It’s easy to talk me into going to the desert. As a girl who grew up in the green and tree-covered Midwest, the idea of the desert was fascinating to me. I liked Westerns, I was enamored with the portrait of desert life Frank Herbert painted in Dune—it was an easy sell. When I finally made it west to see the sandy landscapes in person, I was blown away. The images I’d seen in films and created in my head were nothing compared to seeing the stark beauty and giant vistas in person. Plus, there weren’t sandworms – as far as I know. The Sonoran Desert was the first one I encountered, but the Mojave Desert stole my heart—especially the sprawling corner situated in Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley can be described in superlatives, and in fact, that’s how the National Park Service markets it. The location is the hottest, driest, and lowest place in the United States. In some ways, it sounds like a warning rather than an invitation. And it’s true that Death Valley isn’t the friendliest of locales. You must plan a trip carefully and unless you’re made of sturdier material than I, avoid the summer. It’s currently pushing 115 degrees Farenheit, and that sort of heat makes everything a challenge—even breathing. Visiting the park is basically like visiting Tatooine, and since portions of the Star Wars movies were filmed in Death Valley, you can actually take a trip to the place that’s the farthest from the bright center of the universe.
A large portion of Tatooine scenes were filmed in Tunisia, but George Lucas and a second unit team grabbed some pick-up shots in Death Valley. Two recognizable and easily accessible areas include the road R2-D2 and C-3PO walked to Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi and the overlook where Ben Kenobi commented to Luke Skywalker on the hive of scum and villainy that is Mos Eisley in A New Hope.
When you head somewhere with the intention of finding filming locations, go in prepared. Look up reference images and take screengrabs of the spots you want to track down. Shots with large rocks or mountains/hills in the background will be incredibly useful for pinning down exact points. Plan your routes, hikes, and drives. With Death Valley in particular, keep in mind it is a massive park (over three million acres) and plan fuel accordingly. Take all this information and save it on your phone or tablet so that you don’t have to rely on wifi or an outside network to access it. If you want to be super cautious, print everything.
The road to Jabba’s Palace is actually the Twenty Mule Team Canyon road. It’s not paved, but as long as it hasn’t rained recently (which isn’t likely), it’s drivable in most vehicles. You must do what you feel is right of course, though. Being conservative when in a hot desert without a ton of services is understandable. You only have to drive down the the one-way road a short distance to find the familiar formations surrounding Jabba’s abode, and the hunt is so rewarding. I was beyond gleeful to walk the same path as Artoo and Threepio. Bonus: the exterior of the cave where Luke constructed his lightsaber is also along this road.
Once you’ve visited the questionable denizens at Jabba’s, take a trip to Mos Eisley. By following the signs to Dante’s View (it’s off Highway 190), you can look upon the bustling spaceport. You won’t be standing where Ben, Luke, and the droids stood—that portion was filmed elsewhere—but you can see the same view. Like everywhere else in Death Valley, it’s grand. It’s impossible to wrap your brain around the scale without seeing it with your own eyes.
Those are just a couple of locations. You can easily devote an entire day or weekend to tracking down Star Wars sites. Steve Hall has more precise details to help you find these two spots and many more on his website. The StarWars.com blog also has information to assist in maximizing your Tatooine experience.
Star Wars is probably the most well known project filmed in Death Valley, but it’s not the only movie or television series to be shot there. Other titles with the park’s dramatic backdrops include The Doors, The Twilight Zone, The Professionals, and Zabriskie Point.
Location: Death Valley National Park, California
Admission: $20 for seven days
More Information: Death Valley National Park
Photo Credit: Amy Ratcliffe, screencaps via Lucasfilm