Terra Galleria Photography

Road Tripping through Alaska’s National Parks

At the beginning of September, I was happy to take a break from “Treasured Lands” and return to Alaska for two weeks. The trip was neatly divided into two parts. Whereas the second week was devoted to two remote parks typical of Alaska, during the first week, I rented a car and drove around, just as one would do in the lower 48s. This hit three out of the four national park roads in Alaska, missing only the Denali Park Road. I am posting a quick overview of the satisfyingly diverse trip, and will dwell more on some highlights later.

On Monday, it rained solidly upon arrival in Anchorage. My friend Tommy and I initially planned to begin with Kenai Fjords National Park, but instead we changed our plans to visit Wrangell St Elias National Park first, since its interior location would make it less rainy. The drive along the Glenn Highway is one of the most lovely in Alaska, but after the 5:30am start and the long flight, I didn’t feel like photographing in the rain. I thought the day would be total loss, but in the late afternoon, the rain eased enough for shots of the Matanuska Glacier. It is quite amazing to be able to wake up in San Jose, California, and to photograph a glacier in the afternoon!

Wrangell St Elias is the only national park in Alaska which is penetrated by two roads. Of the two, the Nabesna road is by far the less traveled. On Tuesday, we woke up at Kendesnii Campground, only one in 13K square-mile Wrangell St Elias National Park, and Brandan Hall joined us to produce footage of me working as part of his upcoming film on the national parks. We spent the whole day exploring the mines and ghost towns at the end of the Nabesna Road. Although those are maybe the most interesting in the North, they are much less known and much more raw than the Kennecott site, and we made incredible discoveries, including mine shafts, a ruined mill with many artifacts still intact inside, and a group of cabins where we found tables strewn with mining documents dating 80 years back.

On Wednesday, we hiked the rugged Skookum Volcano Trail from the Nabesna Road. The trail leads to a beautiful high pass through an eroded volcanic system with interesting shapes and colors. The high tundra offered sweeping views and we saw many Dall sheep. At the pass, instead of going back safely, we opted for the unknown and discovery of descending off trail on the other side.

On Thursday, we drove from the Kendesnii Campground to the Mc Carthy footbridge located at the end of the McCarthy Road, enjoying our first day in Alaska with (almost) no rain, and our first view of the Wrangell Mountains, which so far had hidden in the clouds. I was surprised to see how much the Mc Carthy Road, once considered to be one of the worst in Alaska, had improved. In many sections, I could drive at almost normal road speeds.

We spent most of Friday exploring the Root Glacier out of Kennecott in Wrangell St Elias National Park. Easy access to a glacier that you can hike is possibly the most remarkable experience to be had in the park. The glacier surface delighted with unexpected features like canyons, and waterfalls, but the most unique experience was to scramble under the edge of the glacier into ice caves where we were underneath surreally blue ice.

On Saturday, we took advantage of the only sunny day of our first week in Alaska for a flight above Kenai Fjords National Park, and it was in a shining helicopter rather than the usual scrappy Alaskan bush plane. The pilot told me that I could lean out of the door, but when I tried to do so, the winds blew incredibly strong since we were flying fast to make the most of our hour. Even inside the canopy, it was extremely windy, but having the doors off allowed me to shoot backlit without window flare, such as in this shot where the Aialik Fjord waters shimmer.

On Sunday, the rain returned, but this set up the perfect mood for exploring the base of Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Since this was my fourth visit to the location, the most accessible of any Alaskan National Park, I didn’t expect much, but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that in less than a decade, the glacier had retreated several hundreds yards and its terminus had changed dramatically. Once a gentle place where you could touch the ice, it was now steep and too dangerous to stand close. To approach it, we had to cross streams where the flow was very swift, more than knee-deep, and glacially (what else to expect ?) frigid.

Join the Treasured Lands Launch Team

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, I officially announced “Treasured Lands”. Exploring the national parks has brought me incredible experiences and much joy. I am confident that the book can enrich readers’ lives by inspiring readers to visit the parks for themselves, for the happiness they will gain through a deep connection with nature.

