Welcome to Southern Arizona, the only capital of Hollywood Cowboy/Western movie production outside of Hollywood, for more than 55 years (1939-1995). You can discover movie magic all over Southern Arizona – and it’s a lot easier than Humphrey Bogart’s quest in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (filmed here in 1948!).
1) Old Tucson Film Studio & Theme Park (20-30 minutes south of Marana)
Old Tucson is the only major Western film production satellite studio and stage back lot outside of Hollywood for more than 55 years. Several hundred feature films and television shows were filmed here starting in 1939 and feature films are still produced here. As a Western movie-centered theme park, it outclasses any you’ll find anywhere. The full scale town sets were built with fully completed interiors. After a fire in 1995, part of the town was redesigned by Gene Rudolf, the art director/production designer of some of the most memorable New Hollywood films such as Raging Bull, The Great Gatsby, Superman, The Hospital, and Three Days of the Condor. The stunt shows are fun for all ages and the stagecoach drivers, costumed extras, and restaurants, shops, and historic-themed demonstrations flow like a perfectly choreographed day in the life of an old Western movie studio campus. See more on Old Tucson Studios' film history here.
Tip: Take the most scenic route to Old Tucson from Phoenix, or points north of Marana, by exiting the I-10 at exit 236 (Marana Road) and following the easy drive through Saguaro National Park West. You’ll see two of the wonders of Southern Arizona in one.
2) Rodeo Parade Museum (south of downtown Tucson)
This museum is the best kept secret in Southern Arizona. What you’ll find at this unassuming compound of four airplane hangar-sized buildings is nothing less than an astonishing Smithsonian-scaled achievement of public history based around more than 100 horse-pulled vehicles. The collection ranges from very fancy carriages, to rustic wagons, stagecoaches, and buckboards to Santa’s sleigh; all more than 100 years old, and restored by “Parade Bob” Stewart, who is often greeting visitors and giving tours. There are full scale installations of historic businesses, and reproductions of commercial daily life, rooms of historic tack, ropes, fittings, and stories to go with every object. A number of the vehicles in the collection were used in movies and are clearly marked with signage. You can see the actual Surreys with the fringe on top from the movie Oklahoma! filmed in Tucson in 1955 and the buckboard from a John Wayne film.
3) White Stallion Ranch in Marana
Truly authentic, truly top notch, and truly unparalleled. The White Stallion Ranch, is a private guest ranch (open to guests with reservations only), that has been voted the Best Family Resort by USA Today in its 10Best Readers Choice Awards multiple times and ranked #1 on TripAdvisor for Tucson hotels for seven consecutive years. Guests will enjoy a riding vacation as well experiencing the extensive rock climbing program with over 30 climbs ranging in difficulty from a 5.3 to 5.12, a shooting range with cowboy style guns and fat tire e-biking, all while being fully immersed in one of the most filmed Western movie locations in the country. More than 100 classic Cowboy Westerns filmed at Old Tucson and High Chaparral also used White Stallion Ranch for its majestic scenery. Movie filming history tours are available to ranch guests only.
4) Li’l Abner’s Steakhouse in Marana
If only the walls here could talk. When the cowboy movie stars and crew weren’t hanging out by the pool after a long day of filming, they were likely at Li’l Abner’s Steakhouse, right in the middle of all of the action in between the guest ranches and the filming locations. Li’l Abner’s has authentic cowboy and movie cowboy atmosphere slowly accreted from 100 years ago when it started as a rodeo roping practice hangout, which evolved into a bar for 72 years, then a restaurant. There aren’t many authentic places like this left in the world where ranchers, cowboys, and Hollywood actors and producers mingled and caroused. Don’t miss the velvet painting of John Wayne over the fireplace.
5) Trail Dust Town (east of Downtown Tucson/Tanque Verde Road area)
In 1951, a Western movie starring Glenn Ford started filming on Tucson’s east side, but wasn’t completed. The set for that movie, a replica of a late 1800s town, was abandoned. A businessman with art school training salvaged it, repurposed it into Trail Dust Town, and a mini-version of Old Tucson was born in 1961 that has been charming families and visitors ever since. The attraction includes shopping, dining, a museum, event center, and entertainment. It has Pinnacle Peak steakhouse, a charming antique amusement park including a 1920s Allan Herschell merry-go-round, a narrow gauge train, the Museum of the Horse of the Soldier, and a weekly comedy wild West stunt show arena. Sometimes, the world-famous trick roper, Loop Rawlins, makes special appearances.
Westerns are still being filmed at Old Tucson and in Marana. So many, in fact, that the Town of Marana has an AFCI-member film office. Check it out if you or anyone you know wants our help in scouting locations or finding accommodations, talent, and crew. Also, Marana has plenty of museums and other historical sites for those interested in Southern Arizona’s history.
6) And one in Willcox, AZ: The Wild Bunch Film Festival
If you're serious about this, you will plan a trip around The Wild Bunch Film Festival that occurs in early October in Willcox, Arizona. Western film fans, producers, and all other types of folks gather for this film festival in a little town that time forgot that feels more like family reunion than a big-city film festival. Sounds like a road trip.
Bonus extra: 9 Must-Watch Cowboy Westerns Filmed in Marana and at Old Tucson (Studios)
The Wild Bunch (1969) with William Holden and Ernest Borgnine
Rio Bravo (1959) with John Wayne and Angie Dickinson
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) with Humphrey Bogart.
Winchester ’73 (1950) with James Stewart and Shelley Winters
3:10 to Yuma (1957) with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin
The Quick and the Dead (1992) with Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, and Leonardo DiCaprio
Arizona (1940) with Jean Arthur and William Holden
Relentless (1948) with Robert Young and Marguerite Chapman, costumes by Jean Louis
The Gal Who Took the West (1949) with Yvonne de Carlo and Charles Coburn