10 iconic desert film locations around the world

Written By Esther Cooke
April 11, 2024

Whether it's the towering sand dunes of Jordan's Wadi Rum, the otherworldly terrain of California's Death Valley, or the breathtaking red sands of Australia's desert plains,  the world's most desolate locations have provided the backdrop for some of cinema's most iconic scenes.

And although dealing with extreme weather can be challenging, with the right planning, filming in a desert landscape can be a powerful storytelling tool.

In this article we visit ten of the most memorable desert filming locations in the world.


  1. Wadi Rum, Jordan
  2. Rub' al Khali, Saudi Arabia
  3. Jean Dry Lake Bed, USA
  4. Atacama desert, Chile
  5. Tabernas Desert, Spain
  6. Ouarzazate, Morocco
  7. Mundi Mundi Plains, Australia
  8. Namib Desert, Namibia
  9. Death Valley National Park, USA
  10. Sahara Desert, Tunisia

1. Wadi Rum, Jordan

Still from' The Martian' (credit: 20th Century Studios)

Jordan’s wide open sandy plains and dramatic sandstone and granite formations have seen it used for some out of this world Hollywood blockbusters.

That's right, thanks to its ochre red sandstone, Wadi Rum was most famously transformed into the red planet of Mars for Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), featuring Matt Damon as the marooned astronaut in space.

Ridley Scott had previously used the iconic landscape while shooting his sci-fi drama Prometheus (2012), however the colour grading of the film dramatically changed the desert's look and feel from The Martian

Prior to these films, it was Lawrence of Arabia (1962) that put Wadi Rum on the filmmaking map, where it was used to depict multiple locations from Sinai to Syria.

And most recently Wadi Rum has portrayed the desert planet Arrakis in the 2021 remake of sci-fi Dune starring Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya. 

Wadi Rum is located in the southern region of Jordan, close to the border of Saudi Arabia. The drive from Jordan's capital Amman to Wadi Rum typically takes around 4 to 5 hours by car. 

2. Rub' al Khali, Saudi Arabia

Still from 'Dune: Part 2' (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Rub’ al Khali translates as 'The Empty Quarter' due to its challenging and inhospitable environment — it is one of the world’s largest stretches of uninterrupted desert after all.

The desert is known for its towering rolling dunes, making the endless landscape perfect for shooting the giant sandworm chase scenes in part one and part two of Denis Villeneuve's Dune. For the second movie cast and crew spent a full month there capturing the desert planet Arrakis.

It's not the first time Rub’ al Khali has been transformed unto an alien planet. It became the remote and inhospitable desert planet of Jakku in Star Wars film The Force Awakens (2015).

The Empty Quarter is located in the southeastern part of the Arabian Peninsula and mostly lies within Saudi Arabia, although it also extends into portions of the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen as well. 

3. Jean Dry Lake Bed, USA

Still from 'The Hangover' (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Jean Lake is a small dry lake bed outside of Las Vegas and is a popular off-roading destination. The flat ground amplifies shadows and makes for dramatic sunlit shots.

It has been used in several Hollywood films including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Casino. It is also the backdrop of the iconic scene in The Hangover when the guys drive out to the desert and trade their casino winnings for the wrong Doug. 

The drive from Las Vegas to Jean Dry Lake Bed typically takes around 45 minutes to an hour. There are several other dry lakes in the Nevada area which can be hired for filming including Black Rock Desert where the annual Burning Man Festival is held, Misfits Flat and Eldorado Dry Lake Bed.

4. Atacama Desert, Chile

Image from 'Quantum of Solace' (credit: Sony Pictures)

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile could be the oldest desert on earth and it's certainly the driest place on record thanks to its high altitude situated between two mountain ranges. 

Unlike some other remote desert locations, the Atacama is an attractive filming location because it's easily accessible. It is surrounded by well-maintained highways and Calama airport is 1.5 hours drive away.

The Atacama Desert has been the backdrop for over 50 movies including the Bond film Quantum of Solace (2008), Spy Kids (2001) and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004).

The desert is also home of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope. The accommodation for the ESO scientists and engineers who work there was transformed into the Hotel Perla de las Dunas for Quantum of Solace, the location where Dominic Greene and General Medrano meet to finalise the coup.

