As Seen on Film: Death Valley Stars in “Star Wars”
Death Valley National Park can push a thermometer to extremes.
It set the record for the hottest temperature recorded in North America, at nearly 57 degrees Celsius. At 86 meters below sea level, it is the lowest place in North America. And with an annual average rainfall of 6 centimeters, it is also the driest place on the continent.
Not Too Long Ago in a Galaxy Not so Far Away…
Death Valley, which straddles the California-Nevada border, isn’t like the rest of the USA. In fact, it’s like it belongs on another planet. That is exactly why film director George Lucas thought it was the perfect setting for Star Wars.
While George Lucas relied on his creative team at Industrial Light and Magic for many of the settings in his science fiction series, it couldn’t begin to match the size and scope of what Mother Nature created roughly 150 kilometers west of Las Vegas, Nevada.
According to the U.S. National Park Service, Death Valley was submerged beneath an inland sea during the Pleistocene Epoch. The sea eventually evaporated and left behind a land that is stark and surreal, monumental and mystifying — in other words, an ideal filming location.
If you’ve ever watched the Star Wars films — especially Episode IV - A New Hope and Episode VI - Return of the Jedi — you may not have known that you were looking at Death Valley. While you could spend several years watching each episode and searching for the places captured on film, superfan Steve Hall created a self-guided Star Wars in Death Valley tour to point out shooting locations, from the colorful hills of Artist’s Palette to the ever-shifting Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
“Death Valley provided the perfect desert landscape to get the necessary shots in a harsh environment of canyons, sand dunes and eroded hills,” Hall said. “We decided to document these locations because of our love for both Star Wars and Death Valley. I regularly get thank you emails from other Star Wars fans who have used our information to have a special Star Wars day in Death Valley.”
You, too, can have a Star Wars-themed experience in Death Valley. Here are just a few locations (many of them found along California Highway 190) that will take you to another world.
Sand dunes in Death Valley National Park.
The Sandcrawler Station From Episode IV - A New Hope
Park just before the turn leading to the Artist’s Palette parking area, then walk up the south bank to see where the “Sandcrawler Station” scene was filmed for A New Hope. From the Artist’s Palette parking area, walk up the small hill to the north to see an arroyo overlook, which you’ll recognize as the dry riverbed that R2-D2 traveled in A New Hope.
Members of Lucas’ film crew shoot a Sandcrawler for Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.
Jawa Canyon in Episode IV - A New Hope
For a closer look at where R2-D2 was zapped by Jawas, follow the trail leading from the Golden Canyon parking area, 2 miles south of Highway 190 on Badwater Road. Several scenes that set the mood for the Jawas’ attack in A New Hope were filmed at what Hall calls “Jawa Canyon,” located at the lower portion of Golden Canyon.
In Episode IV - A New Hope, R2-D2 was captured by Jawas at the mouth of what is actually Golden Canyon in Death Valley National Park.
The Road to Jabba’s Palace in Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
From Return of the Jedi, you’ll find the “Road to Jabba's Palace” off of the Twenty Mule Team Canyon loop drive and past the what Hall calls the “Lightsaber Construction Cave” parking area, which is a pullout just past the entrance gate with a mining hazard sign. Luke’s plan to rescue Han Solo meant getting access to the palace by giving Jabba a special gift: C-3P0 and R2-D2. Once you find the location you may notice that Lucas shot the droids walking both to and from Jabba’s.
The Droid Dunes in Episode IV - A New Hope
R2-D2 and C-3P0 found themselves lost amid the sand dunes of Tatooine in A New Hope. But you won’t, thanks to Hall’s directions. The tour calls the spot where the droids lost their way “Droid Dunes.” The location is among the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells.
Preparing for Your Death Valley Mission
It’s one thing to watch Han and Luke and Leia from the air-conditioned comfort of a movie theater or your home, but it’s a whole new world to observe the familiar scenery firsthand in Death Valley. First of all, at more than 13,500 square kilometers, this is the largest national park in the contiguous U.S. — even larger than the state of Connecticut. Second, mountain ranges trap heat in Death Valley.
So before you embark on this self-guided tour, bring water (lots and lots of it), sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. The National Park Service does not advise hiking in the summertime. To avoid the stifling heat, consider visiting in October through April. During those months you can enjoy guided walks and talks, evening programs and backcountry hikes departing from Furnace Creek Visitor Center and Museum. Also, keep in mind that cell phone service is limited, so leave your itinerary with a friend.
Death Valley is more than just one of the most incredible destinations on Earth — even travelers from galaxies far, far away would be amazed. So make sure to bring a camera … and may the Force be with you.
Temperatures in Death Valley can get extremely hot, so be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
Where to Stay
If you’d like to stay within Death Valley National Park, lodging options include 66 rooms at the AAA-rated four-diamond Inn at Furnace Creek Resort (golf, dining, horseback riding), 83 hotel rooms at Stovepipe Wells (RV park, gas, general store, pool, and saloon) and 14 motel rooms and one cottage at Panamint Springs Resort (dining, bar, gas). Roughly 56 kilometers from the park’s eastern entrance, the town of Pahrump, Nevada, features several hotels and restaurants.
Roughly 80 kilometers northwest of Panamint Springs, Lone Pine, California features similar services. And as the shooting location for hundreds of films, from a few westerns starring Roy Rogers to Gladiator to Django Unchained, the town is home to the Lone Pine Film Festival and Lone Pine Film History Museum.