National Park apps aid your trek from sea to shining sea

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That great American author and historian Wallace Stegner once called the nation’s park system the best idea we ever had: “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” So it’s no surprise that the Apple App Store and Google Play are all too happy to contribute the mobile digital take on America’s heritage, and arguably, its future.

If you’re carrying your smartphone on vacation in one or more of the 50 states, iOS and Android apps will provide all the guidance you’ll need to traverse the often-challenging terrain of the nation’s 59 national parks, part of the 401-strong network of parks, monuments, preserves, recreation areas, and assorted open spaces, overseen by the government.

National Park Service arrowhead

National park guides, as well as localized state and regional guides, are mostly found in the app stores’ Travel category, though sometime also in the Navigation or Education sections. Most apps are free, though sometimes the free app is a shell under which in-app or adjunct purchases are needed to fill in detail and park-specific information. A free app can help you decide where to go, and which supplemental app to buy. Happily, even in-app purchases are reasonably priced—much less than the tank of gas you’ll likely spend getting from your house to the open road.

Almost all the apps are smartphone optimized, but many are tablet friendly too, so depending on how light you travel, or whether you plan your trek in a motel room, a tent, or an RV, you can use a tablet for a big-screen view of many National Park apps.

Count on using apps while in civilization, as it’s hard to predict where within a national park you will have a cellular network available, no less an open wireless hotspot. Some parks are now heavily wired, especially around campgrounds, but some wilderness areas still have no service. Which is kind of the point, after all.

Chimani National Parks

Chimani Android interface

Chimani is a sweeping purveyor of the American recreational outdoors. Its Chimani National Parks series offer a number of discrete iOS and Android apps covering a range of American historical places—including national parks, historical parks, national monuments, battlefields, memorials, parkways, preserves, seashores, lakeshores, and rivers. Broad but not deep, the free app references all properties under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. As you drill down to specific locations of the main app, it won’t take you long to hit the National Park Service’s own excellent, detailed website. Chimani’s free app gives users an overview of the entire landscape—what’s out there and where it is. Each entry zooms to a full map with standard, hybrid, and satellite views. The general app also lets you record the places you’ve visited and create a list of places you want to go. The real value of Chimani, however, is its component apps; separate downloads provide specific park information, detailed maps, ranger event listings, places to eat or picnic, accessibility resources, and more. The suite of individual apps, for $2 each, include Acadia National Park, Cape Cod National Seashore, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Zion National Park. Chimani’s only in-app purchase is the National Parks Traveler ($2). A new in-app purchase for some apps is an Augmented Reality viewer for $2. (Free, iPhone, iPad, and Android. Individual park apps, $2.)

Chimani National Parks for iPad

National Parks by National Geographic

The free National Parks by National Geographic app for iPhone and iPad provides in-depth details of 25 national parks. The app opens into a photo grid or a map featuring each major park, and as you click your choice, you drill deeper into details such as GPS-tagged points of interest, must-do activities chosen by National Geographic experts, and a personalized space to track your favorite parks, activities, itineraries, and photos. Global and interactive map views are filtered by activity and seasons. The National Geographic app is no slouch in the photo department, offering galleries for each park, including rare vintage images from its archives. The free version has plenty of information about each park, such as the name and location of various visitor centers, weather, directions, and details about camping and lodging. A retractable sidebar on the Home page lets you add an itinerary, view the society’s archive of images, read news about the parks, and offers an Editor’s Pick of best hikes. After you’ve chosen a park to visit, you will likely want to go into deeper detail, and for that there’s in-app $2 purchases for 15 of the 25 parks listed. (Free, iPhone and iPad. Individual park apps, $2.)

National Geographic for the iPad gives you the listing of 25 major U.S. national parks.

Passport to your National Parks

Eastern National’s Passport to your National Parks references all of America’s national parks with its signature passport program, dating back to 1986 as a way to help park visitors record and remember their visits and participate in its stamp cancellation program.

Passport app for Android

The smartphone-only app offers several points of entry, letting you search by name, region, state, or GPS to discover nearby parks. The main purpose of this app is to offer a place for visitors to record parks they have visited and want to visit. In addition to the designated national parks, Passport also includes other Park Service properties such as historical parks and national monuments. Each entry contains  basic information about the park, its location and phone number, and a brief description. Menu items include junior ranger programs, entrance fees, and directions, events, and operating hours. Regional maps are provided to lead you to all the parks in a particular state, and all of the parks in that region are listed. (Free, iPhone and Android.)

Sierra Club Trail Explorer

No matter where you are located, the Sierra Club Trail Explorer will help you discover the right hike for your physical condition, time limit, and state of mind. This free iPhone app taps into the database for comprehensive location-based or searchable information. AllTrails also has its own app, which looks identical to the Sierra Club guide. Any information you record on the Sierra Club Trail Explorer goes into the AllTrails database.

