Experience America’s National Parks in This Uniquely Incredible Way
Online national park experiences are an excellent Plan B.
In this new coronavirus world, we may not be able to escape to the National Parks as we once did. Some have modified their operations, while others—including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Statue of Liberty—are completely closed for now. But never fear. There are many different ways to access their beauty and serenity from the safety of our homes. Here are some suggestions.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Hoodoos. Just the word feels mystical and eerie as it rolls off your tongue. But to be surrounded by a whole jungle of these water-chiseled rock spires, you start to understand the magic of the Southwest. Hoodoos are everywhere, but Bryce Canyon National Park has more than anywhere else in the world. Google Arts & Culture takes you on an intimate e-tour of this dreamy place, including a horseback ride on the Peekaboo Loop Trail, a hoodoo-making 101, and a peaceful serenade of canyon sounds. But Bryce is also famous for its dark, dark skies, and the program allows you to interact with the shooting-star-filled night sky, checking out constellations, studying the Milky Way, even learning about Mars—and fake Mars, which looks like Mars, but it’s not.
Yellowstone National Park
If you didn’t think the earth was alive, you haven’t been to Yellowstone—in person or virtually. Sitting upon a geological landscape harboring fumaroles, mud spots, boiling hot springs, and geysers, this National Park is all about the earth’s burps, eruptions, and excretions. And the primo showcase is the world’s most famous geyser: Old Faithful. The National Park Service has positioned a webcam to capture the watery explosion. You’ll see spray and smoldering discharge in a tension-filled preview, and then, all at once, Old Faithful comes alive, erupting anywhere between 100 and 180 feet into the air. The only thing is since the park is closed, the predicted eruption time is not provided…meaning you’ll have to wait. And wait. But then, when she blows, it’s utterly spectacular. She typically erupts every 35 minutes to 2 hours, averaging about 21 to 23 eruptions a day.
Lane V. Erickson/Shutterstock
Channel Islands National Park
A string of isles off the California coast, the Channel Islands provide a magnificent land-and-sea retreat for thousands of species. The National Park Service has established several live webcams to admire this natural beauty from our devices afar. The best one, submerged off Anacapa Island, shows a waving kelp forest in the deep aqua sea. Fish–yellowtails, rockfish, sea bass—cavort about; it’s like scuba diving without the gear. (Hint: It’s a little eerie at nighttime; it’s best in broad daylight—though sometimes they present highlights instead.) Another one surveys a bald eagle’s nest on Catalina Island. An overview map shows you where the cameras are located.
Grand Canyon National Park
Everyone knows what the Grand Canyon looks like from above, but can you say you know it from below? While crowds flock every year to the rim, peering down at striated buttes, mesas, and spires, less than 1% actually make it all the way to the canyon floor. But there it is, a primitive landscape of cottonwoods and prickly pear, with the Colorado River eternally coursing across the canyon floor. The only way to get here is by foot, mule, or raft—and now, with two photographic tours created by the USGS. The first tour takes you down the South Kaibab Trail, past rock formations and archaeological ruins, through the colorful transition between geological layers, from red to orange to pink to white. The second explores the canyon floor, including historic Phantom Ranch, built in 1922. And here’s a thought: The beauty of both tours provides a Zen that you probably wouldn’t get in person—that trek is hard!
Dry Tortugas National Park
A menagerie of birds and mammals seek refuge at Dry Tortugas, a heavenly collection of low-lying subtropical islands in the Florida Keys. But it’s also home to a 19th-century bastion, Fort Jefferson, which served as a prison for Union deserted during the Civil War. After the war, it held four conspirators convicted in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—including Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of assassin John Wilkes Booth. Today, you can visit the fort in a virtual visit thanks to Google Arts & Culture. Explore the fort’s pathways, stroll along the seawall, hover above the sparkling waters, and enjoy a gorgeous day in the Florida Keys. You can almost smell the sea breeze.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The sweet birdsong of a dawn chorus serenades you in this melodic National Park Service soundtrack from Kipuka Ki in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It starts off slow, as northern cardinals, ‘apapane, ‘elepaio, ‘ōma’o, and more birds start waking up, culminating in an overwhelming symphony of birdsong. The cool thing here is that you also can listen to each bird’s individual sound —then try to pick each one out for yourself.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park/Flickr
Shenandoah National Park
Close your eyes and listen to the tale of Shenandoah National Park, a majestic retreat about 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., harboring waterfalls, wooded hollows, and breathtaking views over the Shenandoah Valley. Before this region became a national park, according to the America’s National Parks Podcast, people lived among these hills, eking out a hardscrabble living. When the park was established in 1935, they were forced to give up their homes. It’s a reminder that the National Parks are a gift to all Americans, one that did not necessarily come without a price.
Acadia National Park
Rugged coastline meets crashing sea at Maine’s Acadia National Park, where, as one visitor once commented, “you can fish with one hand and sample blueberries from a wind-stunted bush with the other.” Most of the park occupies Mount Desert Island, with its iconic Mount Cadillac boasting stunning sunrise views. Google Earth has put together an awesome tour of the National Park, offering a variety of interactive experiences, including close-up explorations of Sand Beach and Thunder Hole. The most amazing one, however, is the interactive Precipice Trail hike. This daring negotiation along a steep rock face utilizes iron rods firmly embedded into the rock to help you along, and as you follow the virtual trail, high above the sea, you can almost feel the vertigo coming on.
Devils Tower National Monument
Climbing may not be your thing, per se, but it’s pretty cool to virtually check out the different climbing routes up Devils Tower, a dramatic butte rising above the Black Hills. A responsive 3D model by the National Park Service allows you to explore the tower’s nooks and crannies, with extended captions providing additional info. Click and drag to see the “boulder field,” rubble that fell from the tower; the “standard meadows finish,” the most common climbing route; the dome-shaped summit, offering stunning views of the surrounding landscape; and more.
Statue of Liberty National Monument
WHERE: New York
Did you know that Lady Liberty steps on broken chains and shackles, representing freedom from slavery? That the tablet she holds is engraved with “July 4, 1776”? That her crown resembles a liberty cap presented to Roman slaves once emancipated? And her skin moves! The National Park Service’s extensive e-tour is full of fascinating info through audio, video, park ranger stories, photographs, info panels, and panoramic images. Wait. Let’s back up to that moving skin. That sounds peculiar…but—as you learn upon reading and watching the video—a support structure comprising iron girders is actually an engineering necessity for the statue to react to temperature changes and wind forces. Now that’s interesting.
Crater Lake National Park
Country singer and songwriter Dierks Bentley and Ranger Charlie Waller take you on a 360-degree video tour of this lesser-known national park in Oregon’s Cascade Range. The cool thing about it is that, while the video spans out over the beautiful landscapes—from the lake itself (the deepest in the U.S.) to Wizard Island (a volcano inside a volcano) to Garfield Peak (the best place to catch the sunrise)—you can click or drag across the screen to explore on your own in different directions.