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How to Explore Wild West Movie Sets in California

Grab that cowboy hat and head for the Alabama Hills to follow in John Wayne’s footsteps

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Quentin Tarantino’s latest blockbuster, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is a love letter to the old Hollywood movie industry. It also pays homage to classic westerns, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton playing a moustached, gun-slinging cowboy in some of the film’s key scenes.

Back in the day, Hollywood could make impressive film sets to double as old Western saloons and high streets. But directors needed something more expansive for those desert horse chases and ambush shoot-out scenes.

They found what they were looking for, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Los Angeles. Just west of the town of Lone Pine on Highway 395, at the foot of Mount Whitney, are the Alabama Hills. This striking landscape of arid, mountain-flanked dirt roads, peppered with clusters of oddly-shaped rocks, has doubled as the “Wild West” in countless film and TV shoots. Western heroes including John Wayne, Clint Eastwood in Rawhide, The Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy have all galloped through these parts. More recently, the same rugged backdrop has been featured in Iron Man, Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Gladiator, Star Trek, and Transformers.

Surround yourself with this cinematic legacy at the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine. Fittingly, the museum is housed in an old movie theatre—you can’t miss its striking pink-hued art deco façade from the highway. This isn’t any old roadside attraction, but a true hidden gem, and absolute heaven for film buffs. Home to a vast range of memorabilia from some of the 400-plus films shot in the surrounding hills, the museum is filled with original film posters, props, and costumes–including a tunic worn by Russell Crowe in Gladiator. One of the most fascinating exhibits has to be the 1928 Lincoln town car, mounted with lights and a camera in the early days of film, to catch the cowboys and horses in action.

The museum’s co-founder and film historian Chris Langley is also the local area’s film commissioner, which has led him to scout locations for the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who donated to the museum a director’s chair and one of the “Dentist Wagon” props used in Django Unchained, which you can see there today.

Visitors can also head out into the nearby hills with the museum’s Movie Road Self-Guided Tour brochure to locate the exact spots where Hollywood’s most famous cowboys filmed their iconic scenes. And no visit to the Alabama Hills would be complete without a photo at Mobius Arch, a spectacular rock formation that creates a perfect looped frame around Mount Whitney in the distance.


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