Ever since the original Star Wars was released in 1977, fans have always been dreaming about living in that galaxy far, far away. While that may be just a little difficult, there are still the real-world locations that served as various worlds during filming, and they can be visited. In Galactic Backpacking, we explore these locations by country, looking at their histories and current attractions.
Ewoks and Gungans, love them or hate them, are hugely important to the Star Wars saga — after all, both races were instrumental in overthrowing an evil regime. In this first part dealing with the shooting locations in the USA we will visit the places used to create their homeworlds of Endor and Naboo.
The United States of America is a large country in the continent of North America and with 318 million people it consists of the third-largest population of the world, with citizens from almost every ethnic background that you can imagine. This is because of the high immigration that occurred in the 17th Century when settlers from all over Europe came to colonize this new world. These days, the USA includes some of the world’s most famous cities, beautiful natural parks, and virtually everything in between. With such a wide variety to explore we focus on the state that is the most important one for us fans, the state that is, along with the UK, the home of the saga: California.
Located on the West Coast of North America, California is the third largest state by area, but the largest by population. This population contributes immensely to the economy of the USA, first and foremost with the produce of vegetables and fruits, but also with high-tech industry (Silicon Valley and aerospace among the many examples), education, and other manufacturing. Also important for the economy is the tourism industry, and the visiting tourist has a plethora of things he or she could do and visit. From the beautiful nature in the many diverse National Parks, to the hills of San Francisco or major cities like Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego, with many popular attractions like the Disneyland, Universal Studios and Seaworld theme parks in between, you will not be able to get bored here.
Capital: Washington, D.C.
National language: English
Government: Federal presidential constitutional republic
Currency: US dollar
Time zone (California): UTC -8 and UTC -7(DST)
Roads: Drive on the left
Climate (California): The climate varies from temperate at the coast to the brutal winters of the mountains, while California also has some of the world’s hottest regions in the deserts. Death Valley is, since 1913, the record holder with the hottest temperature ever recorded with 134°F (56.6°C), and during summertime it still often exceeds 134°F (56.6°C). Rainfall is more common in the northern part of the state than in the south. Snow is rare in California except in the mountains which can sometimes block one of the mountain passes to Yosemite National Park.
Best time to visit the shooting locations: During the spring or summer.
How to get there & useful links
With most of the locations being close to San Francisco it is easiest to travel there by plane and continue by rental car. Another possibility would be to travel to Los Angeles (Los Angeles International Airport, IATA: LAX), take a rental car to get to the locations there and then continue to San Francisco — but more on those locations in part two.
San Francisco is home to three airports, but people visiting from Europe will most likely find their flights connecting to San Francisco International Airport (IATA: SFO), which is also an important gateway to and from Asia. Visitors from Mexico can also choose to fly to Oakland International Airport (IATA: OAK).
Immigration and visa requirements: Entering the United States can often be a complicated affair due to many rules and regulations the US Government have put in place. So it is best that you read up carefully on the links that follow these paragraphs regarding if you need to apply for a VISA or not, and if you do what kind of VISA you need. Currently there is a VISA Waiver Program that allows for citizens of 38 countries (check links below to see if your country is listed!) to enter the country without advance visas required. This also goes for residents from Canada and Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card). For the visitors that fit within the VISA Waiver Program it is required that you register for ESTA approval.
Also be aware that when you leave the state of California you are often subject to agricultural inspection to ensure that some fruits and vegetables do not cross into other regions.