However, I am not confident that the book can reach the widest possible audience without your help. As we are less than a month away from the official launch of the book, I’m trying something a bit different. I am inviting a limited number of readers to join me in a “launch team”, a group of volunteers willing to help announce the release of the book.

Here are the benefits for joining:

  • A free digital copy (PDF) of the book, so you can see it and begin telling your friends about it.
  • Exclusive access to a private Facebook group where we share ideas. You’ll get an inside look at marketing a book, and will be sure to learn a thing or two.
  • Entry in a drawing for a “super limited edition” copy of the book, which is not for sale. See the video in the previous post.

Here are the requirements:

  • Look at the book upon receipt.
  • Help spread the word about the book in any way you can, by posting on social media and your places of influence (blog, website, group, club, etc…).
  • Write a honest review on Amazon or other retailer sites.

If you would like to join, please Email me with the subject line “Launch team”, and tell me very briefly about yourself and your audience. If all spots fill out, first come, first served!

What I did on National Park Service Centennial Day

Last week, on August 25, the day of the National Park Service Centennial, I posted the announcement for Treasured Lands on the blog in the morning. I then drove to Petaluma, where my publisher, Cameron Books, is located. The bulk of the shipment from the printer arrives by ship and is still somewhere on the Pacific Ocean. However, we received some books, called “advance copies”, sent by air. The number of books in that air shipment is small because it is very expensive to send a 7.4 lbs book. When I returned the initial hard copy proofs to the printer with my annotations, the cost of shipping was $340. The proofs were printed single-face, therefore twice as heavy, and the shipping was via Fedex 2-day, but you still get the idea. So the advance copies are mostly reserved for the press and reviewers. Here is a picture that Chris Gruener took in the Cameron Books office.

(If you don’t see the picture, click here to view on Instagram)

After celebrating the arrival of the advance copies with a lunch of Vietnamese food, we loaded some cartons in my car. Upon returning home, I tried to do something fun and memorable with the advance copies. I remembered I had a stash of USPS National Parks stamp panels:

National Park Service Centennial and Treasured Lands Book Annoucement

The 100th anniversary of the National Park Service has finally arrived, and others have written more eloquently about the significance of the event than I could ever do. My contribution to the occasion is the photography book Treasured Lands. I view it as the 21st century version of National Parks Portfolio, the first photography book about the national parks, published exactly 100 years ago as part of the campaign that helped establish the National Park Service.

A complete presentation

If you are curious about National Parks Portfolio and its significance, please read my post the first national parks photography book. The publication aimed to be “the first really representative presentation of American scenery of grandeur ever published”. Each of its nine booklets strived to provide a complete picture of each park. For instance, for Yellowstone, we see not only Old Faithful as the cover image, but also a multitude of other thermal features, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its waterfalls, Mount Washburn and Yellowstone Lake, and the park’s wildlife.

In the same spirit, Treasured Lands aims to be the most complete coffee-table book about the national parks published in the interleaving century. Having studied and collected
many national parks photography books, I am pretty sure that the goal is met if you go by the numbers – 456 pages, 500+ photos, 130,000+ words, depicting 410 locations. However, what really matters is that not only the book includes all 59 national parks, but also the coverage of each park is deeper than any other coffee-table book. I tried to photograph each significant area of each national park, for example:

  • the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park,
  • the three islands that make up National Park of American Samoa,
  • the three main keys of Dry Tortugas National Park,
  • the five districts in Canyonlands National Park,
  • the three units of Theodore Roosevelt NP, including Elkhorn Ranch.

It is often said that the National Parks are “loved to death” – the first such utterance may have been in
Conrad Wirth’s Mission 66 introduction
– a document still surpringly relevant today. However, one often confuses visitation and crowding. Large visitation is great. In my experience of more than 300 park visits, crowding is an issue only at the most popular locations in the most popular parks. It is my hope that by giving equal treatment to the 59 national parks, and by highlighting lesser known locations in the popular parks, Treasured Lands can inspire visitors to discover the diversity of the national parks, experience new locales, and spread out visitation.

