But as more and more parks close temporarily because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to have to put our national park camping trips and weekend getaways on hold.
Instead, lace up your virtual hiking boots and get your national park fix online. You can actually reap many of the mental health benefits of nature simply by looking at pictures of it. And with virtual tours, webcams, sound recordings, and multimedia experiences, you can fill your living room with the sights and sounds of the national parks, recreating some incredible park experiences without ever leaving home. Here’s how:
Each tour features 360-degree photos of different spots in each park with short, one- to two-minute narrations from park rangers. Virtual travelers can spin around to view the area as the rangers relate facts about the flora and fauna and the park history, then they can click on an icon to hop to a different section of the park. Certain spots in each park also include extra 360-degree video experiences, such as a helicopter flyover at Hawaii Volcanoes, a horseback ride through Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos, and snorkeling in the coral reefs of Dry Tortugas.
Level up your virtual national park experience with soundscapes recorded at some of the NPS sites. You can turn these tunes on while you’re clicking through a virtual tour, or keep them on in the background to create a “work from a park” experience. (Trust us, it makes an overloaded inbox seem so much more manageable.) The National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division maintains a library of park sounds, which includes bird sounds, animal calls, and different natural and wildlife soundscapes. Unfortunately, they’re not curated into a playlist, so you’ll have to click individual tracks to external links to listen to them. But for a quick and easy sample, check out PARKTRACKS, a 12-minute mix that features chirping birds, elk calls, advancing rain, coyote howls, and cicadas singing.
It’s also worth checking out this NPS article about natural sounds recordist Jacob Job’s experience recording five parks for Colorado State University’s Listening Lab. It includes links to recordings he made at each spot, like the dawn chorus at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, screech owls clacking beaks at Sequoia National Park, and coyotes at the rising sun in Yellowstone.
There is no index of all the NPS multimedia tours, which the organization generally refers to as either virtual tours or sometimes story maps. (Note that occasionally, a “virtual tour” may simply be an in-depth article about a place, like this one about Fort Yellowstone, rather than an interactive experience.) But much in the same way that a great hike or viewpoint is better when you find it yourself, part of the fun of these tours is stumbling on them while exploring individual park websites.
Get lost in a photo book
One of the great advantages of visiting a national park is that it often allows you (or forces you, depending on cell reception) to unplug. Recapture that feeling by shutting down the virtual tours and cracking open in a nature-focused book. Last fall, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) released a gorgeous photo book in honor of its centennial anniversary (the NPCA was founded the year after the NPS).
National Parks Conservation Association: A Century of Impact is a mix of landscape photography and multi-page spreads that pair historical images with the untold histories of people, who, over the years and across the country, have stood up to help protect places like Glacier National Park and Stonewall National Monument. Learn about Mary Stoneman Douglas, the journalist and champion of the Everglades who, in the 1960s, actively fought encroachment of business into what she called a “river of grass.” Or Minerva Hoyt, the Southern belle who founded the International Deserts Conservation League and worked to establish Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936. (It is now a national park.)
Because many shipping services, including Amazon, are experiencing delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, don’t expect to opt for two-day shipping on this one, but for true park nerds and history buffs, this beauty is worth the wait.