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.
When thinking about Tatooine, we all think of Tunisia as the real-world location. As covered in part four of this series, however, certain scenes were filmed much closer to Skywalker Ranch then one might expect. In this final installment (for now) of Galactic Backpacking, we continue our trip trough the US to visit these other Tatooine locations, and even take a look where the infamous Star Wars: The Holiday Special was filmed!
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 in the world with citizens from almost every ethnic background. This is due to the high immigration that occurred in the 17th century when settlers from all over European countries like Great Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and France came to colonize this new world. The US 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 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 geographically the third largest state and the most heavily populated. This population contributes immensely to the economy of the US, 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 manufacturing. Also important for the economy is the tourism industry. From the beautiful nature in the many diverse National Parks, to the hills of San Francisco or mayor cities like Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego, a visiting tourist will not 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 world’s hottest regions in the deserts. Rainfall is more common in the northern part of the state than in the south, and snow is rare except in the mountains.
Best time to visit the shooting locations: Taking the last installment into account, March and April may be your best months to visit all the locations together.
How to get there
For those combining these locations with the ones from our previous installment, you would have most likely found yourself in a hotel in San Francisco or in a surrounding area like Modesto. From here it is advisable to drive directly to Death Valley and find accommodation in one of the four lodging facilities inside the borders of this National Park. This is about a seven or eight-hour drive depending on the road you take and where you departed from. If that is too long for you, you could fly to Las Vegas (McCarran International Airport, IATA: LAS) and take a two-hour drive in a rental car to reach Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley to Los Angeles is a four-and-a-half hour drive, and Los Angeles to Yuma is another four-and-half hours. From Yuma, the nearest international airports are the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (IATA: PHX) and the San Diego International Airport (IATA: SAN), which would seem to be the one with the most flights opportunities.
Immigration and visa requirements: Entering the US can often be a complicated affair due to many rules and regulations the US Government have put in place. So it’s best that you read up carefully on the links below to find out what kind of VISA you need. Currently, there is a VISA Waiver Program that allows for citizens of 38 countries (check 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.
Death Valley National Park
Located primarily in the Southern California Desert with a small portion extending into Nevada, Death Valley National Park covers 3.4 million acres (14,000 km), making it the largest park in the lower 48 states. Within this acreage is an almost complete spectrum of the Earth’s geological eras that are well worth a visit beyond the shooting locations.
In January 1977, George Lucas took a second-unit team to Death Valley to film some leftover pick-up shots that weren’t filmed in Tunisia due to difficulties they had encountered there.
While driving on highway 190 towards your accommodation (coming in from Las Vegas, that is), you will quickly notice the signs pointing to this viewpoint terrace. Keep following them and you will arrive at a parking lot that offers a spectacular view of some of the best locations Death Valley has to offer. These include Badwater Basin (a huge salt lake and the lowest point in North America), a salt pan named Devil’s Golf Course, and the Funeral Mountains. Star Wars fans, however, recognize it as the space station Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids surveyed from a distance.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Another location just off highway 190 is a one-way road famously named the Twenty Mule Team Canyon. Just drive into this road and arrive at the location where R2-D2 and C-3PO walk towards Jabba’s palace, as seen in Return of the Jedi. Nearby is the exterior of the cave where Luke constructed his lightsaber in a famous deleted scene from the film. The name of this canyon and road comes from the teams of 18 mules and two horses attached to large wagons that ferried borax out of Death Valley from 1883 to 1889.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The last (or first, if you came to Death Valley from a western direction) location at highway 190 is just three kilometers (1,8 miles) from the Stovepipe Wells Village. When driving here you’ll find yourself arriving at a parking lot overlooking the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These are the rocky plains R2-D2 rolled through after parting ways with Threepio.