Sierra Club (AllTrails) location-based listing of nearby trails on the iPhone 5

With an account on AllTrails, you can easily keep track of your hikes, share your completed hikes, and follow friends. When you open the app, the Browse tab shows you every trail in the vicinity and sorts them according to nearest, popular, and shortest. When you choose a trail you want to hike, you are taken to a Trailhead Check In. That page offers photos, map, and even reviews of the trail. The app is smart enough to know if you’re near enough to the trail to check in, and will not let you do so if you’re at your desk in the office. Further trail information includes difficulty, distance, elevation gain, duration of the hike, and hike type (out and back, loop). It includes a survey of what you can see and do on the trail. But you can add items too, such as obstacles, the season you’re hiking in, and trail usage details. Use the location services feature of the iPhone to find trails near you, or use the search feature to find more distant trails if you’re planning a vacation further from home. Track your accomplishments by entering the trails you complete, your favorites, and a wish list. A track feature lets you start at whatever location you’re in to keep a running count of how many miles you’ve traversed, your speed in miles per hour, and the miles you’ve covered. (Free, iPhone only.)

Oh, Ranger ParkFinder

Oh Ranger, ParkFinder’s cluttered but utilitarian app front

On launching APN Media’s Oh, Ranger, ParkFinder you see an opening screen that can lead in a number of directions. This app, from the same American Park Network that publishes free printed national park guides, has a 20-year history of keeping a comprehensive database of every federal and state park in America, including national parks, state parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management sites, U.S. Army Corps recreation areas and a host of other public lands. If you’re looking for a hike nearby, hit the location services icon or type in a location or ZIP code. There are icons labeled Select Things to Do and Find Parks where you can search locally or type in the name of a park you want to visit. The Select Things to Do pane lets you tap any or all of 20 activity icons for your outing—hike, play tennis, drive around, play golf. With that information, the app then serves up an assortment of not always obvious choices—and some local selections that even natives likely never heard of. After you select a park, you can write a review or share a tip, call the main phone number, or visit its website. But if you disenchant quickly and want to move to something else, the app is understanding, as it offers seven other choices in the immediate vicinity. And of course, a series of icons at the bottom of the page lets you share, comment, check in, and add the park to your personal list. The homepage layout is a little cluttered, partly because this free app is supported by ads.  (Free, iPhone and Android.)

National Parks Explorer

National Parks Explorer Yosemite

Doh-Ray Media’s National Parks Explorer, a free app for the iPhone, does a creditable job of covering 10 of the country’s national parks in a free version of the app, though focusing on only 10 may be a little spare for some tastes. But it’s probably because it has in-depth treatment of those 10 parks with in-app purchases that cost $2 a piece, and $10 for the entire bundle. It’s a good thing that the app gives you a freebie so you can check out what you’d be getting for your money. With the purchased park, you get a wealth of information in a clean tab format. A guide to the park walks you through the environment, history, places to go and more. The ABC tab goes through each feature of the part in alphabetical order. An Info tab has dates and times and locations of visitor centers, trails, shuttle services, lodging, dining, and camping. The picture Gallery disappointingly, is not exclusive to any one park, but features all of them under a single heading. My Park lets you enter the names of places and features you want to save for future reference. The Map View displays the iPhone’s built-in map, requiring an active data connection, as well as embedded National Park Service maps, available on demand. The National Park Service map is displayed by default when there is no available cell or wireless connection. When a data connection is available, the default mode will be the Google map viewer, which is more precise than the NPS maps, and can also show your location on the map. (Free, iPhone. Individual park apps, $2.)

Canyon Country National Parks

What word comes to mind when we say Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Great Basin. The hint is already there: Canyon. If you’re a canyon freak—like I am—then get ready for’s Canyon Country National Parks app for iPhone and iPad. The app features a large map that includes southern Utah, northern Arizona, western Colorado and eastern Nevada covering eight national parks and hundreds of points of interest such as national monuments, national recreation areas, state parks, and more in a bright, artistic rendering that conveys the individual character of each park. Also included are detailed scalable maps of the included parks, alongside photos and tips for over 140 places of interest. You can save your favorites and share these with friends on Facebook and Twitter. A retractable tab at the side of the window lets you view resources for lodging, camping and dining, which updates automatically from the company’s database. (Free, iPhone, iPad.)

Utah’s Canyon Country National Parks for iPad

Targeted resources

A number of apps view the park system through a narrower optic, such as Dan Marsh’s US National Parks Timeline, which uses a quick timeline approach for information on park location, name, and founding date, but not much more. There are also specialty apps for certain parks, such as GeoQuest Technology’s Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park apps for both iOS and Android, and that, if you’re visiting them, will surely add depth to your trip, as does Sutro Media’s Total Tetons Travel, which offers in-depth information about the Grand Tetons and the Jackson Hole area, and TUA Outdoors’ Hiking the Top 11, with information about 11 premiere hikes, complete with descriptions and maps.  Be sure to check out TUA’s many other $2 apps that concentrate on specific parks.  Washington DC is an intense place, and I wish I had the National Park Service’s free National Mall and Memorial Parks app when I last visited the capitol, for its wealth of information and historical depth on what to see and do. For the sheer spectacular beauty of the parks, be sure to have a look at Foronaut’s Fotopedia National Parks, which features spectacular images from photographer QT Luong.

This story, "National Park apps aid your trek from sea to shining sea" was originally published by TechHive.

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