Northern California is a filmmaker’s dream. With beautiful landscapes, unique locations and its proximity to Hollywood, it’s hard to say no to a NorCal movie shoot.
Over the course of Hollywood filmmaking, different Northern California locations have been used every way possible. From futuristic epics to emotional dramas to mob shootouts, Hollywood directors have shown the area in every way possible.
A couple years ago, I put together a list of the 10 Best Movies filmed in NorCal, and now I’m here to put my hand up and say “I was wrong.” Finding filming locations is difficult and I missed some movies. I missed some awesome movies. But I’m here to absolve my sins and give you the true list of the best movies filmed in NorCal. And there are some REALLY GOOD movies on this list.
I bet you didn’t know some of the the most iconic movies on the planet were filmed right in your own backyard. Here are the 25 Best Movies Filmed in NorCal:
25. After Earth (2013)
This movie will never be the epic we wanted it to be, but how can you beat Will Smith and his kids on a futuristic adventure on a post-apocalyptic planet Earth? Much of After Earth was filmed in the Redwood National Park and you can see it in the beautiful forest scenes featuring highly evolved wilderness beasts attacking the Smith family from every angle.
I don’t think anyone will say this was a great movie but if you temper expectations, it’s actually a lot of fun.
24. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
This Robin Hood classic was a great filmmaking marvel back in the 1930’s and although the plot is set in England, the forest scenes in the movie were almost entirely shot in Bidwell Park. Although, the movie isn’t as captivating now with modern-day film standards, but at the time it was a great masterpiece, winning three Oscars and being nominated for Best Pictures in 1939.
It is the typical Robin Hood story – rob from the rich and give to the poor. And while the forest scenes don’t give any semblance of England, it is obvious that Bidwell Park made for a great location. The giant oak trees and large, hilly meadows area a dead giveaway that this movie was shot in our favorite park.
23. Firefox (1982)
Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in this 1982 film about a covert operation to steal an advanced Russian fighter jet. And while critics didn’t hail this as Eastwood’s masterpiece, it turned out to be a successful movie in the 80’s.
As you watch the trailer you’re probably thinking “where’s NorCal?” The opening scenes of the movie were shot near Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Rising River Ranch owned by Eastwood himself. He loved the area so much that it’s not surprising that he included aerial shots of Lassen Peak in the background.
22. Smoking Aces (2006)
When a group of highly-trained assassins converge on South Lake Tahoe to take out a fleeting magician with intimate information on the mob, all hell breaks loose. Now that sounds like a great movie to me!
Smoking Aces is chalk full of famous actors, crazy action and awesome Tahoe scenery. With twists and turns along the way, it’s hard to tell who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. Turns out, there aren’t many good guys.
If you’ve ever been in the Stateline area of Lake Tahoe, you’ll recognize a lot of scenery in this action packed flick.
21. The Great Outdoors (1988)
At the height of their fame in the 80’s, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd made this hilarious film about a family camping trip. The Great Outdoors was filmed in the Mammoth and Yosemite areas and has become a true classic.
Of course, when Candy and Aykroyd are at each other’s throats, comedic genius comes alive. This is the type of movie that would define family comedies for years to come. And it’s so cool it was filmed right in the NorCal wilderness.
20. Outbreak (1995)
In 1995, Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman race to stop a deadly virus from infecting the entire planet. While Outbreak isn’t remembered as one of the great movies of the 90’s, it’s popularity carried significance during a time when people were insanely fearful of quick-moving viruses.
The film was shot mostly in Humboldt County, specifically Arcata, Eureka and Ferndale. You can see the giant Redwoods during scenes of the movie but they are certainly outshined by a riveting performance by Hoffman.
19. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
This 1962 film based off Harper Lee’s famous novel was all the rave in the film world at the time, winning three Oscars and being nominated for five more, including best picture. The plot is about a lawyer, Atticus Finch, and his struggles with racial issues in Alabama in the 1930’s.
While the film was based in Alabama, all the courthouse scenes were filmed in the Colusa County Courthouse, sitting between Williams and Yuba City off Highway 20. The courthouse is the second oldest in California and provided a great historical setting for the film.
18. Kingpin (1996)
This raunchy comedy from Farrelly Brothers in 1996 is a cult classic about down-on-their-luck bowlers trying to hit it big. With hilarious roles from Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid and possibly Bill Murray’s best performance, Kingpin will always stay in the forefront of comedy royalty.
