When people in the Ithaca area think of the outdoors, the first thing that comes to mind may not be National Parks. That’s because there isn’t anything obviously close that falls into this category. But there actually are many opportunities if you define your terms.
In terms of places called “National Parks,” there are only 58 in the United States and its territories. Of these, many of the big and famous ones are out west (think Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier), but two of my favorites are relatively close by: Acadia National Park in Maine (11 hours from Ithaca) and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia (6 hours away). Technically, the closest National Park is Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Cleveland, Ohio, less than 6 hours away, and if you are into flat canalside bike/hike paths, this place has amazing outings – but is not as grand or scenic as the other two.
Besides actual “National Parks,” the National Parks Service administers 394 “units” which cover places such as monuments, battlefields, historical parks, memorials, and recreation areas. By this standard, we are less than one hour from a National Park – the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. Now, if you’re into the outdoors, this park doesn’t really stack up to most others, weighing in at a scant 6.83 acres. But like many other National Park units with historical interest, this is a great educational family outing, which includes four major historical properties centered around the Wesleyan Chapel, location of the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848.
Other units within four hours of Ithaca include Fort Stanwix near Utica, Saratoga National Historical Park, Martin Van Buren’s home near Albany; and three near Poughkeepsie: the Vanderbilt Mansion, Eleanor Roosevelt Home and Franklin D. Roosevelt home. If you don’t mind crossing a state line, the Steamtown National Historic site in Scranton, Pennsylvania and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (between Pennsylvania and New Jersey) are also both well worth the visit.
If you want to widen the definition of a National Park just a little bit, then you might even live in one! There is a concept beyond the National Park Unit called the “National Heritage Area (or Corridor).” These are sites designated by the Federal government intended to encourage historic preservation, and appreciation of the history of an area. There are currently 49 in the US, and Ithaca is within one – the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. You can find a list and more information at http://www.nps.gov/history/heritageareas/
Now that you have some ideas for local outings, it’s time to get up and go – so you should be sure to gear up for adventure: water, food, sunscreen, bug repellant, and most importantly – your smartphone!?
To many people, technology is not the first thing they think about when they think of National Parks and the outdoors. As a matter of fact, there are many who feel that there is no place for technology in nature, and that computers and gadgets can only get in the way of truly experiencing nature. Think of your own impressions: you might see a hiker in the back country using a GPS locator for safety and think it’s just fine (Aron Ralston, of “127 Hours” fame, could have used one in Canyonlands, for example), but seeing a teenager on the trail listening to an iPod and texting while navigating the path may be too much. I’m sure everyone has their own feelings about this, but mine are that if technology can enhance your enjoyment and understanding of a place, or save you some money (or even your life), it’s probably worth bringing along.
On a recent family voyage from Trumansburg to the Great Lakes region (which somehow ended up in Yellowstone – don’t ask!) our family ditched the laptops in favor of two smartphones (Apple iPhones) and two tablets (Apple iPads). Accordingly, these reviews are based upon apps that run under the Apple iOS operating system. In many cases, these apps are also available for the popular Google Android operating system, but I’ve not reviewed them here because (a) I’m unfamiliar with them and (b) the system requirements tend to be trickier to figure out thanks to the variety of manufacturers of Android devices.
GPS, Mapping, & Positioning
The most popular GPS apps with turn-by-turn directions on mobile phones are AT&T Navigator, MotionX GPS Drive, Navigon MobileNavigator, Garmin Streetpilot, and TomTom. The functionalities and interfaces are just as good as (if not better than) on some dedicated units, but still I don’t use any of these apps in the car for basic navigation. Instead, I favor a standalone Garmin unit. There are several reasons for this. First, these apps cost around $50 with traffic and map subscriptions, whereas my dedicated unit was $69. Second, many of these apps require a live data connection to view the maps of the areas you are travelling. This is because the maps are so large they would fill your device, so they need to be streamed live, using up your data limits. Even if you have an unlimited data plan (which I do), there are many areas where you won’t get cell reception. There are many places one travels when visiting National Parks which, I’m sure you can attest, have poor or no cell phone signal. Third, you need to securely mount your mobile device somewhere in the car, and plug your device in so that you don’t run your battery out (these apps use a lot of power), and these mounts and adapters are not cheap. Fourth, the built-in phone speakers are not as loud as the GPS unit speakers, and I’ve found the phone to be hard to hear over road noise. Finally, if your phone is tied up doing turn by turn directions, it can’t easily be used for other things while you are travelling. So for these reasons, among others, I’m not a fan of turn-by-turn phone GPS apps. But there are several other apps that support positioning and mapping, work without cell service (using your devices GPS radio and pre-loaded maps instead), and support all kinds of activities in the park.
