The Story Behind the Image: Alabama Hills, California


Image description: A landscape image. In the foreground are yellow and brown rocks that tower up into the mid of the shot. In the background are alpine looking mountains which are snow capped. The sky is partly blue and partly cloudy but the image is bright and contrasted.

In this series we talk about how we came to make some of our favourite images. We’ll concentrate less on the equipment and technique used and more on the how and why the image came to be. This time, it’s the Alabama Hills in the Sierra Nevada – a place that may well be familiar to you and that name-checks two US States that it most definitely isn’t in!

We’d each been to America a couple of times – but always for short trips. Each visit, we came back knowing that there was still so much left to see. So, early in 2019 Fay had the idea that we should go for a longer trip to see a bit more of the country. We decided to travel for two months, most of which would be spent based in LA. We both love Los Angeles: it’s an incredible city with so much character and endless neighbourhoods to explore, but the real attraction of staying there was the landscape it put us near: the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree, the San Gabriel Mountains, Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains are all accessible within an hour or two’s drive from the city. However, for us, there was another place, a little further afield that we were both itching to visit: The Sierra Nevada.

We were vaguely aware of the Sierras – we knew it was a mountain range that ran a good deal of the height of California and that it was home to Yosemite National Park, and also to some seriously tall mountains. However, a few months earlier, we’d visited the Spanish Pyrenees and Italian Alps in rapid succession, so, whilst we knew we would probably be impressed, it was just another big mountain range, right?


To get to the Sierras from LA, you hit the highway and drive. Los Angeles, even with its vast, seemingly endless suburban sprawl soon thins out and it’s not long before you’re cruising through the desert. Eventually you hit the 395 Highway and shortly after that hills appear and gradually start to grow. If you don’t pay attention, you might not even notice the hills start to turn into mountains. And they keep getting bigger.

Lone Pine is the first substantial town you’ll hit once you’re into the mountains proper (it’s about three hours drive from North LA) and, whilst you may not be far into the mountains, the scenery is already spectacular. Mt. Whitney – at over 4000m, the tallest mountain in the ‘lower 48’ states – sits almost perfectly opposite the town. However, it’s what’s between the mountains and the town that really caught our interest.

The Alabama Hills are a collection of vivid red rock formations that sit on the valley floor at the foot of the Sierras. Even if you’ve never heard of them, you might recognise them. They’ve been a popular filming location for the Hollywood studios for over a century. Look on the map and you’ll see the main ‘Movie Road’ through the hills leads to places like ‘The Lone Ranger Canyon’.

The sheer scale of the place really doesn’t sink in until you see it with your own eyes and what’s more, on that first visit, we were presented with a fantastic spectacle: standing in the desert, we could look up to see snow-capped mountains that appeared so close you could almost reach out and touch them. The smooth, weathered rock of the Alabama Hills, warm to the touch in the Californian sun contrasted against the cold, hard, jagged spires of the mountains behind.

We didn’t stay long in the Sierras on that first visit – one or maybe two nights tops – but that visit and that time spent wandering through the Alabama Hills and gazing up and the peaks beyond was enough to light a fuse: We’ve retuned to the Sierras twice since, each time travelling deeper and higher into the mountains. We’ve discovered a landscape completely unlike anything we had experienced before and found a place that is now very dear to us both.