Welcome to Southern Arizona, the capital of cowboy Western movie production outside of Hollywood, for more than 55 years (1939-1995). There is movie magic all over Southern Arizona – and it’s a lot easier to find than Humphrey Bogart’s quest in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (filmed here in 1948)!
1. Old Tucson Film Studio & Theme Park
Please note, this attraction is temporarily closed and expected to re-open in the fall or winter of 2021.
Located less than 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 filmed 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
Just south of downtown Tuscon, 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. 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, the buckboard from a John Wayne film, and many more.
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 10 Best 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 as 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 and 17 episodes of High Chaparral filmed at 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 Western movie stars and crew weren’t hanging out by the pool of their boutique guest ranch in Marana, 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 an 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
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, an 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. Mescal Movie Set
Opening in fall 2021, for the first time in history with regular public hours. Mescal has been a Western film location for more than 70 years. It was previously operated by Old Tucson as a second backlot. Now it has been restored and upgraded and will re-open for filming and the public with new guided tours and events. Don't miss a chance to walk the streets where The Outlaw Josey Wales, Tombstone, The Quick and the Dead were filmed. Episodes of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Magnificent Seven, and Little House on the Prairie were filmed at Mescal. It was also the town of Sweetwater in The Young Riders television series.
7. Arizona Western Film Movieseum, The Old Tucson Bob Shelton Collection at Trail Dust Town
This new museum is expected to open in 2021. It will feature the private collection of Bob Shelton, who founded Old Tucson. Check out the exciting addition to Arizona’s Western film culture here.
8. The Wild Bunch Film Festival, Willcox, AZ
If you're serious about this, you will plan a trip around The Wild Bunch Film Festival that occurs annually in early October in Willcox, Arizona. Just over an hour from Marana, 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 a family reunion than a big-city film festival,