MAPS (Apple&Google, iPhone/iPad) – Free and included with iOS
Summary: This is the handheld equivalent of Google Maps in your browser. You can view live maps, many even with traffic reporting (red lines mean stopped roads or major congestion, yellow means they are slowing down, green means running smoothly), though a constant data connection is required to load maps and traffic. I’ve found this to be shockingly accurate. In a tie-up on the interstate outside Chicago, the traffic began right where the map said it would, and ended exactly where it was indicated. Although this won’t get you through traffic faster, it can allow your co-pilot to plot a route around it, or if there isn’t a good detour, at least you have a “progress bar” of sorts so you can manage the expectations of those in the car. (Of course, both my kids had to go to the bathroom as soon as we hit the construction!)
The fine print: Maps has some great other features, including the ability to show the overhead view as a road map or with a satellite image overlay. It can calculate and show directions between any two places (great for figuring out routes and timings for your next outing as you are relaxing in the hotel instead of when you’re sitting in the car ready to go). One other great feature on iPhone 3gs and 4 is that you can change from north-up orientation to compass orientation – which changes the direction the map is facing depending on what direction you are heading in. This is great in an urban park like New Bedford Whaling NHP where you are walking around an unfamiliar city and you want to see exactly in which direction you are facing and traveling (can be much more useful than the sometimes nonexistent “you are here” sticker on NPS locator maps). It can also calculate directions by driving, walking, or public transit – so is really useful in all kinds of environments.
GOOGLE EARTH (Google, iPhone/iPad) – Free
Summary: If you want to go beyond the basic information shown in Google Maps, you move to Google Earth. This portable version supports many of the same versions as the desktop client (layers, account login to show your own points of interest).
The fine print: the mobile version doesn’t support as many layers as the desktop (it includes places, businesses, panoramic, wikipedia, borders and labels, roads, oceans) but since you can sign into your own account, you can create as many layers as you like. I’ve used this in an NPS unit-rich area like Philadelphia (a city I’m mostly unfamiliar with) so I can get to all the sites, either by walking or driving. It even found the smallest National Park (Thaddeus Kosciusko N MEM), so I’m sure it would have no problem finding the largest (Wrangell-St. Elias NP in Alaska). Requires a data connection.
MOTIONX GPS (MotionX, iPhone (separate iPad version also available) $2.99
Summary: Not a turn-by-turn unit, this is more like a small outdoor-oriented GPS from a manufacturer like Garmin which shows latitude/longitude and allows you to set and navigate to waypoints. I use it to mark the trailhead (or parking lot) in case I need help getting back, and it also determines and shows altitude in real time which is great when heading over mountain passes like in Rocky Mountain NP. It can even record a track (setting waypoints automatically as you hike) so you can download them to a computer later and share your routes with pinpoint accuracy (or have them posted live to social networks like Facebook).
The fine print: You’ll never find a full-featured outdoor GPS unit for under three dollars, but this does drain your non-replaceable iPhone battery something fierce, so when I use this I bring a battery booster (a small battery pack that plugs into the dock connector) so I can recharge the phone once it dies.
CHIMANI NATIONAL PARKS (Chimani, iPhone/iPad) Free
Summary: This has got to be the single most useful app for those trying to visit all the Parks. For starters it shows a map of the US with a pushpin for each of the 394 units, which is really great when you are on the road and want to make sure you don’t miss a park in your vicinity. The NPS website used to have a great map of each state that clearly showed the parks, but now they’ve cluttered this list with other points of interest (which recently they’ve made a bit easier to turn off) and overly complex mapping detail. Plus, while the NPS map does work on mobile Safari (the web browser in iOS), it’s really hard to read on a small phone screen. Chimani has vastly improved this with a scrollable US map that shows only the parks, and expands each one upon a tap with details on the park as well as a link to the official NPS page for that unit.