An invitation and guide to visit

Back a century ago, Stephen Mather recognized that if the parks were to be preserved, they would have to acquire a constituency, and the publication of National Parks Portfolio was an effort towards this goal. Each of the nine booklets ending page started with the heading “HOW TO REACH THE NATIONAL PARKS”, a railroad map, and concluded with “REMEMBER THAT [name of park] BELONGS TO YOU. IT IS ONE OF THE GREAT NATIONAL PLAYGROUNDS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE FOR WHOM IT IS ADMINISTERED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR.”

More than twenty years ago, as a newcomer to America, deeply moved by the National Parks natural beauty, I decided to make my home here, and embarked on a self-supported project to photograph them out of love for the land. It is a testament to the greatness of America that as a private citizen, I have been able to honor the NPS Centennial with Treasured Lands. As stated in my introduction, from the start of the project, one of my goals has been to propel you on your personal journey to visit, appreciate, and help preserve this magnificent but fragile land.

Unlike other coffee table books about the national parks, which after inspiring
readers via images, leave them wondering about the exact locations,
Treasured Lands is designed to inspire outdoor adventurers to “Find
Your Park” using a detailed guide keyed to the images. For each of the images in the book, you’ll find a description of the location, the best times to be there, and sometimes comments about my experiences and photography, with the hope that they will help you plan your own trip. Note that as an innovative feature which I hope you’ll find practical, the guide will be available for download as a PDF specially formatted for mobile devices.

My special pre-publication offer to you

It is a bit of a bummer to be late to the party because you are still stuck on a cargo ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Publication in time for the NPS Centennial was uncertain from the beginning, given how late the entire process started, and how complex it turned out to be, but that would be a story for another post.
Treasured Lands will ship in October.

To reward you for your patience and thank you for your support, I am offering the following bonuses from now until October 1st:

  • Set of 59 high-resolution digital images from the book, one for each park, that you can display as computer wallpaper on a screen up to 4K, and use in any personal way (as defined
    here).

  • Supplementary PDF “How To Photograph The National parks”, which details general tips I have learned in more than twenty years of photographing the parks. There is no overlap with Treasured Lands, which has only location-specific information.
  • Coupon code for 25% off an order of limited-edition prints

In addition, readers of this blog can take 15% off a signed copy or a limited edition book by using the coupon code “prelaunch”, which will also expire on October 1st.

To take advantage of the offer, visit treasuredlandsbook.com

Here are spreads of the book for two national parks. The site above displays a larger selection of spreads, and they can be viewed larger if you have a big screen.

If there is one blog post that I’d appreciate you sharing with your friends, this is the one!

Book Production

Treasured Lands has, at least, finished printing last week at Artron, in Shenzhen, China. This post shares a few videos that should give you an idea of what’s happening in the book printing factory.


A press sheet comes out of the massive sheetfed offset printer. As detailed in The Printed Picture, offset printing remains the superior form of mass printing. This particular sheet holds four book pages on each side.


Different sheets have each been folded into pages to make sets called signatures, which are a group of sixteen pages similar to a booklet. Each signature is then sewn with threads going through each page several times, and the threads are tied off.


Signatures are assembled and stitched together to create the book’s inside. This construction technique called “Smyth Sewing”, is the highest quality, and often used for coffee table books because it allows the book to lay flat.


As a hardcover (or “casebound”), the book’s inside is glued (by hand!) via two special uncoated sheets called “endpapers” to the cover or “case”. This remains a surpringly labor-intensive process.


The dust jacket receives matte lamination and a glossy varnish on the type. The jacket is larger than the book trim to allow for a “French fold jacket”, where the top and bottom edges are folded underneath for greater strength.

In case you would think that the label “made in China” equals to cheap quality, note that according to their presentation video, Artron is a wide-ranging arts company whose presses have printed such works as Sebastião Salgado’s “Genesis”. Nathan Myhrvold, who entrusted them his very impressive “Modernist Cuisine”, calls them the best art book printers in the world.

