These 10 films can help inspire travel ideas from the comfort of your armchair with visions of national parks around the country.
Although we are inching our way toward spring, when I look out my window, it still looks like winter. If you’re like me, you’re counting the days until spring, dreaming of warmer weather, and making arrangements for summer vacations in and around our national parks. One thing that really helps me get through winter and look ahead is watching films about national parks.
I watch a lot of movies during the winter. Over the years, I have come across some wonderful films about the parks—mostly documentaries, but also feature films where parks might as well be another character in the movie. To me, there’s nothing like a good film to whet my appetite for exploration.
Here are 10 films—in no particular order—that entertain, educate, and inspire me. Perhaps you’ve seen some of these before, but like many of our national parks, they are worth revisiting. And if you haven’t seen them, put on some popcorn and get ready for a treat!
Yellowstone: Battle for Life (2009)—This top-notch BBC documentary was filmed over the course of a year in the world’s first national park and tracks wildlife survival through the seasons. Trust me: While watching this three-part series, you will want to hit the pause button and immediately book a trip to Yellowstone National Park. The wildlife footage is exceptional.
National Geographic: Climbing Redwood Giants (2009)—Although I have visited Redwood National and State Parks once before, this National Geographic film captured my imagination and left me hankering for another trip into this grand and enchanting place. It features scientists studying redwood crowns and other researchers who walk a several-hundred-mile transect to record the southernmost and northernmost redwoods.
Gettysburg (1993)—This is one of the finest feature-length films about the famous Civil War battle. The lengthy piece—based upon the novel The Killer Angels—was filmed almost entirely in and around Gettysburg National Military Park. After watching this movie, you will have a better understanding of what happened during those three days in July 1863.
Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)—Perhaps more than any film on this list, this Ken Burns/Dayton Duncan collaboration has captured my imagination. I own a copy and watch it often. If your heart pumps faster upon the sight of wild, open country and you appreciate a good history lesson, you will love this film. Throughout the film, you will see scenes from Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Natchez Trace Parkway (Meriwether Lewis site), and, of course, scenes from along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
Dances with Wolves (1990)—Besidesredefining how Native Americans are depicted in film, Kevin Costner’s Academy Award-winning movie also illustrates the demise of an iconic American landscape—the Great Plains. This masterpiece was filmed, in part, in Badlands National Park.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009)—Speaking of masterpieces, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan teamed up again a few years ago and gave the world a gift in their six-part documentary that chronicles the story of our national parks and the people who diligently worked to protect them. These two filmmakers have a knack for making you feel a part of the story; this film is a must for all Americans.
National Geographic: Appalachian Trail (2009)—If your feet are itching to do some hiking, this film may send you out the door before it’s even over. With incredible footage from both the ground and from the air, the legendary Appalachian National Scenic Trail—or the “AT”—comes to life in a way that few get to see. Not only will you meet some intrepid hikers, you will also enjoy learning about the wildlife that calls this 2,200-mile long park home.
Into the Wild (2007)—Who among us hasn’t—at some point—dreamed of leaving it all behind and heading out to live in nature and drink in the beauty and the solitude of America’s wild places? Chris McCandless did just that in 1992 and this film is about his story. Amazing scenery makes it unforgettable–from Grand Canyon National Park to Lake Mead National Recreation Area to Denali National Park and Preserve.
Shane (1953)—This classic western starring Alan Ladd showcases the stunning backdrop of Grand Teton National Park. The park is omnipresent in this film, so much so that it feels like another character. Those mountains beckon you.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—An American classic, this film prominently features our nation’s first national monument. From beginning to end, you cannot escape the imagery of Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower—not even in the mashed potatoes!
What’s your favorite park movie?
About the author
Shane Farnor Former Online Advocacy Manager
As online advocacy manager, Shane provides NPCA members and supporters opportunities to take online actions for our national parks. He is based in Joshua Tree, California, and has been with NPCA since 2004.