5. Ouarzazate, Morocco

Still from 'Game of Thrones' (credit: HBO Entertainment)

Known as the door of the desert, the city of Ouarzazate sits at the edge of the Sahara Desert, just south of the Atlas Mountains.

Located just outside of the city is the well-renowned Atlas Studios which have produced many Hollywood films and TV shows including The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001) and scenes from the HBO series Game of Thrones

Nearby is the fortified city and UNESCO world heritage sit,  Aït Benhaddou, another popular Moroccan filming destination thanks to its traditional 11th century design and careful restoration.

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6. Mundi Mundi Plains, Australia

Still from 'Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior' (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

One of the most iconic Australian filming destinations, the Mundi Mundi Plains is located in the far west of New South Wales and is a showcase for the stereotypical 'Australian outback' vibe.

The dry and desolate desert was perfect for filming the post-apocalyptic landscape of Mad Max 2 (1979).

The Mundi Mundi plains and nearby frontier mining town Broken Hill have been used for over 35 film shoots including scenes from Stephan Elliot's Australian classic, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994).

7. Namib Desert, Namibia

Still from 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The fourth instalment of the Mad Max franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) was planned to be filmed in Australia. But unusual rainfall transformed the Mundi Mundi Plains into a lush backdrop which wasn't going to work as the barren post-apocalyptic wasteland they were going for.

The filmmakers turned to the Namib Desert in Namibia as an alternative and its towering sand dunes and rugged canyons worked perfectly to create the harsh and unforgiving Mad Max world.

The stark desert backdrop combined with impressive practical effects created some of the most memorable car chase scenes in cinematic history.

Thanks to the film's international success, the Namib Desert's production profile has continued to rise and has since been captured in The Mummy (2017) reboot with Tom Cruise and Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight (2017).

8. Tabernas Desert, Spain

Still from 'Assassin's Creed' (credit: 20th Century Studios)

The dusty badlands of the Tabernas Desert in Spain's south eastern-province of Almería are reminiscent of the Wild West. In fact so much so that the spaghetti westerns from the 60's and 70's were filmed there.

Many of the Western film sets that saw legends from Clint Eastwood and Brigitte Bardot to Harrison Ford are still standing and most are now used as tourist attractions. But the oldest set, Fort Bravo is still used for filming today. 

More recently the area was used for Western scenes in the drama series Penny Dreadful starring Josh Hartnett, and Michael Fassbender rode through the dusty trails on horseback for the carriage chase scene in Assassin's Creed (2016).

9. Death Valley National Park, USA

Still from 'Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope' (credit: 20th Century Studios)

Death Valley National Park straddles California and Nevada and is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. It's the hottest place on Earth and is known for its colourful rock formations, expansive salt flats and rugged mountain ranges.

It's located around 5 hours from Hollywood, making it easily accessible for the major studios and therefore a popular desert filming location.

Death Valley is most famous for a number of the Tatooine scenes in the original Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), including the start of the movie where R2-D2 and C-3PO go their separate ways after crashing onto Tatooine.

10. Sahara Desert, Tunisia

Still from 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace' (credit: 20th Century Studios)

The Sahara Desert covers roughly 40% of Tunisia's total area, with various locations being used across the Star Wars franchise.

Ong Jemel (the camel’s neck) is an impressive site named after the uniquely shaped rock you'll recognise from the famous pod race that took place in Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).

Tataouine is the southern city that inspired the fictional planet Tatooine with its amazing below-ground dwellings built by the native Berber population.

And in the Matmata region you can still visit Luke Skywalker's childhood home, which is now hotel Sidi Driss.

That's a wrap

These are just a few examples of the many breathtaking desert film locations around the world that have captured the imagination of filmmakers and audiences alike, and will continue to create unforgettable cinematic experience..

Each location offers its own beauty and character, offering unique environments for a wide range of film and TV projects.

For more location inspiration, check out 10 famous beach locations for filming.

Need a place to store your shoot locations?

SuperScout is your own private location library – upload locations in minutes, tag them with ai in seconds, then search and share with your team

SuperScout is a private, cloud-based locations library to help location managers, scouts and film schools store, search and share locations for film, tv and video productions.
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