Every storyline on the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones, which returns for its eighth and final season on April 14, is identified with a magnificent natural landscape. Here’s some good news: the U.S. National Park Service is replete with destinations that are similarly grand, surprising, majestic, and picturesque.
So often while we are exploring national parks in the United States, one of us will exclaim, “Wow, this looks like it could be a setting on Game of Thrones!” This is so from the Florida Everglades to the upper Midwest, to the granite monoliths of Yosemite and sandstone cliffs in Utah. In truth, most of the HBO show is filmed on location in breathtaking natural settings in Croatia, Northern Ireland, Spain, and Morocco. However, you don’t have to plan an epic international trip to experience the same. There are plenty of spectacular sites within the U.S. National Park Service that are equally dramatic.
The natural wonders in this slideshow are as otherworldly as the wintery world beyond the wall, as isolate and lovely as the palaces of Dorne and Kings Landing and perfect for creating your own mythical and fantastic adventures.
WHERE: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
We are not sure that any place embodies contrast in elements like A Song of Ice and Fire more than this petite enigmatic island. Here, a volcanic cinder cone rises 763 feet above lapis blue Crater Lake. You can reach it via concessionaire boat, which is run by Crater Lake Hospitality.
WHERE: Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Getting to Alaska is a journey in itself, but a trip to the Harding Icefield is worth it for a taste of the arctic landscape beyond The Wall. To steer clear of the Night King (and his army of the dead), take the Harding Icefield Trail: an 8.2 mile round trip to one of the last unbroken ice fields. While the trail is strenuous (the elevation gain is 1,000 feet per mile), the Harding Icefield is visible once you hike above the tree line, so completing the full hike isn’t a requirement.
WHERE: Everglades National Park, Florida
Remember when Ser Jorah Mormont kidnapped Tyrion Lannister, set off for Meereen by boat and then contracted greyscale? The Everglades has the same vibe, just without the Stone Men. You will, however, find alligators are in abundance along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway through the Everglades. But be careful. Sections of the waterway, like The Nightmare, are only recommended for experienced paddlers. And while the alligators don’t have greyscale, best to not let them touch you.
San Juan National Historic Site
WHERE: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Castillo San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro (also referred to as El Morro) are fortifications built by the Spanish between the 16th and 18th centuries to fend off British advances on Puerto Rico. With their breathtaking shoreline placement and great height above the ocean, both could pass for later interpretations of the Targeryen castle on Dragonstone. Visitors can meander the ramparts and, on a clear day, the view from San Cristóbal encompasses 27 acres along the coast of the island, as glimpsed through cannon embrasures and sentry boxes.
Shi Shi Beach
WHERE: Olympic National Park, Washington
The curious verticality of sea stacks, combined with the salt air at Shi Shi Beach transports you to the Iron Islands, home of the Ironborn and the long-suffering members House Greyjoy—if visiting with family, hopefully you can trust them a bit more than Theon and Yara could trust their nefarious Uncle Euron. If day-hiking, you will need to get the local Makah Recreation Pass, acquired at Neah Bay, as the parking for the trailhead and first portion of the trail is on the land of the Makah Tribe. If you want to stay for the sunset, you’ll really want to book a campsite.
INSIDER TIPYou need a reservation to camp at this portion of the park via recreation.gov, or you can book in person at the one of the Wilderness Information Centers at Olympic National Park.
WHERE: Joshua Tree National Park, California
A landmark feature at Joshua Tree, Skull Rock might have been lifted from the island of Dragonstone and has an undeniably forbidding look, as if, past this point, danger lurks. Explore at your own risk! You can access the massive granite formation, by taking the main park road to the middle of Joshua Tree National Park and parking just beyond Jumbo Rocks Campground.
WHERE: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The contours of Star Dune remind us of the imposing and austere pyramids of Meereen, though beware, this is the tallest dune in North America (towering 750 feet from the valley floor) and the hike is strenuous. The hike to High Dune, en route to Star Dune, is a good intermediary step, with the option to continue to Star Dune from there. With the snowcapped Rocky Mountains as a backdrop to the massive dunes, you’ll wonder where on earth—or otherwise—you have landed, exactly.
WHERE: Glacier National Park, Montana
A cut into the middle of a mountain at Ptarmigan Wall, this 240-foot long tunnel has giant doors on either side that you might imagine hold something in or keep out whatever is on the other side. We suggest snapping a selfie with one of the giant doors, and recalling the surprising and wrenching story of how Hodor acquired his name. Rangers open the doors in July after the snow melts, so check to make sure the Ptarmigan Trail is accessible before heading out. Ptarmigan trail ascends swiftly, levels off for breathtaking vistas of the Rockies and verdant alpine meadows and valleys, and proceeds to Ptarmigan Falls and Iceberg Lake before reaching the tunnel. The trek is a full day affair and some parts are challenging (though others are meditative), and the vistas are well worth the journey.
