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Technology in nature: 3 apps for national-park-bound travelers

A screenshot of the National Geographic National Parks App, which offers guides to 20 of the country's most visited national parks.
A screenshot of the National Geographic National Parks App, which offers guides to 20 of the country's most visited national parks.National Geographic

Most people head to the national parks to gaze at the scenery. This summer, though, don’t be surprised if more of your fellow visitors are staring at their smartphone screens.

Chalk it up to a proliferation of new apps that offer insights on trails, points of interest and park programs — even as they raise concerns about whether technology enhances or detracts from the experience.

“My concern is that they can distance people from the parks because they’ll be glued to their phones and won’t notice what’s going on around them,” said Kurt Repanshek, editor in chief of National Parks Traveler. “A smartphone app cannot duplicate a ranger tour.”

But it can enhance it, counters National Park Service (NPS) spokesman Jeffrey Olson: “We find people are coming to the national parks today with a lot more information so it allows us to get deeper into a particular story that someone’s interested in. Rangers love it when people engage with them on a deeper level.”

Of course, that assumes people are using their phones to access park information and not to play Angry Birds at the scenic overlook. If you’re among the former, here are three new apps that can help you enjoy the national parks and other outdoor spaces this summer:

Passport to Your National Parks
Considering children are among the most tech-savvy of citizens, it’s only fitting that the 26-year-old Passport to Your National Parks program enter the digital age. The free iPhone app is designed to be a complement to the longstanding passport-booklet program in which visitors collect passport-cancellation stamps in the parks that they visit.

Related: NPS touts green themes and waives fees

Developed by Eastern National, a longtime non-profit partner of the NPS, the app (free, iOS-only) lets users search for parks by name, state, region or GPS within a 50-, 100- or 250-mile radius. Choose a park and you’re connected to a one-page summary with links to the official NPS site and buttons that let you bring up a map of cancellation stations, record your travels with photos and journal entries and highlight the parks that you still hope to visit.

Fairly intuitive and fun to use, here’s hoping version 2.0 has a QR code reader so you can forgo the accompanying booklet altogether and get digital “stamps” directly on your phone.

Sierra Club Trail Explorer
Up for a hike but not sure where to go? The newly updated Trail Explorer app from the Sierra Club (free, iOS-only) lets users browse more than 40,000 trails from local day hikes to backcountry treks in the national parks. Users can filter searches by nearly a dozen filters (proximity, difficulty, accessibility, etc.) with the results appearing in list or map form.

Tapping on a specific trail brings up a brief description, along with trail statistics, driving directions (via Google Maps) and, for share-happy hikers, user reviews and photos, links to Facebook and Twitter and a tracking feature that will record your journey. It’s impressively comprehensive with one odd omission for a trail-focused app: In a surprising number of searches, it shows the trailhead — but no trail!

National Parks by National Geographic
Just in time for National Park Week, when parks that typically charge admission waive those fees, this iPhone app from National Geographic offers guides to 20 of the country’s most visited national parks. From Acadia to Zion, the app compiles park statistics, weather reports and maps with points of interest, along with social media features, tips from the magazine’s editors and appropriately awe-inspiring images.

Related: Confessions of a national park ranger

And, in true NatGeo fashion, it’s the photos — professional, archival and user-generated — that make the app. The only catch is that the overview app and one more in-depth, park-specific guide are free; once the dazzling images draw you in, additional guides will run you $0.99–$1.99 each.

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