Desolation Canyon (36°23’35.15″N, 116°49’48.37″W – unnamed Rebel logo on the map)
While a lot of the locations that you come across while driving on the Badwater Road are announced with signs, this is not the case with Desolation Canyon. Instead, wait for the signs pointing you to Golden Canyon, and then take the first dirt road to the left after passing by the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail. If you see the exit of the one-way Artist’s Drive road, you have gone too far. When the Desolation Canyon road forks, to the right is a parking lot and to the left are the locations.
Desolation Canyon is where the cast and crew filmed all the Tusken Raiders scenes from A New Hope, with a very loveable elephant named Mardji standing in for the Bantha. Mardji loved to play in the creek here. Considering the many different angles that were filmed, it’s best if you bring lots of screenshots with you to line up for your photos. Look for unique looking rocks, erosion patterns, and mountain peaks.
While the majority of the scene where Artoo gets captured by the Jawas was shot in Tunisia, some shots were filmed around the location of Artist’s Palette. One of the shots George Lucas found out to be missing was a shot of the Jawas carrying Artoo towards the sandcrawler. This location is easy when it comes to lining up your camera, just focus on the three hills that you can see clearly in the movie (the sandcrawler was a matte painting).
The difficulty in finding those hills, however, comes from this scene being filmed facing the south, while the Artist’s Drive road is a one-way road going north. So you may want to drive slowly or even stop to look behind you to find the exact spot. It is close to where you enter the road, around the first corner. After taking your pictures, continue driving to the parking lot of Artist’s Palette. Right next to this parking lot — keep the restroom to your left — is where they filmed some of the canyon scenes of Artoo rolling along in the distance before he gets captured by the Jawas.
Other places to see in Death Valley include:
Devil’s Golf Course, a bizarre field of salt crystals which may also be one of the sites used for the landspeeder shots (more information in the Randsburg section of this article).
Zabriskie Point, a famous viewpoint just east of Furnace Creek. Come at dawn for the best lightning of these badlands. Zabriskie Point can also been seen on U2’s Joshua Tree album cover.
Darwin Falls, a 15-foot waterfall providing drink water for the region, so please do not jump in the water no matter how hot you feel.
Eureka Sand Dunes, the second tallest dunes in the United States.
With multiple trips taken by the crew to get the shots of Luke’s landspeeder traveling along the Tatooine desert, it can be problematic to find out exactly where these shots were taken. What we do know for sure is that the whole production behind these shots had problems getting the desired special effect because the mirror they used was not working properly. So they had to take many trips before getting the shots they could use in the movie.
One of these trips was in Death Valley with George Lucas present, and people from the production have been quoted as saying they filmed “on a road that crosses the Devil’s Golf Course” — referring to Salt Pool Road — even though lining up shots against the National Park are nearly impossible to do. However, a shot that can clearly be matched to a real-world location can be seen in the image above. While the angle is slightly off, you can still see the zigzag line in both images. This was shot by Lorne Peterson and his team of ILMers at the Koehn Dry Lake bed near Randsburg.
Another couple of problematic shots to get were the ones involving the model of the sandcrawler, which took at least six trips. Many of these have since been replaced with new shots that were created by using a model with fake miniature hills on top of the ILM headquarters for the 1997 Special Edition. But the original ones where also filmed in Randsburg. Considering that all the pick-up shots were done close to a road, it seems probable that the crew drove to the end of a dirt road turning from Munsey Rd.
Buttercup Valley – Yuma
Buttercup Valley is a region of the Algodones Dunes which is more commonly known by their administrative name, the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. The valley is located in the southeastern portion of California near the border of Mexico. While driving from Los Angeles or San Diego to Yuma, you will find yourself on Interstate 8 going east. When you see the turn leading to Grays Well Road, take it and then go right towards a big parking lot. Then take the next turn to the left and follow that road to the end to reach another parking area. From here it is a tough one-mile hike over some hills in soft sand before reaching the tear-shaped Buttercup Valley and the location of the Jabba’s sail barge set. If you take this hike, take plenty of water with you, put on some sunscreen, and wear protective clothes (long pants, long sleeved shirt, and hat), because you will get hit by reflected sunlight from all sides..