WHERE: Yosemite National Park, California
Due to its verticality and massiveness, Half Dome bears an uncanny resemblance to The Wall, without the vexation of advancing White Walkers or the perils of climbing on ice. Though the climb is not for novice hikers, the top offers a panorama of the Yosemite Valley rivals any landscape in the Seven Kingdoms. The hike to Half Dome is in itself also spectacular, marked by dramatic granite formations and wispy, misty, and enchanting waterfalls. The last 400 feet of the climb, The Cables, can be summited without rock climbing equipment for the adventure of a lifetime.
INSIDER TIPYou will need advance reservations and permits, which can be obtained via a single lottery in the spring at recreation.gov, and daily lotteries two days before your visit.
Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
WHERE: Wisconsin, Michigan
Bring your flaming sword as you explore the magical frozen ice caves and petite islands of these two parks in the upper Midwest. Watch out for both White Walkers and the occasional Wilding (shhh, it’s really just the ranger who lives there full time) while exploring these stunning winter gems. In the summer, you can swim and sunbathe on shores and islands that were carved during the last glacial ice age. This is also the perfect place to practice your sailing skills as a newfound member of House Greyjoy.
WHERE: Kings Canyon National Park, California
The contrast between the clear cerulean lakes and the swell of the Sierra Nevadas framing them, the terrain at Kings Canyon will remind you of the rugged hills and draping meadows traversed by Arya, The Hound, and Brienne of Tarth. About 15 minutes east of Rae Lakes, you can re-create those scenes in full on a guided horseback tour with the Grant Grove Stables and the Cedar Grove Pack Station.
Big Skylight Cave
WHERE: El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico
The inside of this cave brings to mind a sweet, intimate moment between Jon Snow and Ygritte. The circular aperture on the ceiling recalls the Moon Door, the portal of death within the Eyrie through which (spoiler alert) Petyr Baelish pushed Lysa Arryn to her death in one of his most cunning and vicious moments on Game of Thrones to date (which is saying a lot). Here you’ll find delicate minerals and mosses, lava benches, and ropy lava flow frozen in time. Although the hike to the cave is not long, it is considered difficult as it involves clambering over craggy lava flows; driving to the cave is possible, though note that the road is unpaved and inaccessible in periods of rain and snow.
Yellowstone National Park
WHERE: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Winter is coming, and at Yellowstone National Park, you can follow the footsteps of many characters in The North by snow-shoeing and skiing through this icy, snow-covered western landscape—and Yellowstone National Park indubitably offers more amenities than Castle Black. Guided tours (which come with the option of snowshoe or ski rental) are available daily from mid-December to the end of February. Particular highlights include a snowshoe through the Old Faithful area, a full-day adventure to see the frozen falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and a half-day adventure on level ground to the mercurial Lone Star Geyser.
The Oasis at Death Valley (previously Furnace Creek Resort)
WHERE: Death Valley National Park, California
The hottest month ever recorded on Earth was measured at Death Valley last summer, where temps averaged 108 degrees during the month of July. RIP to the Sand Snakes, but nonetheless this palatial enclave tucked into a desert is a likeness of the Dornish palace of Oberyn Martell and Ellaria Sand…before they, well, you know. The Pacific Coast Borax Company first completed this historic inn at Death Valley in 1927. The pool is great, and you probably won’t have to fight The Mountain to use the tennis courts.
WHERE: Death Valley National Park, California
This mission-style oasis in the middle of the park is befitting Robert Baratheon…or Joffrey…or Tommen… or Cersei. Currently, it’s closed for renovations due to flooding, but the massive home described by the NPS as “an engineer’s dream home, a wealthy matron’s vacation home and a man-of-mystery’s hideout and getaway,” is on track to reopen in 2020. Once this King’s Landing-like location does, take a house tour to examine the basement tunnels for hidden barrels of wildfire and to discover how a unique battery system powered the home during its heyday in the 1930’s.
Zion National Park
WHERE: Springdale, Utah
What do we say to the God of Death? Please use the park shuttle. Seriously, the shuttle is exemplary in its convenience, and accesses primary sites in the park where personal vehicles aren’t allowed. An early stop on the shuttle at The Grotto will bring you to the trailhead for the legendary uphill climb to Angels Landing, a 1,488 foot elevation gain to a promontory as towering and lofty as the Lannister stronghold, Casterly Rock. The Temple of Sinawava, a massive canyon with giant walls flanked by paved walking paths, is also reminiscent of Dragonstone (minus the ocean breeze), and is the point of entry to the legendary Narrows hike, which meanders through the Virgin River.