Many of the scenes were not filmed in NorCal, but one scene where the protagonists escape from a bar and ride off to Reno was shot in Chilcoot in Plumas County. One must assume the remote location was used due to its proximity to Reno, where the final showdown of the film takes place.
Is Kingpin famed for being filmed in NorCal? Of course not. But how can we deny a place on the pedestal with this performance from Bill Murray:
17. XXX (2002)
In the early 2000’s with the success of Fast and the Furious, Hollywood executives decided to give Vin Diesel a role for the ages with XXX. Diesel’s character is an extreme sports junkie turned secret agent whose rebellious nature and lack of fear serves him well for high-flying action cinema.
Many of the avalanche shots were filmed in Tahoe, but most notably was the stunt where Diesel’s character flies off the massive Foresthill Bridge in Auburn. The stunt included driving a red Corvette off the 730 foot bridge and a stuntman parachuting off the flying car to the American River at the bottom. Here is the scene:
16. Bushwhacked (1995)
When a a sleazy courier poses as a boy scout leader while on the run from authorities in order to prove his innocence, we get to see some great NorCal scenery and hilarious physical comedy from Daniel Stern. Filmed all around the Placerville/Tahoe wilderness, the boy scout troop goes on a hike up to “Devil’s Peak” and it couldn’t be more obvious they are in the Tahoe National Forest.
A great movie for kids that outlines outdoor safety while showcasing Daniel Stern in his prime, this movie has to be seen by all NorCal outdoor enthusiasts.
15. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
During the pinnacle of new-age scary movies in the 90’s, the top teen movie stars got together to film one of the seminal movies of a generation. I Know What You Did Last Summer follows a group of teens as they deal with a crazed maniac who knows their deepest, darkest secret.
While much of this movie was filmed out of state, the most important scene where they hit a pedestrian on a beautiful coastal highway is filmed all along NorCal’s North Coast. Parts of Sonoma, Bodega Bay and Highway 1 are featured in the scene and our lives will never be the same after…
14. The Majestic (2001)
This beautiful film from 2001 was shot during Jim Carrey’s shocking transition from comedic to respected dramatic acting. He followed up The Truman Show with this brilliant story of a Hollywood writer in the 1950’s losing his memory after a car wreck and settling down in a small town after being mistaken for a long-lost son. The movie dives into the psyche of a town torn apart due to the perils of war.
This movie was shot mostly in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, with town of Ferndale being transformed to the small town for the film. While Ferndale was where most of the filming was done, including where they built The Majestic theater for filming, other locations included Mendocino, Fort Bragg and Trinidad, where the car crash scene was filmed.
13. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Live long and prosper! This installment in the Star Trek series was directed by William Shatner himself and follows the crew of the Starship Enterprise for another journey through the galaxy. The wilderness scenes in this movie were filmed predominantly in the Yosemite National Park and includes prominent imagery of Half Dome and the entire Yosemite Valley, as Captain Kirk heads to earth for a little vacation.
12. Phenomenon (1996)
In a marvelous performance by John Travolta, Phenomenon explores the power of the human brain when it reaches its full capacity. Filmed almost entirely in Northern California, specifically in Auburn and in parts of Sonoma, this heartwarming film is beloved by people who want to the see the better side of human ingenuity.
The small town in the movie feels uniquely Northern Californian and the heart-wrenching ending will give you true appreciation for the possibilities that lie within the human race.
11. The Rock (1996)
“Welcome to The Rock.”
Those very words gracefully uttered in only a way Sean Connery can deliver will forever be locked in my brain. This film, with Connery and Nicolas Cage at the top of their games, is a thrilling masterpiece. Taking place throughout San Francisco and on Alcatraz Island (The Rock, as it was known by its inmates), this movie will show you action in Northern California’s biggest city, with car chases on Nob Hill and explosions all over the famous Alcatraz Island.
I assume you’ve seen this movie. If you haven’t, stop what you are doing right now, go watch the movie and be prepared to have your face melted off like it was just smacked with some 90’s Hollywood nerve gas. Cue the epic trailer:
10. Lady Bird (2017)
Lady Bird writer/director Greta Gerwig admitted that once she was finished writing the movie, she realized it was a love letter to her childhood in Northern California. The film is based and almost entirely shot in Sacramento, featuring the landmarks of the pretty homes and Sacramento River bridges.
The movie did not have the success it had hoped at the Academy Awards but it still rates at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and has struck a cord with Northern Californians. It sits as s reminder that living in NorCal can be pretty cool.
