Los Angeles might be the beating “heart” of the movie industry, but when production companies venture out into the High Sierra, something magical happens. It might be the impossibly deep blue skies or the dramatic scenery as a backdrop. No matter the reason, hundreds perhaps thousands of films have been shot across the region. Here’s just a small taste of real-life locations in the High Sierra made famous in movies. Or is it the other way around?
Are you a fan of Charlie Chaplin? Well, in 1924, his beloved character filmed scenes of what many consider the greatest silent film comedy of all time – “Gold Rush”, right in the historic town of Truckee. Most notably is the Chilkoot Pass opening sequence. Shot on a ridge near Donner Summit in today’s Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, film critic Jeffrey Vance calls it “the most spectacular image of silent-film comedy.” This isn’t the only film shot here. In fact, nearly 100 known movies were filmed here. Click here to learn more.
Located in the shadow of the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Alabama Hills has been a staple in many a cowboy movie as well as big blockbuster films like Gladiator and Tremors. As soon as you step into this area, you’ll immediately understand why so many decide to shoot here. Sweeping desert. Rugged peaks as a backdrop. Mother Nature’s sculptures in the form of unique rock formations. Besides it being in so many films, the scenery is something you will want to experience in person.
Of course, we couldn’t have this list without mentioning the “Movie Railroad”. And the fact that we consider it one of the most Instagramable locations in the High Sierra. Located in the heart of Tuolumne County, Railtown 1897 features one of the few remaining working roundhouses in America with an intact and functioning steam locomotive repair shop & maintenance facility. From being the first sound motion picture filmed outside of the studio (The Virginian) to traveling back in time in the movie Back to the Future Part III, there’s a bit of movie magic everywhere. In fact, you can even go on a six-mile 45 minute round-trip through the scenic Sierra Foothills!
On a quiet stretch of road on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, one of the most iconic mafia movies EVER was set. Michael Corleone’s home in the sequel of the Godfather was the Fleur Du Lac Estates. Originally the summer home of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, it is now a private estate consisting of 22 individual homeowner units, a marina, tennis courts, and even a swimming pool. Although you can’t gain access to it, you can head a little further south and check out another historic summer home, the Hellman-Ehrman mansion. Built in 1903, it is one of the grandest Old Tahoe mansions in existence. San Francisco banker Isaias W. Hellman commissioned architect Walter D. Bliss to design his 11,700 square foot summer home.
Yosemite has been the basis of A LOT of documentaries around rock climbing. But, did you know that a scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was shot there too? The edge-of-your-seat whitewater rapids sequence where the yellow raft falls off the cliff was done on the mighty Tuolumne River, whose headwaters start in Yosemite National Park. Specifically, a filming crew dropped a raft off the Lumsden Bridge into it. You can even enjoy the whitewater rafting yourself without falling off a cliff.
Let’s keep with the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom theme. The first segment of Indy, Willie, and Short Round jumping out of the Ford Motor triplane and landing on the snow was shot on Mammoth Mountain and the surrounding peaks. The majority of the scenes with the raft sliding down the snow were done on the Crest Ridge Run.
Fallen Leaf Lake
Despite Lake Tahoe getting all the glamour, one small alpine lake has had not one, but TWO films shot there. It’s none other than Fallen Leaf Lake. This beautiful alpine lake on the south shore has a home called the Tallac House. A rustic lodge-style retreat on the shore of Fallen Leaf Lake, this is where The Bodyguard AND City of Angels was filmed. Of course, the most iconic and dramatic scene in the City Of Angels was Meg Ryan riding her bicycle to the store and back on Highway 89 near Emerald Bay. For more films shot in Lake Tahoe, check out the following article: Lake Tahoe Goes Hollywood … 7 Movie Locations In Lake Tahoe.
While not a filming location per say, this vintage movie theater offers up a taste of history with a splash of modern amenities. Opened on February 9th, 1924 as the Mother Lode Theatre, it was accompanied with a miniature review & five-piece band. Over the years it has changed its name to Angels 6 Theatre and had a few upgrades but has kept its Art Deco styling. This is your chance to see in action one of the last few historic downtown theaters in the country. It’s a great option after a day adventuring in the High Sierra.
Whether you are a fan of action movies, wrangling cowboy flicks, or comedies, chances are one of your favorite films was shot in the High Sierra. This is merely the tip of the iceberg of what filming companies have done in what some call the “back lot of Hollywood.”
Author: Alex Silgalis
Alex founded Local Freshies® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.