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.
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.
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.
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."