Horizon Zero Dawn has a simple, yet powerful vision of the future: nature reclaiming Earth from the expansion and over-development of human civilization. However, much of the natural beauty depicted in Horizon’s far-future is actually from the present-day. Whether inspired by or a direct in-game location, Horizon displays some of the best of North America’s national parks and beautiful wilderness.
In this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed prudent to remind ourselves of the natural wonders awaiting us (some of us, just right outside our doors!) once the danger has passed and we can safely leave quarantine without fear of infection. Some of the locations in-game have been shifted around compared to their real-life counterparts (likely for the sake of gameplay). In anticipation of the upcoming Horizon Forbidden West, Geek Girl Authority has put together this list of some of the real-life locations featured in Horizon Zero Dawn.
The Sacred Lands
We begin our post-apocalyptic nature walk in what the Nora tribe refers to as “The Embrace”. A valley surrounded on all sides by protective mountains and crowned by All-Mother herself, this is where the Nora tribe (and allegedly, all humans in this part of the planet) originated from. Most of the Nora tribe resides here, and the well-defended Embrace is considered the heart of their “Sacred Lands”.
This sheltered and resource-rich valley is based off of the Lost Creek Wilderness in Colorado. Officially designated by Colorado as a wilderness in 1980, it currently totals 119,790 acres. The Lost Creek Wilderness is named after the creek of the same name, which repeatedly disappears underground, only to eventually reappear further downstream as “Goose Creek”. Though Lost Creek Wilderness in the future only features smaller animals like rabbits, today’s wilderness includes animals like black bears, bighorn sheep, deer, and bobcats.
Away from the main tribal settlements, but still within the Embrace, is the camp of Brom: a Nora Outcast who suffers from a mental disorder that the Nora interpreted as being haunted by spirits called “The Forgotten”.
It’s easy to see why poor Brom felt overwhelmed in such a big and narrow canyon as Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This Colorado canyon features some of the oldest and steepest cliffs in North America. For over two million years, the Gunnison River has weathered away and sculpted this vertical wilderness.
But the real heart of the Embrace is All-Mother: the massive mountain that doubles as the Nora goddess. It is here that the Nora matriarchs pray to the Womb of the Mountain and hope to hear the voice of All-Mother. Atop All-Mother are the Proving Grounds where the Nora are tested to become braves in the Proving.
Today, the “Old Ones” (present-day humanity) refer to “All-Mother” as Cheyenne Mountain. A popular state park, Cheyenne Mountain is a three-peaked mountain enjoyed year-round by Coloradans for its diverse “prairie-to-peak” ecosystems. The peak of All-Mother where the Provings take place is Pikes Peak. Visible across El Paso County, Pikes Peak is a national landmark. Unbeknownst to the Nora (but “knownst” to the player), the Womb of the Mountain that the Nora originated from is actually ELEUTHIA-9. ELEUTHIA-9 is a “Cradle” facility for Zero Dawn created from the converted Cheyenne Mountain Complex: a hardened command-and-control center constructed within Cheyenne Mountain in 1967 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Air Force.
Outside the Embrace at the northern edge of the Sacred Lands is the Nora settlement of Mother’s Crown. With the Red Raids and the continued loss of territory to Carja raiders, Mother’s Crown became the first line of defense for the Sacred Lands.
In the present-day, Mother’s Crown is Garden of the Gods. This park is a registered National Natural Landmark and one of Colorado’s most-photographed views. The snow-capped Pikes Peak and brilliant blue skies form the backdrop for towering red sandstone rock formations at least 300 feet tall! The park’s website describes Garden of the Gods as like being “inside a postcard”.
When the Carja began the Red Raids to enslave and kill the surrounding tribes, the Nora were forced to retreat from their northern territories in order to reinforce Mother’s Crown. Though still officially part of the Sacred Lands (and thus, able to be crossed by the superstitious Nora), these lands are in a territorial limbo in the current postwar period. Thus, this region has come to be known as the Valleymeet: where tribes from all over (Nora, Carja, and more) are welcome to travel and trade at the makeshift trading-post-turned-settlement called “Hunter’s Gathering”. Northeast of Hunter’s Gathering is an area known as The Red Drifts. The Red Drifts are notable in the game for being the rocks that the underground Machine factory known as “Cauldron SIGMA” was laser-cut from.
Today, the Red Drifts are Roxborough State Park. Considered the “Backyard Jewel of Denver”, Roxborough is a 400-acre Colorado park filled with dramatic red-rock formations, distinctive plant ecosystems, and a variety of wildlife ranging from mule deer to black bears. Whether you are new to the outdoors or an outdoors enthusiast, Roxborough’s hiking trails, photography, bird-watching, and more ensure that there are programs and events for everyone.
Now it is time for us to leave the Sacred Lands and pursue the murderous Eclipse back into Carja territory. This vast kingdom, known as the “Sundom”, covers parts of two different U.S. states. We exit the Sacred Lands by entering and passing through Daytower, and we proceed into the Gatelands: so named because the eastern border of the Sundom is guarded from the “Savage East” by the two forts Daytower and Dawn’s Sentinel. In the Gatelands, we can come upon the Carja settlement of Lone Light. Its elevated position keeps it safe from most of the Machines that dwell in the Gatelands Canyon below.