9. Tarzan’s Fight for Life (1958)
Although the movie takes place in the heart of the African jungle, much of the scenes were filmed in Northern California. The film is another predictable installment in Gordon Scott’s series of six Tarzan films throughout the 50’s, but at its time it was deemed a major hit.
The main scene we look to when pointing out this film’s Northern California roots, is when Tarzan throws his canoe over Burney Falls:
8. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Here’s another movie that is based entirely in San Francisco. At the height of his comedic brilliance, Robin Williams delivers a memorable performance as a man posing to be a nanny in an attempt to spend more time with his kids in this heartwarming comedy.
This movie is a family classic, with comedic and dramatic scenes that will steal your heart.
7. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
The highly-anticipated sequel to Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, The Lost World is basically a way to show heart-stopping action with dinosaurs in modern day… again. This movie didn’t receive the praise its predecessor did but it received an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects and was highly profitable.
While most of the scenes were, much like the first Jurassic Park, shot in Hawaii, there are a number of scenes that were filmed in the Redwood National Forest of Humboldt. It’s clear they wanted the giant redwood trees for a number of their forest scenes, something that Hawaii just couldn’t give them.
6. Willow (1988)
Here we have a famed movie from 1988 that was written by Star Wars creator George Lucas and directed by renowned Director Ron Howard. For their standards, it wasn’t received as they would have liked, only landing two Oscar nominations, but the movie has become a cult-classic for science-fiction enthusiasts.
It would take too long to describe the plot, so all you need to know is that it’s about a dwarf trying to protect a special baby from an evil queen. While much of the movie was filmed in New Zealand, it does have many scenes from McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.
5. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
In Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford’s second installment of the Indiana Jones saga, Indy sets out to free the enslaved children of an Indian village. Although they shot some of this move in Sri Lanka, most of the outdoor scenes were filmed right here in Northern California’s wilderness.
You can see many shots from the Mammoth/Yosemite areas, along with some river scenes from the South Fork of the American River. Though many say this is the worst of the three original Indiana Jones’ movies, it’s still one heck of a wild ride.
4. The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The Godfather trilogy is one of the most heralded cinematic achievements of all-time and many believe the second installment is the best of the series.
They say that when a mobster commits a “hit” his victim goes “swimming with the fishes.” In Godfather II, Fredo goes swimming with the fishes in beautiful Lake Tahoe. The film tackles the many rumors that there was prominent mob activity in the Lake Tahoe area in the 50’s, and the movie provides some beautiful shots of the lake, even if they’re dumping a body into it.
Here’s the scene where they dump Fredo into the lake:
3. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
“E.T. phone home.” That iconic line was the brainchild of Steven Spieldberg (yes, his name comes up a lot on this list) and it gave 80’s one of its most popular characters. This movie was predominantly filmed in Crescent City and the surrounding Redwood National Forest.
As the story goes, an alien gets lost 3,000 lightyears from home and he’s got to rely on some kids (including child-actor Drew Barrymore) to get him home. Every kid should see this movie. Scratch that – every person should see this movie. It’s funny, heartwarming and action packed.
2. Stand By Me (1986)
“You guys wanna go see a dead body?”
When most people think of movies shot in NorCal, Stand By Me sits at the forefront due to the famous bridge scene over Lake Britton. The bulk of this movie is filmed throughout Oregon and NorCal, including places around McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park and McCloud, California. When four young boys go searching for a dead body, they are confronted with obstacles of being on their own in the world and wilderness.
This is certainly a cult-classic for kids growing up in the 80’s and it reminds us of a time when political correctness was out the door in filmmaking. The kids are seen smoking and cursing throughout the movie and one even carries around a gun. But this coming of age story perhaps is one of the more truthful stories of growing up.
Here is our breakdown of the bridge scene over Lake Britton:
1. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
That’s right, the world’s most popular movie series was filmed right in your backyard. This is the third movie in the original Star Wars trilogy, where the rebellion heads to the forest of Endor to destroy a more powerful Death Star from Darth Vader and his goons. And if you think the forest of Endor is pretty cool looking, you can go check it out in the Redwood National Forest.
Star Wars transpired film and became a full-fledged movement across the globe. That’s why this is the best movie filmed in Northern California.
What did I miss? What did I get wrong? Let me know in the comments!
Zach O’Brien is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Active NorCal