High Plains Drifter movie cover Movie Locations Guide

Where was High Plains Drifter filmed?

1973

About High Plains Drifter

More than five decades later, most people believe that High Plains Drifter stands as one of Clint Eastwood’s best productions. At the time, the multi-Oscar-winning director was best known for headlining Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy and he also starred in five of Don Siegel’s productions.

Eastwood relied on the inspiration derived from those experiences to take the director’s chair for the High Plains Drifter production, and he also starred in the Western film. That made it his first time directing and starring in a film, and while it achieved modest success upon its release in 1973, its appeal increased over the decades. Eastwood fused supernatural and horror elements with the classic Western treatment to come up with a masterpiece that was perhaps ahead of its time.

The premise centers on a mysterious stranger, Eastwood, who rides into a small Wild West mining town called Lago. Sticking to the Western roots at that point, The Stranger has a shootout with local gunmen leaving them terribly beaten.

His actions don’t go unnoticed, and the townsfolk who are living in fear of three outlaws who are about to get released from prison succeed at recruiting him to help them out. The Lago residents had previously hired the goons to do away with Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn), a federal marshal who threatened the town’s livelihood.

After the job was done, they double-crossed the brigands and had them arrested on trumped-up robbery charges. They table a sweet deal that The Stranger can’t resist, offering him anything he wants in exchange for his help in defeating the bandits.

Taking advantage of their generosity, The Stranger goes overboard in certain regards and even commandeers a hotel for himself. He survives an attempt on his life, puts together a team to defend the town, and also teaches them how to handle rifles.

City Locations

Mono Lake, Nevada

Location Types

Retro, Studios, Naturescapes

Location Styles

Lake House, Cabin

High Plains Drifter Locations

Eastwood took a liking to the nine-page proposal for the film, and he approached Universal about directing the film. It ended up being the first movie he both directed and headlined with Universal jointly producing the film in collaboration with The Malpaso Company.

Set in the American old west, Universal offered Eastwood their back but the ”Dirty Harry” star had other ideas. He decided to construct the mining town from the ground up and chose a site located about 300 miles from Hollywood for the cinematic value. That was after taking to the road on a solo location scouting process aboard a pickup truck.

Mono Lake served as the primary filming location with other areas in California and Nevada also used during production. Perhaps having a fully functional set is the reason why the production wrapped filming two days ahead of schedule.

Here are other details about the filming locations of High Plains Drifter and a rundown of some of the film’s best scenes (spoiler alert!).

Fun facts:

The High Plains Drifter cast and crew literally painted the town. They went about painting the set houses in red but eventually, professionals stepped in and finished the job. A reported 380 gallons of paint went into transforming the town of Lago into a fiery red locale.

Church roof sequence scene in High Plains Drifter

Mono Lake, California

The church roof sequence is one of the memorable scenes from the Western. Performed by stuntman Chuck Walters as a stable boy, he drops from the church’s bell tower for the first part of the sequence.

It captures one of the elements we love about good old Western flicks. That’s on top of the somewhat dialogue like when Stacey Bridges (Jeffrey Lewis) asked the warden about their horses. “What about our horses? We rode in here on three good animals.”

Mono Lake is the location Eastwood chose to construct the town of Lago. He had also considered other places in Nevada and Oregon before finally settling on the shores of soda lake located in Mono County, California.

The High Plains Drifter film set included a two-story hotel, a church, and fourteen houses all with working interiors. It took the effort of more than 50 technicians and laborers and a total of 18 days to construct the Wild West locale.

Additionally, constructing the town made use of a reported 150,000 feet of timber. Unfortunately, once filming wrapped, they burnt down the set. Mono Lake is worth a visit, particularly if you are a boating or birdwatching enthusiast.

The Stranger taunts the outlaws' scene in High Plains Drifter

Winnemucca Dry Lake, Nevada

There are plenty of action scenes in High Plains Drifter, and one that stands out is when The Stranger taunted Bridges and his fellow outlaws, Dan (Dan Vadis) and Cole Carlin (Anthony James).

Using rifle fire and dynamite, he ended up shooting Cole’s ear off. Amidst the gunfire exchange, he kept shouting out to his fellow outlaws, “He shot my ear off.” It’s until Bridges looked back that he realized Cole meant it literally and figuratively.

It’s one of the scenes Eastwood filmed off the Lago set, and the Nevada-based Winnemucca Dry Lake provided the setting for some of the film’s scenes.

The dry lake bed is where you’ll find North America’s oldest-known petroglyphs. Etched out on the western end, the bolder carvings are located within the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. The origins of the petroglyphs remain a mystery but researchers believe that they were inscribed on the carbonate formations using hard volcanic rocks.

