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Explore Some of America’s Greatest National Parks in Virtual Reality

The next best thing to celebrating the Centennial in person

Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the parks featured in the virtual reality tours. (National Park Service)
smithsonian.com

The national parks have often been called “America’s Best Idea” and for good reason. All across the country, everything from mountains to monuments are being preserved and cared for in the public trust. But even though thousands of people from all over the world visit these parks every year, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to experience their beauty in person. So, to celebrate its Centennial today, the National Park Service has teamed up with Google to create a unique virtual reality experience that opens up some of the country’s most spectacular wonders to everyone.

“Growing up in Detroit, I thought great adventures happened to other people, in other places,” Shelton Johnson, a ranger at Yosemite National Park, writes in a statement. “It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I didn’t need to escape into fiction to find that sense of wonder. Rather, what I was seeking could be found in nature.”

In an effort to give anyone with internet access the opportunity to see sights like Alaska’s Kenai Fjords, New Mexico’s Carlsbad Cavern, and Florida’s Dry Tortugas, NPS worked with Google to create "The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks," a series of immersive 360-degree videos that place viewers directly inside the parks. Hosted by park rangers, the detailed videos traverse sites one might not otherwise get a chance to see, like getting a bird’s-eye-view of an active volcano or diving through a vibrant coral reef.

“We need bread and water to live, but it’s beauty that makes us truly alive,” Shelton writes. “We hunger for it. And our national parks are the banquet that feeds us.”

The 360-degree videos are hosted on YouTube and through Google’s Arts & Culture website, but smartphone users with a Google Cardboard headset can access the tours as a virtual reality experience to get an even more immersive national parks experience, whether it's virtually standing on a snowy mountaintop or taking a horseback ride through a rusty-red canyon.

Of course, the internet isn’t the only way to experience America’s national parks, monuments and memorials—NPS maintains and manages sites of all kinds around the country. Icons like Yellowstone and Olympic National Park may be spectacular, but chances are, there’s likely a wonderful sight right in your backyard. Luckily, NPS makes it easy to look up a list of the parks in each state. So, if these tours give you the nature bug, go find your own National or State Park, which might just be a few feet or hours away.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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