The fine print: Amazingly, does not require a data connection for map to work (it does end up taking lots of storage space on your mobile device as a result, though). There is a great feature called “my Chimani” which allows you to mark a visit to a park, and the year (or years) that you did it. Unfortunately, it does not support storage of the date. Also, it changes the color of the pin for a site that you visited from green to red, but I would have found this to be clearer if red were sites you have not yet visited, and green were ones that were visited (I’d also note either display method will be useless to the 5% of the male population who are red/green color blind). A $1.99 in-app purchase will link this to the National Parks Traveler News blog (with articles about specific parks showing up on their respective pages in the app). I find it just as easy to read that site in mobile Safari, but the convenience may be worth it (and come to think of it since the app is free, this is a great way to support the developer). Chimani also has paid apps that go into far more detail on a handful of NPS units such as Acadia, Cape Cod National Seashore, and Yosemite.
OH RANGER! PARKFINDER (American Park Network, iPhone/iPad) Free
Summary: Type an address (or use your GPS to find your current position), pick an activity (like hiking) that you want to do, and this app will show a list of parks in the area, complete with a description, directions, park maps, activities, contact numbers (even call the park with one tap), and web site links. This is my go-to app if I’m trying to find a new park in an area I’m unfamiliar with.
The fine print: The problem is, it mixes national, state, and local parks all together with no way to filter – so it’s a bit less useful to find NPS units as opposed to helping you plan recreation irrespective of who manages the land.
PARK GUIDES (Shearwater Marketing Group, iPhone/iPad) Free
Summary: This is a nice app which lists 50 parks, and helps you identify the specific plants and animals you could encounter there, with categories to highlight animals that are threatened or endangered, and plants that are poisonous or dangerous. Because this is sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association, the “about park” button brings up specific information on the NPCA’s activities in the park, which is a great way to find out how your donations are making a difference, if you are a member donating to this organization.
The fine print: They describe their list as being of “50 National Parks” but it’s a bit all over the place, with National Parks, Lakeshores, Seashores, Recreation Areas represented, but not all of them, and no monuments, historic sites, etc. This would be a bit more useful if they could be more specific about the strategy employed to choose what sites are included.
PARK MAPS (Big Air Software, iPhone) $1.99
Summary: You know those Massimo Vignelli Unigrid brochures with maps that you get when you enter a park? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a version on your phone to refer to if it’s dark, or windy, or if your kids are making paper airplanes out of the paper guide? Well, that’s what Park Maps does. It has most of the park maps in its database, and they are even Geotagged so that they can show your current position on the map using GPS when you are actually at the park.
The fine print: you need to load the maps before visiting the park when you have a fast Internet connection, so plan ahead (plus it takes up memory on your phone, so you probably couldn’t load all 250 maps even if you wanted to). Requires iOS 4.3 or higher, so some people have complained that it doesn’t work with older devices, or devices not updated to the latest iOS software.
MAPLETS (Zala Design, iPhone/iPad) $3.99
Summary: Takes the ‘park maps’ concept, and ups the ante by allowing not only national parks, but state and local ones as well. Geotagged so you can see your location on the map (as opposed to OH Ranger Parkfinder listed above which can get you the map, but not position you on it).
The fine print: Includes maps well beyond national parks, including subways, bus routes, Universities, rail trails. Needs a fast Internet connection to initially load the map, then stores it in internal memory.
POINT INSIDE (Point Inside, Inc., iPhone/iPad) Free
Summary: Can you find your way around the poorest marked backcountry trail, but get hopelessly lost indoors when your spouse drags you to the outlet mall while you’re on vacation? Then this app is for you. As the name suggests, this app specializes in maps of indoor locations such as malls and airports. It will show you the floor plan, as well as your current position using GPS.
The fine print: your GPS may not work in some indoor locations, but many malls and airports tend to have skylights or floor-to-ceiling windows which allow signal to make it in. Maps need to be loaded when you have a data connection, but that’s not usually a problem in airports and malls.
FOOD AND LODGING
So you’re in a new town, and you want to know if the tourist trap you’re standing in front of will rip you off, make you sick, or delight you with great food that the locals love. In the old days, you’d break out the big AAA book for the state, find the city, and hope for some useful and timely information. Often, it would be out of date – and incomplete. But with smartphones, you can get up to the minute reviews of a number of retail establishments.