For regular books, American printers are perfectly competitive. However, if you look at the copyright page of mass-produced, heavily illustrated books printed today – with Steidl being the notable exception, you will find that almost all of them were printed in Asia. The downside of printing in Asia is that transit to the U.S. takes a long time. Not only the books have to cross the Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship, but there is also the loading, unloading, and customs clearance.

This means that Treasured Lands won’t ship in time for the NPS Centenial like I had initially hoped. However, I will try and make up for that with a special offer, so stay tuned!

Lehman Cave, Then and Now

Twenty years ago, I photographed Lehman Cave on a private tour. Last month, I participated in a regular tour. A comparison of photos from both occasions shows how much camera technology has changed for the better.

Accessed by way of Hwy 50, “the loneliest road in America” in the middle of the American West (some would say in the middle of nowhere), Great Basin National Park is one of the least-visited national parks. Even when crowds fill the Southern Utah and California national parks, midway between them, Great Basin remains quiet. It’s not because of the lack of attractions. I cannot think of any other national park that offers a more intriguing mix of natural wonders: a peak with one of the most southerly glaciers, bristlecone pines and aspen growing nearby, a six-story limestone arch, and a cave with rare formations.

The Swamp, 1995. Fuji Velvia, exposure unrecorded


Lehman Cave is relatively small but is remarkable for the beauty of its intricate formations, which you can view from quite close. The most famous are the Parachute Shields, which Lehman Cave has in unusual abundance. Tours are conducted right from the visitor center, and I recommend the “Grand Palace Tour,” the longest one available, covering only 0.6 miles in 90 minutes.
Tripods, backpacks, and even camera backs are not allowed because you walk in narrow and heavily decorated passageways.

Parachute Shields, 1995. Fuji Velvia, exposure unrecorded


Twenty years ago, on a low-season fall visit, I was able to arrange a private after-hours tour on short notice, paying the ranger for overtime. At that time, with slide film, it was just not possible to obtain any usable image without a tripod. My large-format exposures lasted several minutes. In the course of the month-long trip, I traveled across the Canada-US border, and most of those shots were ruined when an x-ray machine fogged the film. It was the first of several incidents I experienced with large format film, made more heartbreaking by the effort required to make the photographs. Fortunately, the 35mm frames I had made as backup survived.

Grand Palace Room, 1995. Fuji Velvia, exposure unrecorded


Last month, I revisited Lehman Cave with our family of four. I was hoping to re-photograph the Swamp, an area of columns reflected in an underground pond, but it turned out to be totally dry due to low rains. Two decades ago, in such a situation, the National Park Service would artificially fill up the pond. But respect for natural processes grows stronger all the time, and this practice has now been discontinued. I was not able to improve the twenty year old shot, but found a few new ones.

The Swamp, 2016. Sony A7R2, 24mm, 1/20s at f/4, ISO 3200


I had stuffed a 20mm f/1.4 lens in a pocket (since no bags are allowed) but due to the close proximity of the foregrounds, shooting it wide open resulted in blurred areas due to the shallow depth of field. I ended up using two f/4 zooms, a 24-70 and 16-35.

Parachute Shields, 2016. Sony A7R2, 62mm, 1/80s at f/4, ISO 10000


In combination with image stabilization and high ISO capacities, although I was shooting hand-held, I got technically much better images than I was able to obtain twenty years ago with slide film on a tripod. Not only they were considerably sharper and with more dynamic range, but also by adjusting the color temperature of the RAW files, I was able to bring out colors and contrast that were lost to slide film under incandescent illumination, in particular in the photographs of the rare Parachute Shield formations. The RAW files shot at high ISO did exhibit a fair amount of noise, but the standard noise reduction built into Lightroom made short work of it.