Filming took place here from April 12 to April 24, 1982, behind fences built to maintain the secret of the set. The filmmakers were afraid that fans would come and take parts of the set with them as mementos. Despite this, fans who heard about the location came and left with autographs. Within the fence was a huge 25-foot platform that included the sailbarge itself (only the front, back and one side of it was built in detail), a skiff, and the Sarlacc pit in which stuntmen could fall in and then safely step out in the real desert (though many stuntmen would be injured during the shoot).
The platform construction of the sail barge and the area around the Sarlacc pit was so huge that below it were many offices, storage areas, an ILM workshop, room for trailers and a commissary with seats for 150 people.
Despite the construction crew’s wishes to blow up the real set, the explosion of the sail barge was filmed at a later date on the roof of the ILM building using a model set that closely matched the real hills of Buttercup Valley.
The City of Angels, as Los Angeles is nicknamed, is the most populous city in California (second-most populous in the United States) and is located on a broad basin in Southern California surrounded by vast mountain ranges, valleys, forests and beautiful beaches along the Pacific Ocean. There’s also a place called Hollywood. A magnet for tourists, Hollywood has many highlights that you must visit…
The Hollywood sign: High up on Mount Lee in Griffith Park, this famous landmark can be seen best from the walkways near the back portion of the Hollywood and Highland Shopping Center, or from Lake Hollywood Park (3100 Canyon Lake Drive).
Dolby Theater: Located in the Hollywood and Highland shopping mall in Hollywood Boulevard and North Highland Avenue, this is the current location where the annual Academy Awards ceremonies are held.
The three boulevards: Sunset Boulevard (known for the clubs and nightlife), Melrose Avenue (nightlife and shopping), and Hollywood Boulevard. It is on Hollywood Boulevard that you will find the Grauman’s Chinese Theater (with hand and footprints of George Lucas, Harrison Ford, R2-D2 and C-3PO) and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Be sure to check out the stars of Harrison Ford (be careful, there is also one for a silent film actor with the same name, “our” Ford is located at 6665 Hollywood Blvd), Samuel L Jackson (Mace Windu – 7018 Hollywood Blvd), and visual effects artist Dennis Muren (6764 Hollywood Blvd). The stars of Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) are on 1559 and 1521 Vine Street respectively.
Mulholland Drive and Beverly Hills: Where the stars live. Beverly Hills is also home to Santa Monica Boulevard, which is known for its shopping.
You can also enjoy the beaches of Malibu, Venice Beach and/or Santa Monica. If thrill rides are more to your liking, then a trip to Universal Studios should be on your list of places to visit in LA.
Nearby Van Nuys is where the original ILM headquarters stood before they moved to San Rafael and later to the Presidio. It was in a parking lot that the explosions on the Death Star surface were filmed. Not far away in a small studio on La Brea Avenue, they filmed a few more alien close-ups for the cantina and reshot the Greedo close-ups with a more articulating mask.
The Burbank Studios were used to film The Star Wars Holiday Special — the sets stood there on Stage 2.
What else to do in California?
Besides the other US shooting locations, there are plenty of other places worth visiting.
South of Los Angeles is Anaheim, which is the location of the very first Disneyland Resort Park and the site of the latest Star Wars Celebration in the Anaheim Convention Center.
Rancho Obi-Wan: Located in Sonoma County, this is the home and private collection of former head of Fan Relations, Stephen Sansweet, who has the world’s largest private Star Wars collection. And this can be visited, be sure to check out the links section!
While on your way to visit the shooting locations, you can also expand your holiday in Las Vegas, the famous gambling town which is just a two-hour drive from Death Valley.
And this wraps it up for now. Hope you all enjoyed the series and see you soon with more different articles!
Map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, adapted by Stefan Pfister.
Las Vegas image courtesy of 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. 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.