YELP (Yelp, iPhone/iPad) Free
Summary: Find the nearest restaurants (also has other categories like banks and drugstores but I use it mostly for food), which you can sort by distance or star ratings. Then read reviews by other Yelp users (not professional paid reviewers), which will give you the real story on what a place is like.
The fine print: Requires data connection, but even on slower networks it loads quickly, since it’s not as dense as the web browser version
TRIPADVISOR (Tripadvisor LLC, iPhone/iPad) Free
Summary: Provides very similar functionality to Yelp, but also includes hotels and things to do, so very useful when planning your lodging and non-park activities.
The fine print: This app is invaluable in separating out which hotels are going to give you a good night’s sleep, and which ones will have people screaming in the halls and banging on the walls with staff unable to do anything about it. (* based on a true story)
SIMULTRAVEL (Simultravel, iPhone) Free
Summary: “Plan travel while you travel” is their tagline, and it makes sense. Are you ever on the road, heading to another park, and getting off an Interstate exit in the evening to find somewhere to stay? How do you know how much the rooms at the local hotels cost (billboards don’t count since they often advertise specials that are never available by the time you get there), or if they even have availability? You could drive to each front desk and stand in line to check, or even call around if you have their numbers, but the best way I’ve found is to use Simultravel. It will show a map of the local area with pins on each hotel site which when clicked will show the lowest available room rate for the night (your room could be a bit higher if you need a different configuration, upgrade, etc).
The fine print: it is possible to book through the app, but they use a third-party reservation system which adds what I believe is an unnecessary middleman. This app is a great way to get a quick overview of the ballpark prices of available properties, nonetheless.
ON THE ROAD
So while you’re on the road between parks, you can treat it like a necessity – or subscribe to the “getting there is half the fun” mentality. We try to do the latter. And these apps will help.
ROADSIDE AMERICA (This Exit LLC, iPhone) $2.99
Summary: You know when you’re driving and you see some field full of rusty sculptures, or a giant chicken, or billboards that advertise the “must-see” attraction up ahead? How do you know what’s worth seeing and what truly is a “trap?” This app is based on the book “Roadside America,” but has the advantage of fitting in your pocket, being updated regularly, and using your device GPS to find things near you and helping you plot directions. What’s not to like?
The fine print: does not include user reviews, so all opinions are from the publisher. Buying the app only unlocks one of six regions (usually people will pick where they live) but this isn’t as useful for travelers. A $5.99 in-app purchase unlocks all the regions for a year. So it’s a bit more expensive than it initially seems if you want to use it on the road.
REST AREA FINDER (Clean Micro LLC, iPhone) Free
Summary: When you’re really making time on the Interstate, sometimes you don’t want to stop for a break at an exit since that means traffic, delay, and bathrooms of questionable quality. For us, a highway rest area often is the most efficient way to take a break with easy-off/easy-on access. But signage can be spotty as to upcoming areas. Rest Area Finder will show you the rest areas, travel plazas, welcome centers, even turnouts without facilities in your area. What it won’t tell you, unfortunately, is what areas are closed because of a state government shutdown. (I’m looking at you: Minnesota!)
The fine print: I still haven’t found the ideal app for this. In my mind, the ideal app would know what road you were on, and what direction you were traveling in, and show what was upcoming. For this app, items are shown on a map (inexplicably as hot air balloons) and you need to figure out manually what is in your path and then check the name (for instance Rest Area EB I-86 MM160) means the area is on the Eastbound side of I-86 at mile marker 160. The app also has text abbreviations (and full text on the detail page) to show what amenities to expect (eg: rest rooms, picnic tables, venting machines, etc) as well as a link to online reviews of the facility.
SIT OR SQUAT (Densebrain, iPhone) Free
Summary: If you’re traveling with kids, this is a must. Even without kids, there are times where you’re out and about and just need to find the closest place to go to the bathroom. This app will find the closest facilities, be they rest areas, gas stations, or a book store. This app has it all: directions, open hours, and ratings & reviews by other visitors.
