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updated 10/14/2010 6:52:14 PM ET 2010-10-14T22:52:14
REVIEW

I'm in Rocky Mountain National Park watching the elk resting on the Estes Park golf course when someone from the Visitors' Center approaches me about taking a survey.

I decide to impress him and pull out my iPad, loaded with the brand new National Park Field Guides application. I switch it on, tap the bar that says "Current Location" and smugly present it to him.

"Er. Badlands National Park is a long way from here," he says of the park name that appears on the screen — 400 miles and two states away.

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Turns out this app is not designed to automatically locate your position. I falsely assumed that by tapping a bar labeled "Current Location," it would put me in Rocky Mountain Park. But all I was doing was randomly tapping a spot on the map beneath the bar — and I happened to tap Badlands. To get information on the park I was in, I would have to physically find the right place on the map, or choose it from an alphabetical list.

And so it was with this application. I really wanted to like it, but it kept disappointing me.

On the positive side, the application covers 50 national parks and is free to iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch users. It's lighter to carry around than a guidebook and includes descriptions of the parks and lots of information. It lists plants and animals (bird, fish, mammals, trees and wildflowers); things that are poisonous and dangerous; and information about threatened and endangered animals. It even has audio of birdcalls.

On the negative side, the information is provided in a format that resembles an encyclopedia. I can search for "elk" but not for "elk diet." Once I go to the entry for elk, I need to manually scroll through pages that cover: "description," "similar species," "breeding," "habitat," "range," "sign," and "track," until I get to a 700-word "discussion" section, where it tells me what elk eat.

It also tells me that "the Roosevelt subspecies (C. e roosevelti), shown in plate 317 in its rain forest habitat in Washington's Olympic National Park, is found in the Pacific Northwest." Why, I wonder, does it refer to a photograph that isn't included in the guide, and why does it clutter up the page with information about a species that is 1,500 miles away from here?

"The text content we use on eNature.com and in the mobile guide comes primarily from the print editions of the Audubon field guides," software developer Tom McGuire of eNature.com explains. "Even though it's been pretty carefully proofed over the 10 years that eNature has been online, a few little things slipped by."

That's not to say the information isn't useful — I did learn that elk are mostly nocturnal — but it certainly isn't as interactive as one would hope from an application.

As I read through the description of elk "bugling" (the term used to describe the species' mating call), I wanted to be able to bring up the sound. But there's no such capability.

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And what about maps? The "About Parks" section got me interested in a few hikes that it describes, but where are the trailheads?

Carrie Collins, a spokeswoman for the app, says it is not designed to serve as a travel guide, but more as a comprehensive database of flora and fauna in each park. Hence the title "field guide," rather than "travel guide."

Perhaps most annoying, each time I go to the app, it asks me to register, a move that McGuire says is intentional. (You can bypass this by clicking on the cancel button.)

I start to wonder if it's just as easy to use a different application, so I hold my Droid phone up to a buck to see if Google Goggles — which searches the web for information about images — can give me basic information. But it fails completely.

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One other thing to keep in mind when using apps or electronic devices in national parks is that you will not always have connectivity.

My final opinion of the national park app, which is being released by the National Parks Conservation Association, is that it's probably worth having if one is heading out to a park. After all, it doesn't cost anything and it covers 50 of the 360 U.S. national parks, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Cape Cod National Seashore, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

Still, as the fellow from the Visitors' Center said after looking at the app: "I don't think this is going to keep people from stopping in to see us."

The National Park Field Guides is available at http://bit.ly/NPCApp  and a complete list of parks included is available at http://www.npca.org/parks/app.html.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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