Five Ways National Parks Are Embracing Technology

Cell phones and other screens don’t have to detract from the park experience

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NPS/Neal Herbert

August 25 marks the 100th birthday of America’s National Park Service, once described by author Wallace Stegner as the “best idea” America ever had. When the NPS was founded in 1916, telephones were a rarity, the first television station was more than a decade away and the internet wasn’t yet a twinkle in Al Gore’s grandfather’s eye. Today, technology can detract from the park experience, but it can also enhance it greatly. Here are some of the coolest, most innovative ways to use technology to enrich your park visit this summer.

Spotting bears in real time with #bearcam

Seeing brown bears in the wild is one of the highlights of visiting Alaska’s Katmai National Park. In summer, you can stand on a platform and watch bears snatch sockeye salmon out of the Brooks River, spot them meandering through the forest in the park’s Pacific Coast backcountry or swoop in via helicopter to watch them munching clams in Hallo Bay. But to see bears in more remote locations, or in situations where it would be dangerous to get close, visitors can turn to Katmai’s multiple bear cameras, which broadcast live footage. There’s even an underwater river camera, which often catches bears paddling happily in pursuit of salmon. Katmai isn’t the only park with a wildlife cam. The Kelp Cam of Channel Islands National Park captures sea lions, fish and anemones.

Street View your way through the National Parks

In honor of the centennial, Google and the NPS have teamed up to offer Street View of more than three dozen national parks and historic sites. Wander the bleached, cactus-lined footpaths of West Texas’s Guadalupe Mountains National Park, explore Alcatraz up close, take in the arid landscape of Petrified Forest National Park or see the battle monuments at Vicksburg. The project also includes pictures and photos of artifacts from the various parks and sites—a cast of Lincoln’s face, beaded Cheyenne moccasins from the Grand Teton National Park collection and Thomas Cole paintings of Niagara Falls.

Take a ranger tour, by cell phone

Visitors to the Grand Canyon can use their cell phones to listen to ranger narration of various sites along the South Rim. The 30 short pieces of narration touch on topics from Native American history to geology, and air quality to flora and fauna. Of course, like many national parks, the Grand Canyon has little cell phone service off the beaten path, so visitors to further-flung locales will have to guide themselves the old-fashioned way. Various other NPS sites, such as the Harry S. Truman Historic Site and the Minute Man National Historical Park, offer similar services.

Use technology wisely with the Acadia Youth Technology Team

At Maine’s Acadia National Park, the Acadia Youth Technology Team is a teen-run think tank dedicated to coming up with ways of using technology smartly in Acadia and other parks (hint: no playing Pokémon Go near the sea cliffs). Projects have included labeling plants with QR codes so visitors can look up additional information, hooking up a TV screen to a camera in a falcon nest and creating a 3D model of an ancient walrus skull found in the park.

Listen to park podcasts

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(NPS)

An increasing number of national parks are producing podcasts, perfect for listening to on your drive in, when rural roads may mean no radio or cell phone service. The Grand Canyon’s podcasts can help you plan your hikes or teach you about park geology and wildlife. Listen to Bryce Canyon’s podcasts to learn about prairie dogs or hear about the park’s early railroad history. Mammoth Cave’s podcast teaches listeners about the park’s ubiquitous bats. Yosemite’s podcasts include interviews with a park search and rescue leader and members of the park’s small community of residents.