The fine print: And as an added bonus to parents of newborns, you can even narrow search for attributes like “Changing Tables.” Free because it’s sponsored by Charmin, but if you can stand the ads, this is an extremely useful app.
GASBUDDY (Gasbuddy Org, iPhone) Free
Summary: So you’re on the road and need gas. You find an exit and the prices seem a bit high, since the station is out in the middle of nowhere and has no competition. But there is a city a few miles ahead – how to know if you are going to save any money by holding off for a few more minutes? Well, fire up this app and have the GPS find area stations (or enter a city name) and you’ll get a sortable list of gas stations, as well as current prices, as entered by regular people in the GasBuddy online community.
The fine print: Since it’s user-supplied data, it can be out of date or inaccurate, but it’s great for getting a sense of trends between geographic areas. You don’t need to create a login account, but if you do, then you can post gas prices with the app and give back to the community.
MUSIC & AUDIO
If you’re visiting the parks, you probably have to log a few miles in the car. You’ve loaded up your iPhone with songs from your iTunes library, but on a long enough trip, you’re going to exhaust your library and want to find something new to listen to. Now, these apps stream music using your data connection, so if you don’t have an unlimited plan – beware! But if you do (or don’t mind your bill being higher for your trip) try some of these out. You’ll need some way to connect the iPhone audio to your car stereo; popular methods include a cable from the headphone jack to a stereo input, and some manufacturers even include dock connectors in their car that can pass through audio as well as charge your phone. For older cars, you can purchase adapters that convert the phone audio to FM so you can tune it in with the car radio.
PANDORA RADIO (Pandora Media, iPhone/iPad) Free
Summary: Type in an artist or genre of music, and Pandora Radio will build a “station” around it and play songs matched by their “music genome library.” You can rate songs up or down as they are playing, so it can learn what you like. Rating “thumbs down” will skip to the next song and try to remove others like it from the station (you can only do this a few times an hour as per their music licensing agreements). As the song plays, you can also read about the artist and song with the built in music database.
The fine print: A premium (monthy fee) version removes the ads that show on the screen and play periodically between songs.
MUSIC ARCHIVE (Josh Bergen, iPhone) $1.99
Summary: If you’ve ever visited archive.org, you’ll know they have a huge library of live concert recordings from a wide variety of bands, which you can play back for free on your computer, and now from this inexpensive app. As long as you have a data connection, you would never run out of music, ever.
The fine print: There is also an app called “Concert Vault” from Wolfgang’s Vault, another online repository of music. Its selection is not as vast, but it has the advantage of being free, albeit with streaming at a lower quality.
TUNEIN RADIO (Synsion Radio Technologies, iPhone/iPad) Free
Summary: This app might save you a few bucks in data costs, since it has the ability to find local AM/FM stations and tell you what they are playing, and you can then just use your car radio to tune the station in, no streaming required. Of course, if you have a good data connection and plan, you can also stream most of the stations it finds, including ones from outside your listening area. Listen to New Orleans Jazz while driving through the plains states. Nobody will ever know!
The fine print: A pro version of the app costs 99 cents, but includes the ability to record radio stations and removes banner ads from the display.
NPR News (NPR, iPhone (iPad version available) FREE
Summary: Listen to the latest news summary, or any NPR news/talk show via streaming.
The fine print: If a show happens to be on live at the time you request it, it won’t be available for streaming from the beginning since it’s not archived yet, but you will be able to listen to a live stream from the NPR online station of your choice.
INSTACAST (Vemedio, iPhone) $1.99
Summary: If you listen to podcasts, you know that you need to subscribe to them via iTunes, run the application on your desktop to download the latest versions, and then sync to your phone so you can listen on the go. This isn’t necessarily an easy process to follow when you are out on the road. The iPhone iTunes app WILL let you update podcasts when connected via wifi, but you won’t always have wifi, especially if you are off the beaten path. Instacast lets you subscribe to and download podcasts via your cellular data connection, saving you the trouble of connecting to the desktop or finding a wifi network.
The fine print: Instacast can also stream a podcast if you have a consistent connection, so no need to even download it.
The iPhone has a perfectly good built-in weather app, but it doesn’t have some of the tools necessary for dealing with the outdoors. These apps help fill in the gaps.