The Greatrun River in the canyon is actually the Colorado River, and the Gatelands Canyon is actually Horseshoe Bend. One of the most recognized and visited places in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (especially in the age of social media), a hike of 1.5 miles leads to an overlook where the Colorado River makes a wide sweep around a sandstone escarpment. On its five million year-old journey to the sea, the Colorado River has cut a 1,000 feet-deep, 270° horseshoe-shaped bend into Glen Canyon, Arizona. The closest U.S. city is technically Page, AZ, but Horseshoe Bend is also very close to the boundaries of Kanab, UT, St. George, UT, and the Navajo Nation.
Making our way through the hot deserts of the Gatelands, we come upon a magnificent sight: the holy city of Meridian. A tribute to Carja engineering, Meridian is constructed atop a mesa, across from a mesa referred to as “the Alight”. For atop the Alight is the Spire: a GAIA transmission array now venerated by the Carja as the site where the Sundom and the Radiant Line of Sun-Kings were founded. The game marks these mesas as part of “Eagle Canyon”.
The closest Eagle Canyon in the indicated area exists within what is known as the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area in Utah. Officially created in 2019 by the Dingell Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, the San Rafael Swell features magnificent badlands where wind and water have eroded bright and multicolored sandstone to form incredible buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and mesas. No wonder the first Carja thought this land was blessed by their Sun god when they first gazed upon it. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the San Rafael Swell has long been considered one of the great “undiscovered” natural wonders of the American West.
We are then sent away from Meridian to a Sundom region known as The Sun Furrows. Here, Aloy confronts the Eclipse cult and their Oseram collaborator Olin.
Today, we know this region as Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The most prominent feature in Canyonlands is a geological formation known as “The Needles”. In the southeast corner of Canyonlands, colorful spires of sandstone dominate the area and are ideal for day hikes and overnight trips alike.
On our way back east, we take a detour north of the Gatelands to the Sundom region known as The Sun-Steps.
What we now refer to as Arches National Park in Utah is “a red-rock wonderland” of over 2,000 natural stone arches. A land of contrasting colors and landforms, Arches National Park is unlike any other landscape in the world. The park is also famous for its inspirational sunsets.
In addition to stone arches, the Sun-Steps are famous for their soaring pinnacles. One such pinnacle is The Glarebreak. It is here that Aloy saves an Oseram man named Kendert from a herd of Tramplers.
Today, this location is the number one attraction near Castle Valley, UT. Known as Castle Rock (or “Castleton Tower”, as the locals prefer), this 400 foot-tall sandstone tower rests on a 1,000 foot-tall cone of loose rock. Towering high above Castle Valley, only the most experienced rock climbers should hike any part of even just the base, let alone the tower itself.
But for now we must temporarily depart the Sundom for the Longroam. The Longroam is a colder and mountainous region that has no clearly defined tribal affiliation: acting as a buffer between the Sundom to the west, the Sacred Lands to the south, and Ban-Ur (the Banuk homeland) to the north. Aloy must retrace the steps of Elisabet Sobeck to a place known to the Old Ones as “U.S. Robot Command”. Of course, U.S. Robot Command is not a real unified combatant command of the U.S. Armed Forces (not yet, anyways). In the world of Horizon, the U.S. military became increasingly automated to the point that all human combat forces were disbanded in 2055. It was from here that the forces of humanity were reorganized into Operation: Enduring Victory, and it was here that the last major battle against the “Faro Plague” was fought.
The Oseram now know these ruins as “The Grave-Hoard”, but we in real-life would call it Rocky Mountain National Park. The national park’s 415 square miles encompass spectacular mountain environments. With over 300 miles of alpine hiking trails, one of which crests at over 12,000 feet, the park offers wildflowers, wildlife, and starry nights. U.S. Robot Command seems to be built into specifically what is now Hallet Peak and Flat Top Mountain.
A common trend in Horizon Zero Dawn is future society selling off public lands and conservation areas to military or corporate interests. As we will see later with Bryce Canyon and Yellowstone, this is a policy that began years before the Old Ones became extinct.
The Sundom, Revisited
Now Aloy returns to the Sundom, back on the trail of the Eclipse cultists. The murderous Eclipse have set up their main base deep in the jungles of The Jewel.
Today, we know the Jewel as Monument Valley, and it is certainly not a jungle! Forever immortalized in classic Hollywood westerns, Monument Valley is a vast and sun-baked place of deep canyons and towering buttes. The red and rough earth contrasts sharply with the big, blue sky. Wind and water have maintained this corner of the American Southwest for over 3,000 years.
Bordering the Jewel and the Gatelands is a series of zigzag cliff walls that mark the southeastern edge of the Sundom. What the Carja have named The Spurflints, we know today as Comb Ridge.
