Last week I ventured up to Death Valley to check out as many of the STAR WARS "Tatooine" locations I could cram into one day. Yup, that's right I started and ended the day in Los Angeles - but in between I was taken to a land from long ago, and far, far away...
I headed out at 9:30 AM - in an effort to hit as many of the sites in their prime light as I could, but there definitely would be some compromises along the way. I also knew I was not going to see ALL of the sites that were out there, but I decided not to stay over night so my poor cat would not hate me for leaving him alone for so long.
It's hard taking a scenic drive across California when you love to take pictures! I stopped more than I would have liked: refueling in Mojave - the windiest place I have ever been in my life, checking out Red Rock State Park, stopping off at "Brady's Mini-Mart" (my real name is Brady), etc. When I turned off on to 190E from 395 and saw the dry Owen's Lake I had to stop again! So weird!! Desert and snow-capped mountains in one shot!
The sky was filled with the white salty dust from the dry lake beds and visibility was not ideal. Something to think about for all of you still wanting to make the trek. When the wind blows in this area, it is intense, and the terrain can appear as though it is enshrouded by a thin layer of fog. At least the wind made for a comfortable day temperature-wise. Perhaps it was even a smidgen too cold in Death Valley. Then again, it was March.
I stopped off at a few other intriguing looking places off of 190E before heading up the first of two mountain ranges. This drive is actually not that scary during the day, though it is advisable that you turn off your A/C during the steep inclines.
Eventually, you make it down to Stovepipe Wells Village, and a ranger station where you are supposed to pay a $20 fee for your car. I had thought "Artoo's dunes" were at Stovepipe Wells, but in fact, they are about a mile further down the road. You park at the turn-off for "Mesquite Dunes," named for the trees that dot the sandy hills.
Around 2:00 PM, I walked out into the dunes (take your shoes off!) and headed somewhat on an angle to the right. You can see the mountains that feature in the back of the shot from "Star Wars," and the trick is just lining them up and finding the dune that will allow for this angle. (Adding John Williams' "Dune Sea" is a nice touch.) Unfortunately, the sky was so full of white salty dust that I could not get a very good photo at all. And as the wind kicked up, it only got worse. I was worried for my camera lens so I did not bother waiting around for the dust to settle. It wasn't going to happen, so I headed back to the car. The whole sojourn took about 1/2 hour.
My next plan was to hit up Twenty Mule Team Road which is quite a bit further down 190E. I passed "Devil's Cornfield" (which is pretty wicked) and the "Mustard" and "Harmony Borax Flats" which offer some pretty cool otherworldly terrain. Eventually, you hit Death Valley Junction (near Furnace Creek campsite) and head to the left. About a mile or so past "Zabriskie Point" (a popular stop-off for tourists), you will see a road heading off to the right. It does not really appear that one should take this road (and there is no sign for it from this direction at least). Still, the ONE-WAY road is pretty solid and any mid-size car should have no problem. It was about 3:00 PM when I hit the location used in filming "Return Of The Jedi." You really can't miss it with the mountains lining up in front of you and along your left hand side.
I think the timing of my photos here was pretty good and the coloration and shadows of the terrain was pretty spot on. The "road" that C-3PO and R2-D2 traveled on to Jabba's palace is actually much more flat now and less impressive after 27 years of erosion - and it is actually the lower portion to the right of this "road" which now appears more like the terrain in the film, but it is not. Kind of hard to explain. The "Twenty Mule Team Canyon" road is actually to the right of this lower portion and strangely is completely camouflaged in by the terrain. The shot in the film I think was taken from a crane at a higher angle, but for the most part, this is a very rewarding view to behold.
The drive from the location back out to 190E was really fun - but a took a little longer than expected. It was almost like being in a video game, being the only car on a winding road up and over hills and under rocks that jut out above you. I can not imagine campers taking this route, but they do somehow!?!? The mountains are colored all crazy colors. It is pretty impressive..
Up next, I headed down 190E and made a turn off for Dante's View - also known as the "Outlook for Mos Eisely." I knew that the 1977 film crew shot this scene in the early AM so I was not expecting to capture this view spot on. Still, I thought it be best that I went as the sun was setting so that the valley below wasn't totally blown out. Sadly, after making the 13 mile drive up a winding road, that is exactly what I experienced at about 4:00 PM. Again, the crazy winds were blowing all the white salt/ sand particles up into a frenzy and it was really hard to see anything. I won't say this was a total waste of time, as the view of the highest peak in the lower-48 states meeting up with the lowest point below sea level was pretty spectacular. Still, it was really windy and chilly and I did not spend much time up there.