Grand Palace Room, 2016. Sony A7R2, 17mm, 1/20s at f/4, ISO 3200, flash


Although one needs to be considerate of other visitors, flash photography is permitted, and most of the rooms have low ceilings favorable for bounce flash, which produces better results than direct, on-camera flash. In the Grand Palace Room, possibly the center piece of the cave, the central column wasn’t well-lit twenty years ago, and is still dark today compared to the rest of the room. This isn’t ideal, since the central column is the main subject. But in the intervening twenty years, I had added portable flash to my arsenal of techniques. With just a bit of bounce fill-flash from a tiny unit, I was at least able to bring that central column to light. The room was filled up while the ranger did a talk, but I simply waited for it to end, stayed behind for less than a minute to compose the shot, and quickly caught up with the tour group. It’s certainly a good time to take pictures!

Exhibits and Events Update Mid-2016

This is a mid-year update about the “Treasured Lands” exhibits for 2016, looking at past, present, future events, and a miss.

“Treasured Lands” moved at last to the Bay Area during the winter, hosted by the
PhotoCentral Gallery. PhotoCentral is a community gallery ran by photographers and educators Geir and Kate Jordahl. Besides their excellent gallery programming, they also offer classes that take advantage of their nice facilities, both analog (they run a fully equipped darkroom) and digital. The room in which I gave my presentation was totally full, but they had anticipated it, and provided a streaming link to a second room with a large screen. I lent my camera to my brother-in-law to photograph the event, but he brushed the ISO dial, moving it from Auto-ISO (which would have been 6400 ISO) to 100, so here are just installation pictures. That’s my 5×7 camera in the glass case.

On the occasion of the exhibit, Geir and Kate put together a catalog, entitled

America’s Fifty-nine National Parks
. As small-run book, the production obviously cannot match the Treasured Lands book, which comes from the offset presses of one of the world’s best art printers. However, the catalog is an interesting publication that incorporates Geir’s curatorial perspective, as he carefully selected an image sequence that expands on the exhibit. Being printed in a limited edition of 100, it will become a collector item.



Next “Treasured Lands” traveled to the Museum of Science, Boston in April where it will show until Sept 18. I am particularly honored to exhibit there because the Museum’s founder, Brad Washburn has always been one of my inspirations, for his multi-faceted contributions to mountaineering, photography, cartography and science education. The Museum of Science is consistently ranked in the top 20 museums in the US, and their installation didn’t disappoint. Before the exhibit even started, I received this image from them, which is a computer-rendered view of the installation which looks quite real!

Here are photographs of the actual installation. Unfortunately, due to printing delays, the Treasured Lands book will begin shipping after the end of the exhibit, and therefore no event will be organized there. Here is a
write-up about the exhibit in the Boston Globe:
Museum of Science exhibit captures US National Parks on a large scale

The next stop for the exhibit is the city of Las Vegas. “Treasured Lands” will be on display at the Mayor’s Gallery in the Historic Fifth Street School from Oct 5 to Nov 22, and this time, there will be a lecture and book signing in conjunction with the Vegas Valley Book Festival, with details to be announced on that website.

Before setting out a model for post-presidency humanitarian work, President Jimmy Carter presided over the largest expansion of protected lands in the history of the world, when he signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in December 2, 1980. This more than doubled in size of the National Park System with 47 million acres added, and created no less than seven national parks – more than under any other presidency. Although he signed the law one month before living office, what made it possible was that President Carter had previously single-single-handely set aside the lands as National Monuments by executive order in December 1, 1978, using the Antiquities Act.

I was hoping to pay homage to President Carter’s contributions to the national parks by exhibiting “Treasured Lands” at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum during the year of the National Park Service Centennial. I had contacted the staff years ago, on more than one occasion, but at those times, the lack of an exhibit designer on staff prevented the institution from making a firm commitment. After this radio silence, during the spring of 2016, I was surprised to receive a call advising me of an interest for the fall of 2016, and only then. The agreement with Las Vegas had not been signed yet because city lawyers were busy reviewing the language of my exhibit contract. However, I had informally agreed to exhibit in Las Vegas, so as appropriate and prestigious as it is, I had to decline the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum’s late offer. “Your word is your bond…”

Next, “Treasured Lands” returns to the East Coast (New Jersey). Besides Las Vegas, I am making arrangements for lectures/book signing events this fall and winter. One which has been finalized is on November 2, part of University of California Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures, which features Ken Burns, Douglas Brinkley, Dayton Duncan, and Terry Tempest Williams. More are to come, so stay tuned, and I hope to see you at one of them!

