel was constructed in the 1920s and continues to welcome guests with a lobby, stairway, and room corridors full of photos, posters, and movie memorabilia.

Although the scenery alone is reason enough to visit the Lone Pine area, there is much to discover and enjoy in addition to the vistas, especially for anyone who loves the outdoors. Limitless possibilities exist for hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, fishing, and hunting. Several outfitters and sports shops are located in the town’s business district. The county operates numerous recreation areas and campgrounds in the area. The first Saturday in March, the community celebrates the approach of spring with an Early Trout Opener Derby that includes prizes for the talented and, occasionally, the lucky. A nominal entry fee is charged.

Nine miles north of Lone Pine, Manzanar National Historic Site is a former relocation center where Japanese-American citizens and Japanese aliens were interned during World War II. The center was in operation between 1942 and 1945 with a peak population of more than 10,000. Now operated by the National Park Service, the historic site includes an interpretive center featuring exhibits, audio-visual programs, and interpretive presentations by park rangers. An excellent 22-minute film provides an overview of events leading up to the relocation of Japanese-Americans and the life they lived in Manzanar. A 3.2-mile self-guided auto tour circles the site where signs indicate places of interest.

Six miles further north in the community of Independence, the Eastern California Museum offers exhibits and photos (more than 25,000 prints in total) that interpret the natural and cultural heritage of this area of California. A portion of the museum is devoted to the experience of Japanese-Americans at Manzanar. Visitors can also view an impressive Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone basket collection.

Additional information about Lone Pine and the Owens Valley, including lodging, dining, and recreation is available from the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce at www.lonepinechamber.com.  

David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). They live in Valdosta.