Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
This month the National Park Service quietly launched a new mobile app that is sure to be a game changer. The product, simply titled National Park Service, is available for free on Android and Apple and boasts a staggering number of features, like accessibility information, lodging reservations, hike suggestions, audio tours, restaurant hours, and, perhaps most important, maps available to download for offline use.
If the goal for the Park Service is to offer visitors a one-stop shop where they can glean news, alerts, and trail recommendations for all of its 423 units, then this app is already crushing it.
Though the app is technically still a work in progress, the beta version currently available is incredible. Users are greeted with stunning photos of some of the most visited national parks. Then you have the option to find a unit by mapping to your current location, searching a specific state, or typing a park name into the search bar. From there you can tailor your home page by pinning favorite parks to the top, checking off previously visited old haunts, or creating a new list of sites and activities for an upcoming road trip.
Want to go on a guided audio tour of the Star Wars filming locations within Death Valley? Download park data for offline use, begin at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, on the California side of the park, and follow the driving directions on the app’s map to blast off to Tatooine. Looking for the best spot to check out the active eruption on Kilauea? Flip through the recommended options and learn about the goddess Pele and Hawaii Volcanoes history as you decide where to take in the show. It’s like having a ranger in your pocket at all times.
The app is full of quirkier features, too, like taking a “belfie” (a selfie in front of the Liberty Bell at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historic Park), detailed images of every single park passport stamp and where to get them, and the ability to create and send a custom, virtual postcard, with up to four recent photos and a park stamp in the corner.
By far the most impactful part of the new app is how much it streamlines the visitor experience. In the past, travelers had to get individual apps for each park, which were often clunky or failed to download quickly enough due to spotty reception in rural areas. With the new National Park Service app, it’s a download-once-and-go experience, perfect for last-minute hikes, essential information, advice, and alerts on things like road closures. You can even book campgrounds and search for nearby food options.
Of course, the app isn’t perfect—yet. Destinations like Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky, don’t have cave tours uploaded at the moment, and Yosemite, in California, only lists two hikes under Things to Do. A Park Service spokesperson said that at this time it’s focusing on finalizing content and testing features, noting that “parks are continuously adding content to their sections of the app, so always check back to see if favorite parks have added more info.”