New Series: “The Theater”

In the context of my project America’s Best Idea, I’ve started a new series called The Theater, which is still in its early phase compared to the other series in the project such as The Visitor and the series linked within.

The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 states two goals: to
conserve the natural scenery and to provide for its enjoyment by the
public. Although they appear untouched, most of the national parks
have been made easy to access. The promising “national park”
designation lured me to places that I might have ignored. I wondered
how parklands influence our understanding and appreciation of the
natural world around us.

Collaborating with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan on their film, I gained
awareness of the significance of the national parks as an
idea. Paintings and photographs played an instrumental role in their
development. The interaction between real and image continues to frame
our perception of nature in the parks. Many iconic photographs,
depicting them as wilderness without man-made intrusions, celebrate
the landscapes protected by the National Park Service. I rarely came
to a park without some of those images in mind.

Although they are the most material embodiment of the National Park
Service’s work, far fewer photographs depict structures such as
visitor centers, designated overlooks, campground amphitheaters with
educational programs, and roads engineered to create a scenic
experience accessible to everyone. But the parks are more than
wilderness protected, they are a construct. Although visitors remember
the scenery, it is the interplay between the man-made and the natural
that defines their park experience. The reassuringly familiar
structures carry an educational and interpretive purpose that direct
the way we look at nature.

National Park Mobile Apps Review

This year has seen promising new apps for visiting the national parks. In this survey, I review all top national park apps, new and old, with an emphasis on the features that set each of them apart, so that you can find the app best suited for your style of visit.

Chimani

Since 2010, Chimani focuses only on mobile apps for the outdoors, and in particular national park locations. Their entry-level app (free) is “National Parks”, a survey of each of the 400+ national park service units, organized by NPS designation such as National Park, National Monument, National Historical Site, etc.. Each of the 400+ units is introduced by a picture (I provided those for the 59 national parks), and a brief general description. The interactive features include:

  • A “trip planner” offers suggestions for point of interests depending on length of stay, your interests, and outdoor proficiency.
  • A mechanism to bookmark locations you want to go to, keep track of those you’ve visited, and earn badges and share on social media if you’re into this sort of thing.
  • A zoomable map which can be used offline, with each parks keyed to an icon which you can tap to obtain the relevant information.

In addition, for some units, a the app provides a link to install a detailed guide. That’s where things get meaty if you plan to visit a park. Chimani has developed for a while individual apps for popular national parks and other NPS units. Those apps were initially for purchase ($2 each), but apparently a partnership with Subaru has made them free, and Chimani have upped their game this year by releasing one app for each of the 59 national parks, making them so far the only company to have done so. I have checked the information for the most remote and seldom visited parks, and can report that it is very accurate and quite complete. All the apps use the same format, so once you are familiar with one app, using the others is easy.

The informational content of the app encompasses (and occasionally follows closely) what you’d find on the NPS website. A big difference is that the information is organized by categories (such as point of interest, camping, hiking, bathrooms) in a format easy to browse on a mobile device. Each of the locations are illustrated with a photo, so the app gives a good idea of the terrain of the park.

Being designed for outdoor use, all the information is accessible offline, without the need for a data connection. However, be aware that after you download the app, you still need to open it with a data connection one time to load the maps and photos before you can use it entirely offline. Maps can be downloaded at two resolutions. The highest one represents a lot of data to transfer and store! As an integrated app, they offer the same interactive features as the global app: trip planner, tracking, map integration.

The maps, which are based on the crowdsourced and excellent openstreetmap.org and custom-rendered by Chimani, have a good amount of information (including trails), topographic-level detail, and park locations. They are GPS-enabled, meaning that when you are in the park, you can see your own location as a marker on the map, which alone makes it worth the download.

