Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Mobius Arch

Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney through Mobius Arch
0.7 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

Hidden in the heart of the rocky Alabama Hills of California's Owens Valley, Mobius Arch is a small, sinewy rock arch that perfectly frames the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney. This short hike visits Mobius Arch and many of the other interesting rock formations of the Alabama Hills and delivers stunning views of the Sierra Nevada's mighty eastern front. You'll actually get three arches for the price of one hike, although neither Lathe Arch nor Heart Arch are anywhere as impressive as Mobius Arch. Sunrises are particularly beautiful here: the day's first sunlight falls on the high peaks of the Sierra, bathing the white granite of Lone Pine Peak, Mount Whitney, and Mount Williamson in an unearthly pink alpenglow. This hike provides the most bang for your buck in the Alabama Hills and is a good option for all visitors traveling through this corner of the Eastern Sierra.

Mobius Arch is another of the many places that have blown up on social media and become tourist magnets. I first visited Mobius Arch in 2007 during a family trip to the Eastern Sierra with my parents. I hiked out to the arch twice during that trip- once on a nice summer afternoon and again for sunrise the next morning- and I did not see any other hikers here either time. During my most recent visit, on a cold November morning, there were two other hikers vying for space to photograph the sunrise here and there were more groups of hikers hitting the trail by the time I returned to the trailhead. 

I hiked Mobius Arch during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. The Alabama Hills are a long way from any large city- Vegas and LA are both 4 hours away- but they're right outside the town of Lone Pine, which has most basic services and is the third largest town in the region after Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. From Lone Pine, I was able to reach the Mobius Arch trailhead in less than 10 minutes: I took the Whitney Portal Road uphill from town for 3 miles and then turned right onto Movie Road. Movie Road led into the Alabama Hills; initially paved, it transitioned to a good gravel road. After following Movie Road for 1.5 miles, the road made a sharp turn to the right; I pulled into the gravel parking area on the left immediately after the turn, which was the trailhead for the Mobius Arch Loop. If you're looking for a place to camp near Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills are a popular spot for dispersed camping: this is Bureau of Land Management land, so you can camp more or less anywhere in the hills. 

The Mobius Arch Trail is a short loop; from the parking lot, both ends of the loop require descending down the bordering wash and then climbing up the other side. Hiking the loop clockwise puts you at the arch faster, but the arch itself is easier to spot when heading counterclockwise. I'll described my clockwise hike to see sunrise at this arch.

I took the trail leaving to the left side of the trailhead parking area. The trail dropped briefly, quickly reaching the bottom of a wash. Crossing the wash, I found two trails heading north: the trail on the left was the Alabama Hills Trail, while the right fork was the Arch Loop Trail. I took the right fork, which headed across open sagebrush flats for about 250 meters. Dawn lighting faintly illuminated the pale granite of the Sierra Nevada to the west: here rose the highest peaks of the range, including the very highest point in the contiguous United States. The Inyo Mountains rose to east, with the brightness emerging behind the range promising the warmth and light of the coming day. The jumbled boulders and low, rocky peaks of the Alabama Hills stretched out in all directions around the trail.

Sunrise over the Alabama Hills
At just under a quarter of a mile, the trail turned to the right and began to descend as it entered a collection of the eroded boulders of the Alabama Hills. Here, in quick succession, the trail came to Lathe Arch and then Mobius Arch. Lathe Arch can be quite hard to spot: it is only just over a foot tall and is well below the level of the trail; look for a narrow slot in the rock to the right of the trail where you can descend and get a better view of the arch.

Lathe Arch
Immediately beyond Lathe Arch, I came to Mobius Arch on the right side of the trail. The arch may not be obvious if you're hiking the trail clockwise; be sure to look to the right behind your shoulder to see if you spot the arch. A short scramble up a rock gave me an excellent view through this sizeable arch to Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney, which were being illuminated by the day's first rays. Space here can be quite limited if there are many visitors; there's really just a single point from which to capture the iconic shot of the arch framing the high peaks of the Sierras. The arch is so named for its resemblance to the twisting, one-sided Mobius Loop.

Sunrise on Lone Pine Peak and Whitney through Mobius Arch
From Mobius Arch, there were also great views along the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada. Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak were of course the dominant peaks of the view, rising sharply to the east. Mount Whitney is the tallest point in the contiguous United States, although it just barely edges out the high peaks of the Colorado Rockies and Washington State's Mount Rainier. Lone Pine Peak was a great pyramidal peak to the south of Mount Whitney; even though it may look as tall from this angle, it is actually over 1500 feet lower, seeming particularly high mainly just because of its proximity to the Alabama Hills. Mount Langley was a high peak to the left of Lone Pine Peak; it is the southernmost peak over 14000 feet in both the Sierra Nevada and in the entire United States. One of the highest peaks to the north was Mount Williamson, the second highest point in the Sierra Nevada and California and an especially prominent peak as it rises directly from Owens Valley rather than being set back like Whitney and Langley.

Alpenglow on Mount Whitney
Views to the north extended into the heart of the Alabama Hills. The Alabama Hills were named by Confederate sympathizers living in Owens Valley during the Civil War, who named the valley after the battleship CSS Alabama. Pro-Unionists in Owens Valley responded by naming a mine and a pass to the north after the USS Kearsarge, which sank the Alabama in battle off the coast of France. The Alabama Hills- this set of low but rocky peaks in the middle of Owens Valley- are a quintessential Western landscape, perhaps because the area was used for filming many Hollywood Westerns. Besides playing a starring role in many John Wayne films, the Alabama Hills has also provided backdrops for Gunga Din, Ironman, The Lone Ranger, and Django Unchained.

Alabama Hills
Leaving Mobius Arch, I continued clockwise around the loop. The trail passed through another wash and then climbed onto another flat sagebrush plain with good views of the rock piles and spires of the Alabama Hills to the north. At just over two-fifths of a mile, I came to a trail junction: here, the Arch Loop Trail split off to the right while the Alabama Hills Trail continued ahead. I took the right fork to stay on the Arch Loop Trail. From the junction, there was a nice view of Heart Arch nearby; this arch was small and high up on one of the rock pillars above the trail. I followed the Arch Loop Trail downhill through a cluster of rocks with many eroded holes and crossed a wash to return to the parking area.

Heart Arch
This is a short but enjoyable hike visiting a small but very photogenic arch. The views of the the Sierra Nevada and the weird rocks of the Alabama Hills are both excellent. I do recommend this hike, especially in the excellent lighting of early morning, but you'll want to come sooner rather than later as this hike becomes increasingly popular.

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