And the oscar goes to…

Issue 4 - 2016
By oliver bennett · Images Getty Images, Corbis, Kobal Collection

As America’s National Parks celebrate their centenary, we salute the iconic landscapes that have inspired Hollywood – and wowed millions of visitors every year

Issue 4 - 2016
By oliver bennett · Images Getty Images, Corbis, Kobal Collection

As America’s National Parks celebrate their centenary, we salute the iconic landscapes that have inspired Hollywood – and wowed millions of visitors every year

America is a country of epic landscapes and wild frontiers – the fabled “home on the range” where the buffalo roam. Which is why its 59 national parks are considered the soul of the nation. Indeed, the US pioneered the very concept of national parks, with Yellowstone representing a world first when it was inaugurated in 1872. The National Parks System was created in 1916, making this its centenary year, and since then its parks have been explored by millions of visitors and featured extensively in that greatest of American industries – film. So welcome to our Hollywood guide to the National Parks.


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Utah is a state rich in National Parks, and Arches is its pride: an astonishing sandstone landscape that changes colour with every movement of the sun. All 76,000 acres are amazing but the park’s major claim is in its name: some 2,000 natural stone arches, irresistible and ever-changing (about one arch falls each year) – hence its jokey nickname, “the Holey Land”. The key sight is Delicate Arch, which towers at an amazing 65 feet, but it is the gravity-defying Double Arch that features in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, standing in for the real Holy Land. You’ll see it in the opening credits of the third Indiana Jones vehicle, when some Scouts enter a cave via the arch. Don’t look for the cave, though – cinematic licence means it’s somewhere else.


E.T. (1982)

Every schoolchild knows about California and Oregon’s amazing redwood trees – the tallest trees in the world at up to 380 feet high; some so wide at 20 feet that you can drive through the holes in their trunks. These mammoth trees are a source of wonder, and astonishingly, had to be saved from logging in the 20th century. Deep into the redwood glades, off Highway 101 – aka California’s “Redwood Highway” – director Steven Spielberg found the most atmospheric spot for his alien tearjerker E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, where E.T.’s alien tribe collects botanical samples, and the cute alien finds earthly friendship as well as flora.



Star Trek (2009)

The daddy of all the National Parks, Yellowstone National Park is a geyser-spouting, buffalo-running Eden, full of geothermal activity. It reliably causes symptoms of awe in every visitor, with plateaux, peaks, rivers and forests populated by elk, bison, bears, wolves and coyotes – deservedly the world’s first designated National Park in 1872. Perfect then for the enduring “final frontier” of Star Trek. In the 2009 reboot, Yellowstone’s Minerva Hot Springs stood in for the planet Vulcan – after the earlier choice, Turkey, proved too expensive – with a Vulcan temple created in front of the springs, dressed with stairs, red glass and a Vulcan statue.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Zion National Park in Utah has as its centrepiece Zion Canyon, a rubicund gully that passes through desert, woodland, mountains, canyons, buttes, mesas and natural arches in awe-inspiring sequence. It’s here that Paul Newman and Robert Redford hole up after robbing trains in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The movie makes full use of Zion’s marvellous 229 square miles, with its most famous sequence – in which Newman courts Katharine Ross as Etta on a bicycle to the sound of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head – filmed in the ghost town of Grafton, just off the Zion Park Scenic Byway. Redford later described riding through Zion National Park as “a joy”.


Thelma & Louise (1991)

Also in Utah is Canyonlands Park and, yes, you’ve already guessed what makes it special: deep, red fissures plunging into the landscape. The largest of Utah’s parks, this American classic features the Island in the Sky, a mesa that seems to float in the stratosphere and has incredible views of the La Sal mountains. Visitors will find wonderful hikes to the Colorado River and, of course, those eponymous canyons. The park is instantly recognisable, with starring roles in movies from Stagecoach (1939) onwards. Of the more recent, it’s she-buddy road movie Thelma & Louise that really enthrals, notably the heroines’ suicidal plunge into the Colorado River in a Ford Thunderbird. So celebrated is it that this part of the plateau is called Fossil Point but most visitors prefer Thelma & Louise Point.

Crater Lake

Wild (2014)

In the north-western state of Oregon lies Crater Lake National Park. The lake itself – an old volcano – is a marvel: the deepest in the US at nearly 2,000 feet, and so iridescent and unfathomable that early settlers simply called it “the deep blue lake”. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, said of it that her first sight “was one of disbelief… the most unspeakably pure ultramarine blue I’d ever seen”. The film of her book, Wild, stars Reese Witherspoon as recently divorced Strayed, who leaves her Minnesota home on a journey of self-discovery.

Death Valley

Star Wars (1977, 1983)

The hottest, the deepest, the driest, Death Valley is the largest National Park outside Alaska and a place where superlatives pile up – which is why almost a million visitors flock to this fascinating graben (the term for a sunken area of the earth’s surface) each year. Here you’ll find mountains, rock art over 9,000 years old, and hardy desert flora and fauna. It’s an experience that makes visitors think of other planets, so it’s fitting that the area’s most famous filmic depiction is as a planet “in a galaxy, far, far away”: namely Tatooine in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. It also features in Return of the Jedi as the road to Jabba’s palace. Visitors can follow the trail of Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca through the park on a self-guided Star Wars tour via Desolation Canyon, Golden Canyon and Twenty Mule Team Canyon. For atmosphere it can’t be licked, but as the bleached animal bones suggest, this is inhospitable terrain – take good shoes, lots of water and a car that won’t break down.








The Shining (1980)

Glacier National Park provides much of North America’s water supply. It’s a pristine environment where golden eagles soar, wild flowers grow and wolves howl: a terrain of stately glaciers criss-crossed by more than 700 miles of trails. The park began in 1910 with a link-up between Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park on the Canada–US border, incorporating a section of the Rocky Mountains. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) was partly filmed here, turning Glacier’s sense of remoteness into something very sinister, from the establishing shot of Saint Mary Lake onwards. But don’t look for the fictional Overlook Hotel here: that’s the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood in Oregon – while many of the scariest interior scenes were filmed at Elstree Studios, Hertfordshire.

Grand Teton

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

This is big-country America: the kind of rugged landscape that inspired photographer Ansel Adams. With a mountain range and more than 200 miles of trails across Wyoming – including ski area Jackson Hole – Grand Teton is part of a mega-hike that connects with Yellowstone National Park. Although Brokeback Mountain was filmed here, a mountain of that name doesn’t exist, but the Ang Lee film, based on E. Annie Proulx’s short story, is centred on the quaint town of Ten Sleep, and the sense of being apart from the world is an affecting backdrop to this moving cowboy romance.


Dances With Wolves (1990)

With its wild praries and rocky pinnacles, the dramatic landscape of Badlands National Park was the perfect setting for Lieutenant Dunbar to ride to his new army posting, at the beginning of Kevin Costner’s epic Western, Dances with Wolves. Based on a 1988 novel of the same name, the film focuses on Dunbar’s relationship with the indigenous Lakota Indians, and was mostly filmed in ranches in South Dakota and Wyoming.

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