Verdict: Only apps with detailed information for all the 59 national parks. Offline, easy to use, enhanced version of the NPS websites, with a solid and useful map.

REI


REI’s National Parks
free app is the latest offering, released this year to celebrate the NPS centennial. REI’s app traces its roots to the acquisition of Adventure Projects, a small company who created specialized apps and websites gathering crowdsourced information for multiple outdoor activities including hiking, trail running, mountain biking, climbing, and skiing.

Unlike the Chimani apps, REI’s is a single app that includes all the parklands, which are not limited to national parks. As of this writing, 36 of them are covered, with an odd mix including locations such as Rock Creek DC, or New River Gorge, WV, but not Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited of the national parks!

With that much data, like for the Chimani apps, you need to download the maps and photos before you can access them offline, which is simply done by opening them – much easier than with the Google Maps app on which the maps are based. Once you’ve done this, the maps are GPS-enabled and work without a signal. They are based on the excellent “terrain” maps of Google, which provide greatly rendered topographic-level detail, and in addition there are icons for park locations. The main draw on the maps are clearly outlined hiking trails with overlaid icons of geotagged photos which open to larger, captioned versions when you tap them.

Although the app has the all the basic general park information you’d expect, its main strength is its great collection of hiking trails (the database lists 4,823), thanks to the inclusion of crowdsourced information from the Hiking Project – one of the Adventure Projects creations. For each trail, there is a detailed map, elevation profile, detailed description, photos (of varying quality since user-supplied), and even user ratings. As a crowdsourced project, everybody can contribute to the database by sharing their itineraries, so this has the potential to become an extremely extensive database.

In order to broaden its appeal to non-hikers, the app also includes a developing category called “gems” (currently 235), which are roadside attractions requiring only a short stroll, for which information is provided in a format similar to hiking trails. Last, a “family friendly” category attempts to identify those gems and trails that offer maximum rewards for least effort.

Verdict: Extensive digital trail guide and maps for offline use, particularly good for hiking thanks to great crowdsourced information.

National Geographic

Since National Geographic publishes the
best selling guidebook to the national parks as well as an excellent collection of national parks maps, it is no surprise that National Parks by National Geographic was one of the first mobile apps dedicated to the national parks. It currently covers the 27 amongst the most popular parks.

The base version of the excellently designed app is free, and includes a brief guide with general park information, current weather, a map, and a photo gallery. The map consists of pins overlaid over a satellite background (data link required), but except for campgrounds, the pins do not link to more information, only place names, limiting the practical usefulness. The photos have the curated quality expected from National Geographic, however there are only 3 per park in the free version.

Detailed guides to the parks are available as in-app purchases of $2 for individual parks or $14 for the whole set. This buys you:

  • A dozen more photos, some of them under the category “photo tips” including detailed location and information on how to get the shot, others under the category “what to see”, which come with extended captions.
  • A list of interesting facts (called “park secrets”).
  • A list of recommended activities, each with a well-written detailed description (“what to do”).

Verdict: High quality editorial content, including expert recommendations and excellent photography.

Passport to your National Parks

Eastern National issued in 1986 the “Passport”, a booklet to help visitors collect cancellation stamps in each of the 400+ NPS units. The companion free app main function is likewise to help visitors find parks, plan and record visits. Parks can be searched by name, region, state, or nearby location. For each of them there is a picture, very brief description, and links to the nps.gov website for additional information.

Verdict: electronic version of the popular “Passport” booklet for NPS Units

Oh, Ranger ParkFinder

American Park Network has for decades made available free printed park guides with a familiar green cover. The main purpose of the free
Oh Ranger Parkfinder app is to help visitors find parks. Unlike other apps surveyed here, those are not limited to NPS units. Instead, they include not only other federal public lands such as national forests, national wildlife refuges, BLM sites, but also parks at the state, county, and city level. Within 100 miles of San Jose, CA, no less than 3001 parks were found!