A Greyhound bus from Nevada can get you to the Winnemucca Dry Lake region.

The Stranger leaves Lago scene in High Plains Drifter

Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

The ending of the movie features a scene where The Stranger rides his horse out of town, in a similar fashion to when he arrived at the mining town. His job was done, he had helped the town defeat the outlaws, who perhaps were behind his death.

It isn’t clearly outlined in the movie, but The Stranger is built up as a reincarnated form of Marshal Duncan. It comes up several times, like when Mordecai (Billy Curtis) tells him that he doesn’t know his name, The Stranger responds “Yes, you do.”

We see him riding off to the horizon and a graveyard is in the foreground. Tombstones curiously bearing the inscriptions “Don Siegel” and “Sergio Leone” serve as a humorous ode to the two directors who had influenced Eastwood to work on the Western feature.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains, nicknamed the Range of Light, also had their cameo in the film. Nestled between the Great Basin and the Central Valley of California, the mountain range is a popular hiking spot.

Shaving turns to shootout scene in High Plains Drifter

Universal Studios, 100 Universal City Plaza

Even with a fully functional set, Eastwood still made use of the Universal Studios lot to film some of the scenes. 100 Universal City Plaza served as the High Plains Drifter film set for such scenes.

While it isn’t clear which particular scenes they filmed at the Universal backlot, there are all kinds of sets much like the Western town built for the set. It’s understandable why the studio wanted Eastwood to make use of their facilities but he still ended up using the lot.

Yet another scene that comes to mind was when The Stranger was getting shaved and it soon turned into a shootout. The funniest part is how the shaver bolted out of his own shop after The Stranger shot the three men who had disrupted the session.

You can’t help but feel for him, he should have taken the money upfront. That’s after he initially told The Stranger “Cash, what I mean to say is that the 90 cents usually comes first, but hell it doesn’t really matter. Before or after, what’s the diff?”

Officially inaugurated in 1915, the Universal backlot is responsible for bringing several high-profile productions to life. That includes “Seinfeld,” “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” “Inception,” and lists of other critically-acclaimed productions.

Get to 100 Universal City Plaza via the Pink, 222, or 240 Bus. The B Line (Red) subway can also get you to the Universal City location.

The Stranger rides to the town of Lago scene in High Plains Drifter

Inyo National Forest, California

The Inyo National Forest in California is where you’ll find the oldest living trees on our planet. Its close proximity to Mono Lake is one of the reasons why Eastwood opted to use it as a secondary filming location.

Besides being a noted High Plains Drifter location, the Forest has hosted other crews and casts working on “True Grit,” “Joe Kidd,” and “Nevada Smith.” Again, there are scanty details about which particular scenes were shot in the Forest but it might as well have featured in the opening scene.

The feature opens with The Stranger materializing out of the heat and riding his horse through diverse terrains before getting to Lago. All the townsfolks watch him making his grand entry, and no one says a word.

His first stop is the saloon where he also speaks for the first time, “Can I have a bottle?” All the while, everyone is blatantly staring and sizing him up.

If you are up to visiting the popular filming spot, the Sanger Express and Orange Cove transit lines pass near the Inyo National Forest.

The Stranger dreams about Marshal Duncan’s death scene in High Plains Drifter

Reno, Nevada

Besides Winnemucca Lake, Reno served as another High Plains Drifter filming location in Nevada. It is possibly featured in one of the scenes where The Stranger had his reflections on the past.

He had the first one after arriving in town on his first night at the hotel. Depicted as a dream, he recollected how Bridges and his goons whipped Marshal Duncan to death. The rest of the Lago residents simply watched in silence.

The Western feature was written by Ernest Tidyman, who is best known for winning a Best Screenplay Academy Award for “The French Connection.” Tidyman drew inspiration from Kitty Genovese’s murder in 1964 where eyewitnesses reportedly stood by and didn’t intervene.

Eastwood would later explain that the film is an allegory that reminds the town about retribution. It’s captured in his remarks to Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom), “It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.”

Conclusion

While the main High Plains Drifter filming location no longer exists, movie buffs keep making the trip down to Mono Lake. If only for the bragging rights of having set eyes on where the magic happened, there are plenty of activities to do around the area.

Interestingly, the opening and closing scenes of Eastwood’s 1985 fantasy Western, “Pale Rider,” use the same High Plains Drifter locations. The time of the day and camera angles also match up. It isn’t the only instance that Eastwood used references to his previous works in other projects, and a High Plains Drifter poster can be spotted at the movie theater in “Breezy.”

Though not directed by Eastwood, the 1974 disaster drama “Earthquake” also features a scene from the film. It comes up when Victoria Principal’s character is watching the barber shop shooting scene.