Backcountry 3-D

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside Magazine, August 1999


Backcountry 3-D
Glasses Sold Separately

Skip McWilliams, a veteran guide and lodge owner in Mexico's Copper Canyon, doesn't like topographic maps: "They're geographical pornography, reducing a rich experience down to cold lines." Those of us who've struggled to make the conceptual leap from a set of abstract markings to the real-life backcountry we're traversing couldn't have said it better. But for park visitors to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and California, there's now an illustrated alternative that's both highly accurate and blissfully intuitive to use.

Trail Tracks maps, the brainchild of Estes Park, Colorado, innkeeper Fran Grooters and neighbor Joan Van Horn, look like ski-mountain maps on steroids, packed tight with terrain details. "Whenever I'd help guests plan hikes," says Grooters, "they didn't know how to read a topo, or have time to read a guidebook."

Beginning in 1994 with Rocky Mountain National Park, which abuts Grooters's Alpine Trail Ridge Inn, the women spent two years researching everything from wildflower seasons to park regulations. They are now deep into their seventh opus—Yellowstone National Park—and are busy hiking 500 miles to verify trail difficulty levels. Meanwhile this summer, ski-area illustrator Jim Niehues will shoot 15 rolls of film from a Cessna 182 as it circles over the Washburn Range, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Yellowstone Falls. After rangers have field-tested the resulting panoramic portrait for accuracy of details such as geologic features, trail junctions, and water sources, the map will finally hit the shelves next May.

Trail Tracks will never duplicate the U.S. Geological Survey's precision, but flip-side tables provide exact mileage, elevation gain, and such. And unless you have a special fondness for celery-shaded linear art, Trail Tracks landscapes make a much more evocative souvenir. Even Skip McWilliams would approve.—ERIC HANSEN

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