I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (2023)


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Travel // California Parks

Richard Stenger

I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (13)

This story was originally published on March 19, 2021.

Given the constant COVID-19 reminders, the prolonged lockdowns and the winter chill, as soon as the occasion presented itself, I decided to go to a place where the virus seemed least likely to lurk: the hottest, driest and lowest spot in North America, Death Valley.

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And given our mutual interest in "Star Wars," I wrangled the kids to explore the patch of sand and rock that’s long been sacred among Force fans. A national park the size of Connecticut, Death Valley has also served as Tatooine, the desert home of the Skywalkers, old Ben Kenobiand other characters in two films in the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

Encouragingly, the park’s lodgings, both public campgrounds and private Furnace Creek resorts, had just opened up after months of dormancy. So off we went.

First stop after an eight-hour drive from the Bay Area: Star Wars Canyon in the Inyo Mountains, a narrow, deep crevice whose walls consist of successive layers of lava flows, oxidized into deep purples, reds, greens and browns, where military jet pilots from the nearby Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake test their mettle at breakneck speeds.

I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (15)

While the roaring planes resemble the Millennium Falcon and imperial TIE fighters as they dodged deadly asteroids, George Lucas never brought his film cameras to this crevice, formally known as Rainbow Canyon. But to see where he did turn Death Valley into some of "Star Wars'" most famous backdrops, we head 60 miles west to the heart of the valley in Furnace Creek, where 40 years ago, Hollywood transformed the desert into the central nexus of Tatooine.

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I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (16)
I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (17)

Three and a half miles south of Furnace Creek is Golden Canyon, one of the park’s most popular day hikes, where Jawas hid themselves before zapping R2-D2 with an ionization blaster in "Episode IV: A New Hope." My kids are about the same size as the school children who played the film’s Jawas, small and dirty creatures. They naturally gravitate to the many side canyons, narrow slots that zig and zag out of Golden Canyon, climbing, crumbling and sampling the rock walls.

Other scenes from "A New Hope" were filmed here as well, like when Luke was conked on the head by Tusken Raiders, dangerous sand pirates wrapped in rags with grotesque metal protrusions for eyes and mouths.

About 7 miles south on Badwater Road, we detour onto a short one-way road that leads to Artist’s Palette, a riot of colors splashed on the hills, with iron, aluminum, magnesium, titanium, hematite and chlorite serving as the pigments. In an unmarked gulch that runs along the north side of the Artist's Palette parking lot, Jawas carried off R2-D2 in Artoo’s Arroyo. In the nearby Black Mountains, old Ben Kenobi lived in a hermit hut.

(Video) The Original STAR WARS Filming Locations in California - Death Valley - Randomland!

I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (18)

Team Lucas started filming Tatooine in Tunisia, but finished up in Death Valley, in part because it was easier to bring Mardji here. She was the San Francisco elephant who played a bantha, a mounted steed of the Tuskens, filmed just north of Artist's Palette in Desolation Canyon.

The warm March weather, an antidote to the North Coast fog, prompts an unexpected sweat. We take the cue of the Lucas film crew from decades ago and, heading to the Ranch at Furnace Creek, an oasis complete with golf course, air strip, saloon, restaurant and 1950s hotel, take a refreshing dip in a spring-fed pool, naturally warmed to 85 degrees. While masks are worn indoors, COVID protocols are more relaxed outdoors.

As the day cools, we take in sunset from Dante’s View, a legendary locale in "Star Wars" lore. We drive 25 miles up to the parking area, which at about 5,500 feet in elevation offers a sweeping view of the salt-crusted floor of the valley, the Funeral and Panamint ranges, where Telescope Peak tops 11,000 feet, and Badwater Basin, which, at 282 feet below sea level, more than a mile below our vantage point, is the sink of the nation.

On a clear day, one can see MountWhitney, a 14,500 footer, 90 miles to the west, taller than every other mountain in the contiguous United States. Bring a jacket unless it’s high summer. It may be cool and windy here, while warm down below.

I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (19)

From the turnoff, we hike a few minutes to the overlook for a better and less peopled view. Sunset and sunrise are the most popular times. Here, Luke and Obi-Wan paused to regard in the distance one of Tatooine’s most dangerous settlements, as the old Jedi master uttered his famous understatement about the Mos Eisley spaceport.

“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."

While the Jedi and Luke soon find themselves in hot water among the desert rabble in the Mos Eisley Cantina, a stop at the modern equivalent, the Last Kind Words Saloon in Furnace Creek, doesn’t devolve into saber slicing of limbs. Instead it involves a giant ribeye steak and Dante’s chicken wings.

I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (20)

The next day, we visit the first "New Hope" scene location, where, after a crash landing and R2-D2 and C-3PO splitting up, the former plods across the sands of Tatooine. The Mesquite Flats Dunes near Stovepipe Wells are about 25 miles northwest of Furnace Creek.

Lucas credits Akira Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" for inspiration. What really struck him was that the story was told from the perspective of the two lowest characters, which in his case would be the droid duo.

First timers to Death Valley are often surprised that sand doesn’t cover the park. In fact, dunes comprise less than 1% of it. Eroding canyons and washes are sand factories and the wind pushes it around quite a bit. But it collects in only a few places such as Mesquite Flats, the only dune complex in the park that allows sand boarding.

I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (21)

We rise and fall over a series of dunes, which reach as high as 100 feet. The crests are distinguished by linear, crescent and star-shaped patterns, providing stark contrasts in light and dark shadows late in the day. The troughs are pocked with flat, hardened clay polygons, the remnants of an ancient lake bed.

Other "Star Wars" productions came back to California’s Tatooine. For "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi," released in 1983, Lucas used the dirt Twenty Mule Team Road, about 7 miles south of Furnace Creek, as the path to Jabba the Hutt's Palace. Last year, the Disney Plus "Mandalorian" series shot lots of panoramic high-def video to create a more contemporary cinematic version of the dust planet.

Back in the dunes, the mild heat coaxes us back to our campground in Furnace Creek, shaded by clumps of mesquite trees, already starting to bloom in delicate yellows. We relax by our tent, roast hot dogs and marshmallows, welcome a banded dove that waddles nearby, and, later, listen at length to a hooting contest between owls. Then we witness the real "Star Wars" attraction here.

(Video) Star Wars Filming Locations - Original Trilogy

I went to Death Valley to see the places 'Star Wars' was filmed (22)

For those who want to pay homage to the galactic franchise, just look up at night. Away from the lights of civilization and the blurring effects of humidity, Death Valley is one of a handful of gold-tier designated International Dark Sky Parks in the United States.

Here, stargazers can easily see the Milky Way, the distinct colors of individual stars, the reds, greens, blues and oranges, meteors in their full glory, sometimes taking eight seconds from start to finish, and many times more stars than usual in an urban area.

I hand out binoculars and point to the Pleiades constellation, which resembles a smaller, hazier Big Dipper. The Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas, a Titan who held up the sky, and the oceanic Pleione, protectress of sailors.

“See the fuzziest sister? That’s not a star. It’s an entire galaxy, like the Milky Way. The light you see traveled millions of light-years to get here,” I say by rote, having worked here decades ago. Unaccustomed to the celestial fireworks, my familial audience is stunned. Quiet. Wondering. Dreaming.

Maybe, just maybe, a long time ago, in a galaxy far away …

Richard Stenger, a freelance travel writer who worked in Death Valley National Park when Yoda was a baby, is chief marketing ranger for RedwoodCoastParks.com in Northern California.

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