On-screen escapes: Three top destinations for TV tourism in the American Southwest

Lone Rock Beach, Utah

Have you ever dreamt of hiking your way through Middle Earth? Perhaps you’d like to soak up some extra UV rays, courtesy of Tattooine’s two suns. Or maybe you’d like the chance to scour a forbidden jungle for ruins and ancient artifacts left from a long-dead civilization.

You might not find a functioning AT-AT in Finse, Norway, but fantasy landscapes like Hoth are closer to reality than you might think.

Starring in a film has become an almost foolproof way to boost a destination’s tourism. Recent research has shown that over 40 million international tourists choose their destinations based on a film or television show shot in that county.

Tourists flocked to New Zealand after the release of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy in the early 2000s, while Dubrovnik, Croatia has seen a 11 percent year-to-year rise in international arrivals since Game of Thrones debuted in 2014. Even the secluded mountain forests of northeast Georgia attract about 20,000 visitors each year thanks to the 1972 classic, Deliverance.

And while these destinations benefit from the exposure of film and television, directors and producers usually choose these set pieces for a reason. More often than not, these filming locations offer powerful landscapes, breathtaking views and more than enough reasons to visit without the added bonus of doubling as an alien planet.

Some filming destinations have gained so much fame, they’ve become inextricably linked with their fantasy surrogates. But other set pieces are subtler and less recognizable.

This series is dedicated to exploring those hidden gems of movie and television sets throughout the world…

Home on the range

Rough riding cowboys. Wiley Indians. Ghost town shootouts and saloon sarsaparillas.

These are the images that are wired into our brains when we think of the Wild West in American films.

And while Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone and High Noon’s Hadleyville are certainly sites to behold, the surreal landscape of the southwestern United States offers more than just the backdrop for Westerns.

From the haunting red rock formations in Monument Valley, to the rolling sand dunes of the Sonoma desert, the American west often serves as the perfect backdrop for science fiction or high fantasy realms.

Here are the top five movie and television set locations to visit in the Southwestern United States.

Yuma Crossing

Yuma, Arizona

The south Arizona border town of Yuma is probably most well known for its role in the 1957 classic and 2007 remake, 3:10 to Yuma. But while Yuma was the final destination of the characters in the film, it was actually shot in northern New Mexico.

Instead, Yuma and its surrounding sand dunes have been featured in two of the most famous science fiction franchises in the history of film.

The vast desert landscape served as a perfect backdrop for the planet Tatooine. In Star Wars Episode IV, most scenes that featured Luke Skywalker’s desert home were shot in Tunisia. But during the production of Return of the Jedi, the film crew decided to set up shop a bit closer to home.


Just northwest of Yuma, about 10 miles across the California border, lies Buttercup Valley in the Imperial Sand Dunes recreation area. In 1982, this location served as home to one of the most infamous creatures in the galaxy, the Sarlacc – an enormous alien beast that resides underground with only its gaping mouth exposed. In one of the most pivotal scenes in the entire Star Wars franchise, hero Luke Skywalker shows off his newfound Jedi skills by executing a rescue attempt of Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leah from the grasp of Jabba the Hut. Leah takes matters into her own hands by strangling Jabba, while Han and Chewie clumsily send the bounty hunter Boba Fett to an early grave in the Great Pit of Carkoon.

The set, which featured a giant sail barge, took months of work to construct and cost approximately $1 million. While the barge and Sarlacc no longer remain, the picturesque dunes of Buttercup Valley can be accessed by foot from a rest station just off Interstate-8.

Sarlacc Pit

In addition to Star Wars, Yuma and Buttercup Valley served as home base to another Sci-Fi giant – Star Gate. The 1994 film spawned one of the longest running sci-fi television series of all time, but before SG-1 set up shop in Cheyenne Mountain, Kurt Russell and his team traveled through the gate to the desert planet of Abydos.

The deserts surrounding Yuma have served as a backdrop to Rambo III, True Lies, Space Balls and many more. But the Arizona border town offers much more than a sea of sand. Yuma is surrounded by a diverse biosphere that features the rugged Castle Dome Mountains, and a fertile valley on the banks of the Colorado River.

Yuma is also home to an eclectic downtown that showcases Spanish Colonial architecture and a pretty diverse dining scene.

Better call saul

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque has served as the central filming location for countless films dating back to the early 1900s. But it’s no secret that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad truly put New Mexico’ capital city on the map in 2007.

The 10-time Emmy winning series was filmed at multiple locations in and around the city, and Albuquerque’s tourism bureau and local business have fully embraced that fact – despite the show’s touchy subject matter.

Breaking Bad locationsThe city promotes self-guided tours to locations found within the series. But for visitors who prefer a guided look at the Albuquerque, bicycle tours, Trolley tours, and RV tours are all available.

IMG_2620Marble Brewery offers Walt’s White Lie and Heisenberg’s Dark Ale tribute brew. Moreover, many of the city’s bars, restaurants and sweet shops offer “blue crystal” variations of drinks, pastries and candies.

While Breaking Bad and more recently, Better Call Saul, are the most well known Albuquerque productions, the city has been used as the central location for blockbusters such as No Country for Old Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Lone Ranger (2012) and multiple installments of the Terminator cannon.

Albuquerque, which was founded as a Spanish colony in 1706, is highlighted by its adobe buildings and tribal influence, which contrasts with a more modern city center. Combine its unique architecture with the surrounding basalt mountains and grassy plains, and you have a truly unique and diverse setting that warrants exploration.

Lake PowellPage, Arizona/Lake Powell

When I first traveled to Page in 2014, I didn’t have much of an idea what to expect from the area. As an avid Doctor Who fan, I did know that nearby Lake Powell doubled for Lake Silencio, the location of the 11th Doctor’s death (sort of). That fact alone was enough to warrant a stop at Page on my Southwest road trip. What I didn’t know is that Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation is home to some of the most surreal and fantastic landscapes in the world.

doctor who
Located about 10 miles south of Utah’s southern border, Page serves as a basecamp for many of the United State’s most unique natural monuments. All in a 20-mile radius, visitors can check out the most iconic view of the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, kayak across the deep blue expanse of Lake Powell and tour the haunting sandstone formations of Antelope Canyon. The crimson and copper rock formations of Glen Canyon and Page contrast sharply with its azure waters and aquamarine skies, painting the area with an ethereal beauty that seems almost alien to this planet. That said, its no surprise that Page and its nearby attractions have caught the eye of photographers and film crews alike.

Since the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the formation of Lake Powell in 1963, over 40 movies and television shows have been filmed in the area. The unique landscape served as a façade for alien planets, apocalyptic wastelands and even Biblical Jerusalem. Famous American actor Charlton Heston frequently found himself on Lake Powell’s shores in the 1960s. He washed away sins in the lake as John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told, and fell to his knees on its sandy shore screaming at those “damn dirty apes” in the 1968 original, Planet of the Apes.

planet of the apesSuperman, the Incredible Hulk, Fred Flinstone and the Outlaw Josey Wales are just a few of the famous characters to spend significant screen time in the Glen Canyon Park.

Most recently, the terracotta landscape doubled as the Red Planet in John Carter of Mars, while Sandra Bullock took a dive in Lake Powell from space in 2013’s Gravity.

Whether you are a die-hard fan of cinema, a thrill-seeking adventurer or a sight-seeing tourist, Lake Powell and its surrounding areas is a must-see travel destination.

Also published on Medium.

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