You can locate parks by proximity to a city or zip code, and filter them by any of 20 type of activities. For each of them, there is a brief description and activity list, phone number(s), a link to the park’s website, map link, and sometimes user reviews and a photo gallery.

Verdict: extensive database of public lands for finding your park

Maplets

Maplets ($3) is a universal map viewer rather than a national park app, but I mention it on this list because it is one of my favorite apps to use when visiting a national park. I recommend it to people who do not want to bother with a complex GPS app (Survey here) because it is so easy to use and is based on what I consider to be the best general-purpose maps of the national parks, the NPS official maps. Those maps are not topographic, but instead are graphical representations that offer the exact right amount of information for most visitors, enough for driving around and hiking on maintained trails.

After you download maps for the parks you intend to visit the app simply indicates your location on the zoomable map with a dot without the need for a cellular connection. When the park includes detail maps for some areas, you download all of them at once and can switch between them with a pull down menu. In addition to the official NPS maps, Maplets can show your location on any calibrated map, and those will appear when you search for the location. For instance, when hiking the Subway in Zion National Park one-way, one of the difficulties is not to miss the exit trail. In searching for “Zion”, I found a calibrated topo map of the entire route, which made navigating it a child’s play, even in the dark.

Verdict: Usefull offline viewer for the official NPS maps and others.

Zion National Park’s High: Observation Point

Zion National Park doesn’t have the equivalent of Yosemite’s Glacier Point. Because of the sheer walls surrounding Zion Canyon, there are only two trails leading from the valley floor to the rim. Although lesser known than Angels Landing, the Observation Point Trail is the higher of the two.

Angels Landing Trail is is famous for having exposed sections, protected by chains and guardrails. The steep 5-mile round-trip hike with a 1,500-foot elevation gain ends on a narrow spine that climbs a finlike mountain jutting out to the center of Zion Canyon from the West Rim.

The Observation Point Trail is a bit longer (8 miles round-trip; 2,100-foot elevation gain) leading to an even higher view of the canyon than Angels Landing, which appears as a small ridge (backlit in image above) from there. On the way, I took in a good variety of scenery, including the dark Echo Canyon, with beautiful slick rock formations and a glimpse into a slot canyon at mile 2.

Past that section, views open up over a secondary canyon not visible from the Zion Canyon floor. Then the last section of the trail is a long, level traverse along the rim, which offer a variety of angles that enable you adjust the viewpoint over Zion Canyon depending on the angle of light. I liked the views along the initial section of the traverse in the morning. In the afternoon, the light was more favorable at Observation Point itself.

For the iconic shot looking down Zion Canyon, light is difficult on a clear day. Too early or late in the day, the canyon is in the shade, whereas at midday, the view is backlit. With normal hiking hours, the best is early morning or late afternoon, when one wall is in the shade, but the valley is still illuminated. The more northerly angle of the sun in the summer months helps, as will clouds.

On a cloudless day, the soft and directional light of dawn or dusk would be ideal. However, during the mandatory shuttle season (March to early November, plus November week-ends) you cannot park at the trailhead and either the first shuttle would be too late or you’d miss the last shuttle. Alternatively, you could hike from the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort via the East Mesa Trail (which is used to access Mystery Canyon). The trail is about 7 miles RT, with little elevation gain, but much less varied than hiking from the canyon since you’ll be most of the time on a forested plateau.

On that June day, the initial plan was to descend the Subway from the top. However, the weather was threatening, and we changed our plans. I thought that changing weather may be promising for Observation Point, even at midday. Although I started the hike from the canyon on a warm summer day, at midday temperatures suddenly plummeted. I barely had time to put my camera gear away when a thunderstorm brought hail to the rim. Half an hour earlier, I was sweating profusely despite using my umbrella for shade. During the storm, despite wearing a rain jacket, I felt chilled. I was glad to have something else than a T-shirt, a lesson learned from previous outings! I waited out the storm, huddled under the umbrella that proved again its versatility, keeping me perfectly dry. Afterwards, breaking clouds put out the quickly changing display of light that I had hoped for, with dark clouds creating a brooding atmosphere.