This Magical Location Will Change The Way You Think About Car Camping!

California camping hiking Road Tripping Travel

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Driving up through the Alabama Hills scouting for a campsite.

What comes to mind when you think about car camping? Loads of insensitive tourists with their blaring music packed in like sardines ‘getting back to nature?’ Stinky, overused vault toilets? The inability to get a reservation at your desired campground because you didn’t have the foresight to plan your quick getaway 12 months ago? I painted the worst possible picture here and of course it’s not always quite like that, but when it is, it’s quite discouraging. Let’s enter the world of disbursed camping….

Moody sky over the Alabama Hills

Daniel and I were planning a road trip adventure down California’s epic Highway 395. We had read about disbursed camping in the Alabama Hills. What the heck is disbursed camping? The USDA Forest Service defines disbursed camping as the term for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables, bathrooms, or fire pits. Also…no fees!

Sisu, our faithful 2016 Outback, parked in the Alabama Hills. Wouldn’t that be a fabulous Subaru ad?

‘Well, heyyyy,’ we thought! This sounds right up our alley! So, we made plans for a night of disbursed camping in the Alabama Hills, the southern most point of our trek. We love backpacking and roughing it! Let’s see how this goes!

California summer wildfires created an eerie scene over the Alabama Hills in July.

To get to the Alabama Hills, find your way to Lone Pine, California, then take Whitney Portal Road for seven miles east until you see the dirt turn off on the right, entering the Alabama Hills. Lone Pine is an interesting town in its own right and definitely worth a look. Many movies have been filmed in the Alabama Hills and the Museum of Western Film History is pretty interesting. We were visiting in late July which is notoriously hot in the area, so we stopped and enjoyed the museum and shops of Lone Pine until late afternoon when we headed up to the Hills to find our home for the night.

Mobius Arch with Mt Whitney in the background

We drove into the Alabama Hills, not quite sure what to expect and what we found is a true wonderland. We drove from place to place looking for the ‘perfect campsite’ but in truth, there wasn’t a bad spot to be had. There are no traditional campsites like in a regular campground…you just find a place you like and set up camp.

Daniel in a cave

Opportunities for mountain biking, climbing, and hiking abound throughout the Alabama Hills. We felt like little kids running through the trails, climbing big boulders, exploring caves and taking photos. This is a photographer’s paradise!

Our camp spot for the night

We drove and drove, exploring the area, and finally decided on a spot with an amazing view to set up camp for the night. The rocky outcropping we camped next to turned out to be great entertainment when the sun went down. We were surprised to discover that this is where all the bats sleep during the day! They all came streaming out when the sun dipped down and it was great fun to watch their drunken flights as they searched the night sky to fill their bellies. I love seeing the bats swoop and play especially when we are camping. Maybe it’s the nightshift nurse in me; we have a kinship, the bats and me.

The bat cave

We didn’t expect to see much in the way of wildlife in this barren landscape, but life persists. Desert rabbits, bats, and an abundance of kangaroo mice call the Alabama Hills home. How amazing these creatures can survive with such a lack of water!

Desert rabbit in the Alabama Hills

Watching the sunset in the Alabama Hills was a grand show. While we were cooking our evening meal in our JetBoil, we enjoyed the orange glows on the Hills and Mt Whitney as the sun prepared for its nighttime rest. The area transformed right before our eyes.

Enjoying the sunset

Nighttime is a whole new experience. It was still to hot to sleep and we were enjoying watching the shadows lengthen as the sun set. We took our lantern and explored some of the nearby land formations in the duskiness. The light from the lantern created eerie shadows against the rock walls.

Our campsite illuminated by lantern light
Lantern light in the rocky outcroppings. Isn’t that so cool?

Hiking around the area at night was just as fun as our daytime excursions. Everything looks completely different in the darkness. We felt like explorers in the night. Bats swooping, critters scurrying in the darkness, our path illuminated with lantern light….who needs Disneyland when you’ve got this Adventureland?

Lantern light bouncing off the rocks

Camping in the Alabama Hills was an incredible experience! We enjoyed it immensely and will definitely be back for more. Disbursed camping is different from traditional campground camping, so there are a few things to keep in mind.

The road leading to our campsite. The roads go for miles and miles.
  1. Bring water. Bring lots of water! There is no water in the Alabama Hills and it gets incredibly hot during the summer. We brought 2 large 5 gallon jugs. That was a bit overkill, but better overkill than not enough.
  2. As always, plan to camp using Leave No Trace philosophy. There are no restroom facilities anywhere. It is important to pack out all your toilet paper and dispose of human waste properly in order to protect this incredible environment.
  3. Bring a tent. Initially I wanted to cowboy camp out here, but as the sun went down, Daniel suggested that wasn’t the greatest idea I’ve ever had. He was right! Kangaroo rats hop everywhere searching for their evening meal and I’m sure there are other creepy crawlies out and about, ones I’d rather not have running across my face while I’m sleeping. We used our tent and had no issues.
  4. Be prepared for no cell service. As in many wild places, there is absolutely no cell service. We did see a few other folks out there and though people are generally good, my heart started pounding a bit faster when at dusk, someone turned down our road and approached our campsite. Silly me! It was just a family looking for a place for the night, but my mind went wild in the approaching darkness.
  5. Embrace the darkness, listen to the sounds, enjoy the sights, absorb the beauty. Alabama Hills is like no where else we’ve ever been. Go and enjoy. You’ll come home with incredible memories of your disbursed camping experience in the Alabama Hills.
It’s dusty! We made the most of the dust, too.

Have you been disbursed camping in the Alabama Hills or anywhere else? Leave us a comment and let us know your favorite disbursed camping area. Like, share, and subscribe to join in our adventures!


I'm an only child who grew up on a sailboat, a lover of adventure, a mom, wife, an RN, and a friend of all dogs.

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