Double-backing on 190W now, I headed back past Death Valley Junction, knowing it wise to get some gas at Furnace Creek before checking out any more of the sights. Then I headed back towards Death Valley Junction and took the turn-off to Badwater Road. As it was now nearing 5:00 PM, I knew I had to get to Artist's Palette to see Artoo's little canyon!
What little canyon!?!?! Artist's Palette is HUGE! The turn-off for the ONE-WAY road is about 8 miles past the junction. As you travel further into the area, the mountains open up in front of you and offer quite an impressive display of colors. If you are in a hurry, don't bother stopping off at the first location that attracts tourists, as the main portion of Artist's Palette is more impressive. About 10 minutes later (after following each any every curve on my Google Maps print-out of the road), I found another smattering of cars parked along side the road. This was somewhat of a fatal mistake for me. I should have re-read some of the other threads on this site. If you park alongside the road, it will be harder for you to find the actual canyon in question. You are better served to just follow the road until you see the sign directing you to the "Artist's Palette" parking lot. Even if this is full, at least you will know where to head back to once you park and get out of your car. The canyon that Artoo waddles down is just to the left of the parking lot for "Artist's Palette."
I did not know this, and instead traveled for about 30 minutes up and over two other sections of the winding canyon. (Bring water!) I was taking lots and lots of photos of beautiful ranges and rock formations, but these were not Artoo's canyon! I even got the shots of the "Sandrcrawler Station" on the opposite side of the street before I finally found the right location. Believe me, Artoo's canyon is much more simple to find than I anticipated!!
Perfect time of day though... sunset is not only wonderful to capture the intense colors of the impressive formations not used in the film, but it also seems to be the same time of day that the film crew used this spot for "Star Wars" pick-ups back in 1977. I also went down into the canyon and took some other shots of rocks and angles that seemed familiar - but sadly, I did not have the patience to really line anything up perfect since all of the sheets that I had printed out with source photos, etc. were fluttering around in the wind! LESSON LEARNED - when I go to Tunisia in a few months, I am making sure I place all of my print-outs in plastic covers and in a binder. Trust me, you do not want to be flipping back and forth between stapled packets when it is so windy. I got very frustrated by this!
After I had my fill of Artoo's canyon, I drove the rest of the way back out of Artist's Palette. There was a caravan of VERRRY slow drivers in front of me and I lost even more time! The sun was really setting and I still wanted to get to Desolation Canyon!!
After turning back onto Badwater Road towards Death Valley Junction, look for an unpaved road about a mile down the road. This is unmarked save for a post that designated it as a hiking location. Take your car to the roundabout at the end of the road and then get out of your car... The rest is a little daunting to be honest - especially at 6:00 PM at night! Since it was getting so dark, I took a flashlight and some extra water - as this is how people end up dying - going into an unknown canyon at dusk. (My parents would not have been proud.)
Again, since it was so dark, I could not be bothered with really lining up shots or looking at source photos. But as you walk further and further into the canyon, it is all very familiar. I actually thought this was a lovely location, and I would have liked to have checked this out earlier in the day. None of my photos really turned out as I had expected (even by making lots of adjustments to the ISO/ shutter speed); I would later have to treat these pics heavily in Photoshop to see any results.
Eventually, I realized nothing good was going to come of me staying out in Death Valley any longer. At about 6:30 PM, I started the very looooong trek back to the city. Getting out of Death Valley National Park takes more time than coming in (if taking route 14 to 395 to 190) as the steep grade for 17 miles is going UPHILL on the way back. I popped in a book on tape to keep me sane as I had to navigate through the treacherous bends and turns in pitch blackness. It was pretty harrowing, and somewhat lonely, since there were not many other travelers stupid enough to make this journey at night. Next time, I would definitely stay over night in the park!
All in all - it was a great trip. The "Star Wars" locations are of course fun to discover and witness first hand - but the park itself has many other beautiful, strange and otherworldly secrets to share. I definitely recommend this trip to anyone who enjoys geology, beautiful landscapes, and of course, a little planet known as Tatooine.
Photos of the trip, with additional captions can be found here: