National Parks on Screen

California’s Redwood National and State Parks stood in for the forest moon of Endor from “Return of the Jedi.” [Photo: National Park Service]

August 25th marks the centennial of the National Parks Service and we celebrate this occasion with a look at the national parks and monuments in the movies. Sites overseen by the National Parks Service have made many cameos over the years. The national parks themselves only make up a small portion of the NPS, 59 of the 410 parks, monuments, and trails that have become part of park system over the last century. There are 128 historical parks, 81 national monuments, 25 battlefields or military parks, 19 preserves, 18 recreation areas, 10 seashores, four parkways, four lakeshores, and two reserves. The service also helps administer affiliated sites, including the National Register of Historic Place, National Heritage Areas, National Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Landmarks, and National Trails.

Several of California’s parks have made repeated appearances on screen. Elliott and E.T. ride through the temperate rainforest of Redwood National and State Parks in E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial. Sections of the four park system (the jointly-managed national park and three state parks) also serve as the forest moon of Endor in Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi. The parks also appear in Outbreak and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The aptly named Death Valley National Park, home to the highest recorded air temperature in the world (134˚F in 1913), has appeared in dozens of films over the years including The Doors, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Great Race, High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart, Blade, and The Sum of All Fears. Though most of the scenes of Luke Skywalker’s home world were shot in Tunisia, several scenes in Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope were filmed in Death Valley, including R2D2 and C3PO arguing in the Mesquite Flats and R2D2’s kidnapping by the Jawas. The park also appears in Return of the Jedi.

Yosemite National Park was first protected in 1864 by the Yosemite Grant signed by President Lincoln and transferred to the NPS in 1916. It has graced the silver screen in Maverick, 1954’s The Caine Mutiny, the 1920 silent film The Last of the Mohicans, and, oddly, stock footage was used for the forest of Ewing in Monty Python and the Holy Grail*. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go climbing at El Capitan in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and the Tuolumne River Rapids were featured in the rafting sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In the San Francisco area, Fort Point in Golden Gate National Recreation Area adds to the tension at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo*, as well as its parody, Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety. The fort, built between 1853 and 1861, was marked for demolishment in the original plans for the Golden Gate Bridge, but the Chief Engineer reworked the plans in order to save the fort. Another Bay area star, Alcatraz Island, whose federal penitentiary once housed the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelley, and James “Whitey” Bulger, has made numerous appearances on film. These appearances include (not surprisingly) The Rock, Escape from Alcatraz, and Birdman of Alcatraz, as well as Murder in the First, Point Blank, and Catch Me If You Can. Though the island does not make an appearance in the film, it contributed to the sound effects in Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back. The sound used for the door opening on Darth Vader’s shuttle is reported to be the sound of the doors of an entire cellblock being slammed shut.

The many parks of Arizona and Utah are popular film locations. The opening scenes with young Indy (River Phoenix) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feature Arches National Park’s Double Arch, and the park’s Courthouse Towers make an appearance in Thelma & Louise. Canyonlands National Park was also a location for Thelma & Louise, and stands in for the Grand Canyon in the final scenes. Large portions of 1967’s Planet of the Apes* were filmed at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which incorporates more than 1.25 million acres across Arizona and Utah. The scenes traveling through the “forbidden zone” were filmed here along the Colorado River and Charleton Heston’s rocket crashes on the shores of Lake Powell.

Devil’s Tower National Monument plays an iconic role in Spielberg's “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” [Photo: National Park Service]

Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower National Monument, designated as the first US national monument in 1906, is a focal point in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both the real and mashed potato variety. Exactly how the tower formed is still scientifically debated today and the site is considered sacred by many Native American tribes. The imposing mountain range of the state’s Grand Teton National Park serves as a stand in for the Russian Countryside in Rocky IV.

A number of films, including the harrowing climax of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” have used the backdrop of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. [Photo: National Park Service]

The iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota is memorably depicted in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. The memorial took the sculptor and 400 workers 14 years to carve, 90% of which was done using dynamite. Though much of the classic was filmed in and around the memorial, the climactic chase scene was not permitted to be shot on location, and Hitchcock had to make do with a studio mockup. The monument also appears in National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Nebraska.

Glacier National Park in Montana has a good amount of films on its resume. The park has appeared in Vertical Limit, What Dreams May Come, The River Wild, and 1954’s Cattle Queen of Montana with Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. The park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road makes a haunting appearance in the opening scenes of The Shining, as we watch Jack Nicholson’s fateful drive to the Overlook Hotel.

Maine’s beautiful Acadia National Park makes appearances in the adaptation of Steven King’s Pet Sematary, The Cider House Rules, and its Otter Cliffs provided the stark shoreline and rough waves surrounding the Ashecliffe Hospital in Shutter Island.

Another site overseen by the NPS is the historic Ellis Island, part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. This entry point into the U.S., which saw over 12 million immigrants pass through from 1892–1954, appears in The Godfather: Part II, where Robert De Niro’s Vito is first given the surname of Corleone, and in the recent film The Immigrant starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner.

Some of our homegrown NPS sites have also made it into the movies. Gettysburg National Military Park, the site of one of the most crucial Civil War battles, was featured in, you guessed it, Gettysburg, but surprisingly has not appeared in many other film. Independence National Historical Park has been seen in Rocky II, National Treasure, and Trading Places. The park is also visited in 1968’s Where Angels Go Trouble Follows!, the follow-up to The Trouble with Angels. Both movies filmed at St. Mary’s Home for Children in Ambler. Valley Forge National Historical Park has appeared in Taps (featuring a young Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, and Timothy Hutton), The Lovely Bones, and Foxcatcher.

The list goes on, but this short overview shows how important the preserved sites of the National Park Service are to the film industry, and possibly vice versa.

For more information on the National Parks Service and the parks near you, visit


*Films appearing in this year’s Hollywood Summer Nights series

Don’t miss these upcoming Hollywood Summer Nights titles playing at the Ambler and County Theaters and see the National Parks up on the big screen.
 Planet of the Apes — Aug 31st at Ambler Theater and Sep 1st at County Theater
 Vertigo — Sep 7th (matinee & evening) at Ambler Theater and Sep 8th at County Theater