What do John Wayne, Planet of the Apes, and 4-wheeling have in common? No, unfortunately a famous director is not currently planning to make a high-budget 4-wheeling movie and discover new talent. (Yet.)
But filmmakers have made famous the remote, 4-wheel trail-rich, Southern California scenery in box office hits. If you know where to look while exploring Southern California off-highway trails, you’ll recognize the horizon that Luke Skywalker scanned with his binoculars for R2D2 in Star Wars. Maybe one of the places where Tonto and Kemosabe fought for frontier justice in The Lone Ranger will seem familiar. Or you might recognize the one of the outer space scenes from The Twilight Zone.
Death Valley has been one area favored by film and TV directors for its landscape. More than 100 movies and TV shows have been set here since the 1920s, including Spartacus (1960), Star Wars, Episodes IV-VI (1980s), The Doors (1991), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Professionals (1966), The Twilight Zone (1959), and Ronald Reagan’s Death Valley Days (1950s). These films and shows used the popular shooting locations within Death Valley National Park: Badwater Basin (20 Mule Team, 1940), the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes (Greed, 1925, and Star Wars, 1977) Dante’s View (Star Wars, 1977), and Mushroom Rock Canyon (Star Wars, 1977). Trail riders will see all these locations navigating the trails in the Southern California guide. The book details more than 25 trails through scenery made famous by Hollywood.
Movies filmed on location in Death Valley are now rare due to the California Desert Protection Act passed in 1994. As a result, more movies are being shot in other areas of the Mojave Desert—on BLM land. The Trona Pinnacles, located about 22 miles east of Ridgecrest, is one such location. One trail in Backcountry Adventures: Southern California, Trona Pinnacles Trail traverses the ancient Searles Lakebed. The towering spires jutting up from the flat landscape developed from calcium carbonate deposits when the whole area was underwater.
The arid landscape that remains today has made the perfect setting science fiction movies and TV shows. Most recently the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, staring Mark Wahlberg, was set along this trail. Scenes from Star Trek V, The Final Frontier (1989), and the opening episode of the TV show Lost in Space were also filmed at this location. If you’re traveling in the area, beware of deep sand and wet conditions, which can impound even the most capable of 4-wheel vehicles. Stay off the paved road that crosses this trail; it is part of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and has no public access. Spangler Hills OHV area, located at the end of this trail, has numerous trails and open areas to explore in any off-road rig.
The Alabama Hills, named by Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War, is another prominent filming location. Once a bustling mining area, this is the location of John Wayne’s last acting appearance in a 1979 commercial for Western Federal Savings and Loan. The low, rolling hills among dry, scrubby vegetation backed by the dramatic Sierra Nevada peaks make the perfect backdrop for cowboy and Indian shoot-outs, stagecoach robberies, and cattle mustering. John Wayne’s Westward Ho, William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, along with The Lone Ranger, Gunga Din, Tremors, Star Trek V, and Joshua Tree are among the films and shows that have immortalized the Alabama Hills scenery.
Movie Flat Trail, 6 miles north of Lone Pine, crosses through traverses the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. East of the trail, the landscape is dominated by rock formations. Here explorers will find Gary Cooper Rock, Hopalong Cassidy Ambush Rock, Gene Autry Rock, and Lone Ranger Canyon. The Flats northwest of the trail set the scene for High Sierra (1942), Rawhide (1959-66), How the West was Won (1962), Gunga Din (1939), and many Roy Rogers films. More recent movies made in the Alabama Hills are Mel Gibson’s Maverick (1994), The Shadow (1993), staring Alec Baldwin, and Digital Man (1994). Scores of commercial interests from the big car companies to Apple computers to domestic beer companies have also used the landscape to persuade us to buy their products. Movies, television programs, and commercial are still actively shot in the Alabama Hills.
Just off Movie Flat Road, is an interesting spur to the remains of the Old Abe Mine. While an irresistible photo subject, use caution when exploring any mine ruins in the area. Old shafts and tunnels are deep and unstable and could give way at any time. At the south end of the trail, take the time to visit the bronze Movie Memorial. The trail ends at Whitney Portal Road with hiking access to the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney (14,494 feet). Permits are required and reservations are essential.