10 Must-See National Park Movie Cameos

Rugged volcanic landscape of Death Valley with mountains in background
Death Valley National Park has appeared in more than 100 different movies, including "Star Wars".

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Whether they're masquerading as alien planets in sci-fi films or starring as heavily romanticized versions of themselves in thrillers and dramas, U.S. national parks have long held an illustrious role in American cinema. They provide dramatic, awe-inspiring backdrops that even the world's most advanced CGI technology and elaborate soundstages couldn't replicate. And even though they're sometimes even depicted as foreign planets, they're really just right outside your door.

Providing the otherworldly settings of such iconic movies as "Planet of the Apes" and "Star Wars," here are 10 national parks, recreation areas, and memorials you might recognize from the big screen.

1
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North by Northwest (Mount Rushmore National Memorial)

Mount Rushmore rising above forest against blue sky
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Mount Rushmore was, in fact, crucial to the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s dizzying 1959 thriller. The film is about advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill being mistaken as a CIA agent and subsequently pursued across the country by a gang of communist henchmen. In it, Thornhill is chased onto the face of the memorial. The scene reportedly even made Hitchcock want to name the film “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose.”

Although much of the film was shot in and around Mount Rushmore, the chase scene was filmed on a replica. The movie sparked a fair amount of drama between MGM, the Department of the Interior, and the National Park Service over Hitchcock’s supposed desecration of the iconic monument, which, in the end, translated to box office gold.

2
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Planet of the Apes (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area)

Overhead view of red canyons flanking river

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In the opening scene of "Planet of the Apes," astronaut George Taylor crash-lands his spaceship into a body of water on a foreign planet populated by militant, horseback-riding gorillas, comely chimpanzee scientists, and draconian orangutans. In real life, that body of water is Lake Powell. The rugged and otherworldly landscape around it is Utah and Arizona's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Other scenes were filmed on a Malibu beach and a 20th Century Fox backlot at Malibu Creek State Park.

3
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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Zion National Park)

Low-angle view of red rock walls from lush valley floor
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Some of this unconventional shoot ‘em up western about two bank- and train-robbing bandits on the run to Bolivia was shot in 229-square-mile Zion National Park. If you're familiar with the lofty sandstone cliffs in this Utah wonderland, you would undoubtedly recognize them flanking the two horseback-riding outlaws.

The film’s famous sequence involving Butch and Etta enjoying a flirty bicycle romp to the tune of B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” was also filmed in an iconic 1859 ghost town, Grafton, just off the Zion Park Scenic Byway.

4
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Star Wars (Death Valley National Park)

Rugged, colorful sand dunes against mountainous background at dusk

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Death Valley National Park has been featured in many a film but is perhaps most famously depicted as a foreign planet "in a galaxy, far, far away" in George Lucas’ first "Star Wars" film, "Star Wars: Episode IV — the New Hope." In the movie, it's known as Tatooine.

Filming locations included the colorful volcanic Artists Palette attraction, Dantes View, Desolation Canyon, Golden Canyon, Twenty-Mule Team Canyon, and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The national park also featured in 1983's "Return of the Jedi," albeit more briefly.

5
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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Devils Tower National Monument)

Devil's Tower in the background of a fenced field

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This dramatic monolith that rises some 5,000 feet above sea level in Wyoming’s Black Hills makes a memorable appearance in the climactic scenes of Steven Spielberg’s lauded alien abduction drama "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Named the nation’s very first national monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and considered sacred by the Cheyenne, Crow, and Lakota, Devils Tower is perhaps the most famous National Park Service property to be associated with UFOs. In the movie, a flying saucer descends right on the cylindrical tower.

6
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National Lampoon’s Vacation (Grand Canyon National Park)

High-angle view of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River

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The raunchy granddaddy of American road trip comedies, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” partially takes place in Arizona's famous red-rock ditch. The Griswold family pays a visit to the Grand Canyon en route to "Wally World" (Six Flags Magic Mountain) and makes a quick stop at the El Tovar Hotel located on the South Rim. Here, bumbling family patriarch Clark Griswold has some difficulties cashing a check. Unlike other movies that feature the landmark, this classic was actually filmed there rather than on a set.

7
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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Arches National Park)

Red arches and other rock formations against blue sky

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While the third installment of Steven Spielberg’s "Indiana Jones" franchise boasts no shortage of far-flung shooting locations (Venice, Spain’s Tabernas Desert, the ancient Jordanian city of Petra, etc.) the adventure film's lengthy prologue also gives Arches National Park some screen time. Much of the it was filmed on location in and around Moab, Utah's distinctive rock formations. Possibly most memorable is Double Arch, near the cave where Indy rescues the Cross of Coronado.

8
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Thelma & Louise (Canyonlands National Park)

Red rock formations in background of shurb-covered valley

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The cliff Thelma and Louise plunge off in their 1966 Ford Thunderbird is presumed to be the Grand Canyon. In reality, that famous scene and many others in Ridley Scott’s iconic road movie were actually filmed a full state away in the Islands in the Sky district of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.

Towering thousands of feet above the Colorado River, the famous plateau once locally referred to as Fossil Point is now popularly dubbed as Thelma and Louise Point. To be clear, though, the exact location is a couple of miles outside of Canyonlands in Dead Horse Point State Park.

9
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The River Wild (Glacier National Park)

Snowy mountains, blue river, and forest against blue sky

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Although set on Idaho’s Salmon River, this family-whitewater-rafting-trip-gone-sour thriller was actually filmed on two rivers, the Flathead and the Kootenai, both located in and around Montana's Glacier National Park. These rivers are renowned for white-water rafting in real life. A multitude of rafting companies run the rapids here, providing Class I to Class IV+ adventure.

10
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Into the Wild (Denali National Park & Preserve)

Autumnal forest with snowy mountains in backgrounds
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Denali National Park and Preserve is the very spot where the young, Thoreau-inspired adventurer Christopher McCandless attempted to live off-grid in an abandoned bus parked along the remote Stampede Trail. Naturally, the film adaptation of McCandless' true story was filmed mostly in this same area. The famous 1940s-era International Harvester from the story sat in Denali's forest for 60 years. Many hikers wound up lost, injured, and stuck trying to visit the bus, so the Alaska Army National Guard airlifted it from its longtime resting place in 2020.