The Whitney Portal Road
I love traveling Scenic U. S. Highway 395. There are so many spots to see along the way, such as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine National Forest and Mono Lake. The road even connects with a gateway to Death Valley. (I’ve written on Death Valley’s history including Lone Pine and “The Wedding of the Waters” as well as its 2016 Wildflowers).
The other day, a good friend and I stopped overnight in Bishop, after driving the Tioga Road from Yosemite Valley. Heading home to Bakersfield the next day, it made perfect sense to grab a deli lunch from Erick Schat’s Bakkery for a picnic at the Mt. Whitney Portal.
A Delightful Drive along the Whitney Portal Road
The Whitney Portal Road starts in Lone Pine, California, and runs 13.7 miles to the Whitney Portal Store, the staging area before hikers ascend to Mt. Whitney (14,505 feet). The road to the trailhead was completed in 1936. The Portal sits at 8,374 feet, a bit more than halfway way to the summit’s elevation.
As the drive begins, Mt. Whitney looms in the distance on a fairly straight, level stretch of road through the Alabama Hills.
Although not officially part of the Sierra Nevada, the Alabama Hills are part of the same geological formation and time frame as the majestic mountain range. The Alabama Hills were just shaped by different erosion patterns, giving them their rounded contours and boulders vs. the sharp ridges and jagged granite of the mountains.
The Alabama Hills are composed of two basic types of rocks. The orange, rather drab weathered rock is metamorphosed volcanic rock from about 150-200 million years ago. The other rock, biotite monzogranite, is from 82-85 million years ago; this rock type underwent spheroidal weathering and produced the potato-shaped large boulders strewn about the area. This impressive public area was appropriately designated a national scenic area in March 2019.
This nice little brook was a pleasant surprise.
And I always like the breezes that make the grasses dance.
I’m not sure when this friendly mascot appeared on the scene, but he’s been welcoming visitors along the drive up toward Mt. Whitney for years. I call him Cyril.
About half-way to the Mount Whitney Portal, the road starts to ascend into the Sierra Nevada. Its twists, turns and switchbacks follow a steep 9% grade for about 5 miles. The drive itself was prominent in two older films: Lucille Ball’s The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Humphrey Bogart’s High Sierra (1941).
A Fun Video: Here is an excerpt from Lucy and Desi’s drive up the mountain!
The parking for the Portal Store is not very extensive, but the area is pretty.
Eventually, we found a place for our picnic before heading back down the mountain.
The views back down into Owens Valley and the Alabama Hills are spectacular.
I love this drive from Lone Pine, California, to the Mount Whitney Portal.
If you have not yet visited the Alabama Hills, add the drive to your to-do list. You may even discover it looks familiar, since it has been used many times in television and movie productions, such as The Lone Ranger and Bonanza and Gunga Din and How the West Was Won.
A Little Trivia: I lived in Alabama for a year and loved the red soil that I saw in the fields where I walked my dog. I figured the Alabama Hills must’ve somehow been named for a similar soil makeup, given their color. But no. The Alabama Hills were named after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship deployed during the American Civil War. Many of the prospectors in the area were sympathetic to the Confederacy, so when news of the warship’s exploits made its way out to California, lots of mining claims were named after the ship. Eventually, the whole range took on the name Alabama Hills.