A traveler from the UK shares his dream road trip: Driving the American West, visiting film locations in Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Here’s his journal.
Hollywood’s location managers find the most beautiful views in America for the screen, so we decided to follow in their footsteps. The fly-drive holiday took me, my brother and our wives from England to see filming locations in the American West. We traveled a total of 4,300 miles over 14 days, with overnight stops at motels such as Super 6, Super 8 and Travelodge, which were a reasonable price for good services and security.
Visitors to the United States will be amazed at the low prices, especially the petrol. I would certainly recommend the journey for families, but with children allow a little more time. In fact, we were like kids ourselves, astonished at some of the places we saw and visited.
Scene 1: Colorado
Denver, the Mile High City, was the starting point. Colorado is breathtaking, a land of tree-clad mountains and deep ravines cut by angry rivers once panned for gold and silver. We encountered October snowstorms — the worst in 80 years — which lent a virgin-white backdrop to the magnificent fall leaves. As winter hadn’t officially started, there were no crowds, so driving, hiking, cycling, and white water rafting could still be enjoyed.
Just like the early settlers, we headed westwards, passing through old mining towns and across the Continental Divide. John Wayne filmed The Searchers and True Grit around here. Scary, precipitous mountain roads led to Silverton, the northern end of the steam-powered Durango & Silverton Railroad. We’d have loved the eight-hour trip in 19th-century parlour cars but time wasn’t on our side. Ticket To Tomahawk had been filmed here, and the railroad was used for the hilarious safe-dynamiting scene in Butch Cassidy, as well as in the movies Viva Zapata! and Support Your Local Gunfighter. Butch and Sundance did their jump into the raging river at Durango, where both City Slickers and Around The World In 80 Days were filmed. Just west of Durango, Mesa Verde’s extraordinary 12th-century Indian cliff dwellings (among the oldest structures in North America) are a worthwhile short detour, even if Hollywood has yet to call.
Scene 2: Arizona
Monument Valley is where you enter the movies’ “Wild West.” From the desert floor, remarkable, stark, bizarre sandstone mesas stab into the sky. No wonder director John Ford loved the place. An amazing feeling of deja vu swept over us. After Ford made Stagecoach here, it became the Western’s favorite location. 2001 and Back to the Future III‘s drive were filmed here; the Easy Rider bikers rode through and Forrest Gump ran through.
Scene 3: Utah
The multicolored beauty of Utah’s Painted Desert all around us, we grabbed a snack among a handful of wooden buildings known as Calico Ghost Town. It’s so well preserved by the desert you can still smell sawdust. Sitting on a porch eating, we imagined the Rat Pack — Sinatra, Martin and Davis, Jr. — striding down the street. What a picnic! Arranging a holiday around movie locations was proving an inspired idea.
Arriving at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in early morning was smart. The colors, as the sun was rising over this amazing landmark, are something we will never forget. The 298-mile drive south through Kanab brought us to South Rim and the Bright Angel Lodge as the sun was setting. At sunrise and sunset the view changes rapidly; walk a few yards in either direction and there’s no one around. National Lampoon’s Vacation, Thelma & Louise, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Rio Grande all rolled here. After passing through Kanab, an area littered with Western movie sets, we came across a place Hollywood has bizarrely ignored.
Bryce Canyon. Extraordinary yellow and red rock formations rise hundreds of feet from the valley floor. After heading through the rugged magnificence of Zion National Park (site of The Eiger Sanction, Jewel of the Nile and Romancing the Stone), we encountered the Interstate, seeing more cars in a minute than we had all day in Monument Valley.
Scene 4: Nevada
The bustle of Las Vegas, where we spent a number of days, was a culture shock after the wilderness. The home to umpteen films, it looks everywhere like a movie set. We stayed in a family room at Circus Circus, the cheapest hotel of them all! (Warning: if you intend to stay over weekends, make sure you book your accommodations ahead.)
Overall, we found southwestern Colorado and southern Utah to be staggeringly beautiful — nature at its grandest. Civilization is remote and, in the clear air, the moon is bigger. We saw more stars there than anywhere else, except in the movies and Las Vegas, of course.
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