THE WEATHER CHANNEL (The Weather Channel Interactive, iPhone) Free
Summary: One really nice feature of this app is the ability to click on the “crosshair” icon and instantly get a forecast for your GPS location. Other apps require you to enter the city, or jump through more hoops to get to the positioning, so this app rises to the top from a usability standpoint. It will also warn you of severe weather in your area, play weather videos, allow you to specify daily, hourly, 36-hour or 10-day forecast, and provide an interactive animated Doppler radar map.
The fine print: One annoyance is that whenever you use the GPS feature, it asks you if you want to add your current location to favorites. Considering how many places I use this in, it’s unlikely I'll need the forecast again, so I’d prefer this dialog be optional since it adds an extra step.
NOAA RADAR US (Shuksan Software, iPhone/iPad) $1.99
Summary: Many of the weather apps can show a Doppler radar map so you can plan a route or wait until a front moves past before beginning your hike. Sometimes, it’s just nice to know when the rain is going to let up before taking your tent down. The nice thing about this app is its ability to show your position and then track as you drive, so you can see when the rain up ahead is going to start, or even if there are tornado warnings across your path so you can take cover.
The fine print: The developers recently added severe weather warnings, which create a box around the affected area on the map, and have a popup that warns of the event and when the watch or warning expires.
WUNDERMAP (Weather Underground, iPad) Free
Summary: This is simply the best weather app for iOS, and unbelievably it’s free! Scroll around a map of the country and it shows the temperatures (and other optional details such as wind speed and direction) as overlay. It also overlays an animated Doppler radar.
The fine print: The really nice thing about this app is that as you scroll around, there is a “crosshair” in the center and whatever city it lands on gets 2 windows that pop up from the bottom – alerts (only if any are active) and conditions, which show the current conditions and scroll to forecast view. The conditions can also be “locked” to your current city so you can scroll around but keep your local forecast up. Besides scrolling, you can also identity a forecast area via GPS positioning or entering a city, state, or zip code.
IN THE FIELD
OK, so you’ve finally researched your parks, looked up the weather so you know what to bring, travelled the highways and found some interesting diversions (and bathrooms) along the way, and saved some money by purchasing the cheapest gas in the area. You’ve found the best hotel deal, and a great place to have dinner close by. You’re finally in the park – but don’t put that phone away just yet. Besides using some of the mapping programs previously listed, there are some other good reference materials you can use to enhance your understanding and appreciation of culture and nature.
AUDUBON GUIDES (BIRDS,MAMMALS, WILDFLOWERS, TREES) (Green Mountain Digital, iPhone/iPad) $29.99
Summary: While you are out in the field, you may see a bird, mammal, wildflower or tree that you want to identify. With the Audubon guides, you can purchase these guides separately, or a bundle of all four. Each module allows you to enter identifying information about what you are trying to research (shape, size, color, etc) and even lets you use your location to rule out things that don’t tend to be found in that location. Once you identify your subject, you can get photos, information on range, recordings of their “voice,” description, and other data. You can add them to your “life list” which is managed through the app, and sync to an online account for backup.
The fine print: At $29.99 it may seem like a lot, but paper copies of these guides would cost a lot more. Plus for the month of July, this bundle is on sale for $19.99.
POCKET UNIVERSE (Craic Design, iPhone/iPad) $2.99
Summary: Hold it up to the sky and it will show you the positions and names of all the stars, constellations, and planets that are theoretically visible from this location. Of course, it depends on the light pollution. You’re more likely to see all of what’s out there from Chaco Culture NHP than from Ellis Island NM, but you can also tell the app how dark the sky is where you are so it can only show you what you realistically can see. This app is great for identifying things in the sky, and even links to Wikipedia articles about what you’re looking at so you can learn more. If you’ve ever had trouble finding a constellation in the sky, this is the app for you.
The fine print: There are several apps that are similar to this (Star Walk is another highly rated one) but I like Pocket Universe because its cost includes both an iPhone and iPad version.
Some people may believe that phones and apps and technology have no place in the great outdoors, but in my experience I’ve found this technology to assist in and enhance these activities as opposed to becoming a distraction. These apps can save you time, money, and if you’re travelling with kids, probably will stave off a couple of grey hairs. So if you’re up for it, it’s probably time to add another tool to your backpack as you head out on the trail, your smartphone!