Visitor VISA information http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/visit/visitor.html
ESTA registration https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/
San Francisco International Airport http://www.flysfo.com/
Oakland International Airport http://www.oaklandairport.com/
Los Angeles International Airport http://www.airport-la.com/
Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=421
Livermore’s Centennial Light Bulb http://www.centennialbulb.org/
San Francisco http://wikitravel.org/en/San_Francisco
Mount Tamalpais State Park http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=471
Redwoods National Park
In 1982, cast and crew arrived in Crescent City to film the Return of the Jedi Endor scenes in nearby Smith River. With specially drawn maps, cast and crew found their way to sets at Bunker Hill (where the bunker entrance was build), Heart-Shaped Tree, Spaghetti Stump, and Norman’s Log (named after Norman Reynolds, the production designer — this is the bridge the Ewoks cross carrying C-3PO on his throne and the Rebels bound on poles). With most of the main big action sequences and scenes with the principal actors filmed here, this would be a wonderful location to visit. However, that is sadly not possible due the land being private property of a lumber company when they were filming there, and this remains true to this day. Due to this heavy logging that took place, most if not all recognizable landmarks from the movie does not exist anymore.
A bit further south is the Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park and the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, both were used to film the plates used during the speeder bike chase.
The most recognizable plates can be found in the Cheatham Grove, which is part of the Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park. Just park your car in the parking lot near the Cheatham Grove Trail and take a walk along the trail to spot the above pictured trees. Also seen here is the tree stump that an unfortunate scout trooper crashes into.
The Humboldt Redwoods State Park is mostly used for the side views seen during the speeder bike chase. The second unit of the production team filmed this from the back of their truck while driving trough the scenic highway called Avenue of the Giants.
This suburban city in-between San Francisco and Modesto may appear to be nothing but a city you pass by while driving to Modesto, but it is also a little-known shooting location. The hills surrounding this city were photographed and then digitally stretched to look less Earth-like so that they could be used as background plates during the battle of the Great Grass Plains as seen in The Phantom Menace. The only other claim to fame of Livermore is that it is the home to longest burning incandescent light bulb in the world. This light bulb was installed at a local firehouse over 100 years ago is still burning today.
George Walton Lucas Jr. was born in Modesto on May 14, 1944, to George Walton Lucas, Sr. and Dorothy Ellinore Bomberger Lucas. It was while growing up in this sleepy suburb that the young George became interested in race-car driving and had the dream of becoming a professional race-car driver. While that dream was put to a halt after being involved in a near fatal car accident, it was still these experiences that made him reevaluate his life that lead to his movie-making career. American Graffiti being the most obviously inspired by his life.
At the intersection of Downey, 17th Street, McHenry Avenue, J Street, and Needham Avenue stands the Lucas Plaza Statue. This bronze statue features two 1960s teens leaning on a 1957 Chevy and features an inscription at the back commemorating Lucas and his achievements. This location was chosen since it is the symbolic separation of the old downtown from the roadway into what was once the farmland surrounding the town and the location where local youths like Lucas would cruise in their cars.
Founded on June 29, 1776, by colonists from Spain, San Francisco experienced a major growth during the Gold Rush of 1849 and quickly became the center of culture, commerce, and finance of Northern California. And it continued to stay that way despite a huge earthquake destroying three-quarters of the city, the Great Depression (that largely unaffected the city), and World War II. In fact it was during the Great Depression that such tourist highlights like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz prison came to be. Besides those two, the city has a lot to offer the tourist like Chinatown (the most crowded and largest Chinatown outside of Asia, also Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower), Fisherman’s Wharf (make sure to visit Pier 39 with its sea lions), the Castro, and the famous cable cars that run up and down the hills of the city between Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Presidio & The Letterman Digital Arts Center
After closing down in 1994, the Presidio was the longest-running military post in the US, having been founded in 1772 at the northern section of San Francisco. These days it is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, spanning 3 square miles of mostly hilly and wooded areas. Among the many attractions here are Fort Mason, the Walt Disney Family Museum, the Palace of Fine Arts, Baker Beach, and The Letterman Digital Arts Center. The Letterman Digital Arts Center was formerly a military hospital, but has since then been redesigned as the new home for Industrial Light & Magic and Lucasfilm Ltd. The entrance is marked by a big fountain with a bronze statue of Yoda. The Lobby of Building B is open to the public during regular business hours and contains a gallery of Lucasfilm memorabilia including props and costumes from not only the Star Wars movies, but also the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, props from Ghostbusters 2, and others.