INSIDER TIPA permit is required to hike the Narrows; obtain in advance via recreation.gov, or in a last minute drawing (2-7 days in advance of your trip date).
Badlands National Park
WHERE: South Dakota
You probably couldn’t get much closer to visiting the Dothraki Sea (not so much a sea on GoT as a vast stretch of plains), than this geologic marvel. An ancient (and actual) sea stretched across the Midwest almost 70 million years ago, depositing layers of geologic sediment. Rivers and flood plains continued to deposit sediment in the region as this sea retreated. Erosion began 500,000 years ago, and has sculpted and shaped buttes in stunning colors of red, orange, yellow, purple, and in fine measure, glints of green. Perhaps thinking of this ethereal landscape inspired George R.R. Martin as he wrote. Perhaps you’ll even find Jason Momoa on horseback here. Who knows!
Apgar Mountain Horse Loop to Apgar Lookout
WHERE: Glacier National Park, Montana
Looks like everyone is getting around via horse. In West Glacier, an excursion on horseback to Apgar Lookout, which offers a view of the aquamarine Lake McDonald and the surrounding Rockies, is akin to ranging the rugged, pastoral, and seemingly-safe forests of Westeros. On Game of Thrones, marauding bannermen of House Lannister or dead-eyed White Walkers often upend the potential tranquility of such excursions. But here, while it is important to be bear-aware, any feelings of foreboding will more likely derive from glimpsing the visible effects of recent forest fires on parts of the trail.
WHERE: Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Probably the closet thing to The Wall to be found in the National Park Service, Margerie Glacier, a 21-mile long glacier found in the Fairweather Range rises 250 feet above the water in Glacier Bay and is simply stunning to behold. Icy cliffs tower above you and the ice pack periodically calves, or falls and breaks, into the ocean. Take a concessionaire boat to visit, via Glacier Bay Lodge and Tours.
WHERE: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
This 8-mile long loop trail ventures into the heart of Bryce Canyon and is filled to the brim with chiseled sandstone hoodoos and bristlecone and ponderosa pine trees. Given the color palette, we liken this expanse to the Red City, home of the Unsullied. The views of the canyon from both Sunrise and Ferryland Points are payoffs to a day of steady hiking. You can also take a side trail to view Tower Bridge, a rock formation that really does look like Tower Bridge (or is it Frey’s Castle?) in London.
INSIDER TIPRemember you’re at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, so bring a good supply of water and don’t do more trail than you can handle.
Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site
WHERE: Saugus, Massachusetts
This fully functioning re-creation of a 17th-century ironworks is the perfect place to experience of Gendry the blacksmith who may or may not be royalty. The original ironworks was founded by the first Puritans to arrive in Massachusetts and now transports you to the enchanting (and at times terrifying) realm of Kings Landing—or, perhaps more precisely, to a 17th-century foundry. Park rangers may not be tasked with forming Valyrian steel, but they are more than happy to demonstrate actual blacksmithing using huge bellows, waterwheels, and a giant forming hammer.
WHERE: Olympic National Park, Washington
In the Elwha River Valley, in the northern portion of Olympic National Park and near the main visitor center in Port Angeles, Goblin Gates is a roaring gorge of turquoise water that is bewitching as the ceaseless current at the shores of Dragonstone, King’s Landing (or the Iron Islands). A moderate 1.5 miles from the Whiskey Bend trailhead on the Humes Ranch Loop Trail, Goblin Gates is a popular day hike. For a longer and relatively easy hike in the Elwha district, take the full 8-mile loop, which stretches through more of the moist, forested beauty of Olympic National Park and accesses stunning and historic sites, like Humes Ranch, the Grand Canyon of the Elwha, and the Dodger Point Bridge, over the Elwha River. The river washes out Whiskey Bend Road on occasion, as is the case right now. In that event, park inside of the gates in the designated spots and hike in to access the trailhead.
WHERE: Acadia National Park, Maine
Jamie Lannister calls the Ironborn “a bitter angry people who steal the things they cannot build.” Thunder Hole, a coastal inlet just off of the main thoroughfare of Park Loop Road in Acadia, conveys the fractious spirit of the Ironborn in the waves that rush toward a narrow cove along the coastline. When the waves crash against steep granite cliffs, a spray of water blasts more than 40-feet into the air. The name comes from the sound you hear during this event, a crash of thunder. Wear a rain jacket!