Comb Ridge is less known for its distinctive and uniform structure than its archaeological history. The ancient Pueblo people once found refuge in the alcoves of the Comb. The cave walls have formed a canvas of Native American culture and rock art as much as 800 years old.
Continuing on our journey, we must now journey across the Daybrink. This lake is the largest body of fresh water in the Sundom, and the source of the waters for Meridian’s aqueducts.
Today, the Daybrink is known as Lake Powell. Located in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Lake Powell is the ultimate playground for visitors. With endless sunshine during the daytime and warm water, Lake Powell’s 2,000 miles of shoreline are often crowded with houseboats, campgrounds, and guided tours.
Having crossed the Daybrink, we find ourselves in the Rustwash. This arid desert is the most inhospitable region of the entire Sundom. The massive canyon wall in the west is known as “The Daunt”, and it marks the border of both the Carja Sundom and the known world. It was here along the Daunt that the Carja constructed the fortress of Sunfall, which later became the summer palace of the Sun-Kings. In the time of the Old Ones, this was Bryce Orbital: a launch facility for spacecraft.
In our current time, the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater is the most iconic area of Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce Canyon is actually a series of amphitheaters (bowl-shaped canyons) that are carved into the edges of this high plateau. The irregularly eroded spires of rock are called hoodoos.
With the secrets of Project Zero Dawn uncovered, we make our way along the difficult and dangerous Bitter Climb to “The Mountain that Fell”: the ruins of what was once GAIA Prime. This Old Ones research and development facility was once the permanent housing for the artificial intelligence GAIA. At least until GAIA was forced to self-destruct, blowing a hole into the mountain.
In the present-day, this facility is located within Kings Peak: one of many mountains found in Ashley National Forest and the highest peak in the state of Utah. The highest summit of the Uinta Mountains, Kings Peak was carved at least millions of years ago by glaciers. The alpine climate amidst these flat-top mountains offers diverse habitats for a wide variety of flora and fauna. A fitting home for the AI created to restore life to Earth.
Our journey isn’t over yet. North of the Longroam is a region known as “The Cut”. The southernmost part of the Banuk homeland of Ban-Ur, The Cut is now a buffer zone like the Valleymeet in the Sacred Lands. In the present-day, The Cut is the wilderness recreation areas of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. The Cut has changed much from the Yellowstone we all admire and love, due to geological instability in the supervolcano known as the Yellowstone Caldera. However, many of Yellowstone’s geological features remain intact. The trading post of Song’s Edge is the largest settlement in The Cut, catering to wealthy outlanders seeking new hunting and trading opportunities.
Song’s Edge is built around a rainbow-colored bacteria pool just north of the Banuk settlement. This pool, which first inspired the colors utilized by the Banuk tribe, is the Morning Glory Pool. A common stop along the tour leading to the famous Old Faithful geyser, the pool was named for its remarkable likeness to the morning glory flower. Unfortunately, the Morning Glory Pool has changed drastically over the past century due to vandalism. Visitors have thrown literal tons of coins, trash, and other debris into the pool. With the debris changing the water circulation and “cooling” the pool’s thermal energy, invasive orange and yellow bacteria have begun encroaching towards the formerly all-blue pool. Fortunately, in the future, the Banuk seem to be taking better care of the pool, as the orange and yellow seem to remain at the pool’s edges.
Forming the western border of The Cut is the formidable mountain range known as The Icerasps. The only safe way through the dangerous machines and icy caves of the Icerasps is the Shaman’s Path: a series of ritualistic markers, lanterns, and chimes that Banuk shamans can use to help them navigate.
In the present-day, the Teton Range is no less remarkable. Noted for its extraordinary wildlife and pristine lakes, the Teton Range is an alpine monument to geological and biological conservationism. Enjoy the serenity of Grand Teton National Park by exploring two hundred miles of mountain trails (hopefully with fewer Stalkers and Frostclaws) or floating on the Snake River.
Thus far, we have tried to avoid bandit camps. But Ohlgrud and his Oseram bandits are camped right on top of our final stop. We fight our way into Stone Yield Bandit Camp to claim it for the Banuk. After the bandits are defeated, we can stop and appreciate what we know today as Mammoth Hot Springs.
The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs are one of the most year-round iconic attractions in northern Yellowstone. Their mineral waters were once commercialized for those seeking relief for ailments. However, those terraces are actually more fragile than they appear, so it’s good we cleared out those bandits before they could take a dip! Travertine terraces are formed when hydrothermal activity (volcanic-heated water) rises through limestone. At the surface, carbon dioxide is released and the chalky white limestone gets deposited. The colorful stripes seen on the white limestone are heat-loving microorganisms called thermophiles.
“Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now, GAIA.”
Yosemite Valley has been depicted in the announcement trailer for Horizon Forbidden West. Who knows what other natural wonders we will get to explore in the sequel? But what do you think about the sights you have seen here? Are you excited to someday visit any of these places yourself? Or are you content to explore the North American Mountain West through just Horizon? Geek Girl Authority will keep searching for knowledge on Horizon and more, so keep your Focus tuned in to our website for more!