The former headquarters of Lucasfilm, and once the home of George Lucas, is located on Lucas Valley Road (the name has no relation to George Lucas; it was named after a turn-of-the-century landowner) in Marin County, north from San Francisco. The Ranch contains many buildings, among them a hilltop observatory and a 300-seat theater called “The Stag,” but also an outdoor swimming pool and fitness center. The main building is home to an impressive library. In-between the buildings is a man-made lake called Lake Ewok. Quite a number of scenes of the Ewok movies Caravan of Courage and its sequel The Battle for Endor were filmed on the grounds, as well as the funeral pyre of Darth Vader from Return of the Jedi. The Ranch is not open to visitors.
Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor locations
Often overlooked, these locations from the Ewok movies may actually be the best way to experience Endor considering that the Return of the Jedi location was logged over. What follows below is a small list of known locations used.
Roy’s Redwoods Preserve – Located roughly ten minutes away from Skywalker Ranch, this preserve was used as the primary location for the movies, and it is easy to see why when you spot the large redwoods. Park your car at the parking place along the Nicasio Valley Road and take one of the many trails to immerse yourself in the park and imagine you are on Endor. It was here that the Towani children are seen running from the boar-wolves, the exterior of the starcruiser, Kaink’s Cluster, and where Noa’s hut stood.
Kent Canyon, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, was listed in the shooting permit as the “mirror glint” location, which most likely refers to the glint of the starcruiser the Ewoks see while hang gliding.
Bolinas Ridge Road (37°58’6.78″N, 122°41’35.51″W) – While the hang gliding itself took place on this road, which is not far from the Roy’s Redwood Preserve.
Mount Tamalpais State Park – The East Peak was listed in the shooting permit as the location where some of the cliff scenes took place. This most likely refers to the cliff side scene where Wicket and his brothers are found by Deej. This State Park is not often visited by tourists who instead go to the nearby Muir Woods National Monument.
San Rafael – While ILM originated in Van Nuys, California, they moved in 1978 to Kerner Avenue, San Rafael. It was here that ILM worked on the special effects for The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and both the Ewok movies. The Ewok movies feature a lot of scenes shot here. Basically everything that required a set was filmed on either an indoor main stage or on Cookie Bay. The sets of the Towani starcruiser (interior) and the tent camping scene where Mace and Cindel meet Izrina were filmed on Cookie Bay.
The nearby San Rafael Rock Quarry was the location for the outside of the Gorax Castle and some of the trek through the Desert of Salma.
What else to do in California?
For those who like the outdoors and nature, California is the perfect place to visit. Be sure to check out Lake Tahoe (also used in Bonanza and The Godfather Part II), Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley (famous for the wine vineyards), Muir Woods National Monument (also seen in the recent Planet of the Apes movies), and Mount Whitney (the highest point in the US).
Not to miss also are: Sacramento (capital of California) and San Jose (Silicon Valley).
And then there are the other US shooting locations, which be covered in the next Galactic Backpacking, that can easily combined with a trip to these locations.
Join us next time for our last trip, ending on the planet where the saga began: Tatooine!
Special thanks go out to Pete Vilmur, who graciously shared the information from the Caravan of Courage shooting permits for this article. Pete, thanks a lot!
Map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, adapted by Stefan Pfister.
Caravan of Courage cliff image courtesy from Eric Walker
Golden Gate Bridge image courtesy from Wikimedia Commons
Sander de Lange (Exar Xan) from the Netherlands worked on the Rogues Gallery feature in Star Wars Insider and has written the backstory for Niai Fieso through “What’s the Story?”. He is an editor for TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub and an administrator for the Star Wars Sourcebooks page on Facebook. Being born in Deventer, a city used to shoot the world-famous movie A Bridge Too Far, he always had a passion for shooting locations and tourism, in which he hopes to find a job.