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Navigate the National Parks Better With These Essential Apps

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Explore the national parks with all the crucial information in your pocket. 
Photo by PR Image Factory/Shutterstock

Explore the national parks with all the crucial information in your pocket. 

Download these apps and, even when you’re far from cell service, they’ll help guide your adventures through some of our best-loved outdoor spaces.

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How many times have you visited a national park and gotten lost because you were too far out of range to use Google Maps? Or failed to gauge a trail’s level of difficulty based on a park map? Or thought “I wish I knew the name of that mountain/plant/constellation”? National parks newbie or veteran annual-pass holder, we’ve all had moments when we’ve needed a little help making our way through the North American wilderness. Luckily, there are (of course) apps for that.

You can download comprehensive park guides, engaging audio tours, detailed trail reviews, backcountry maps, and point-and-identify apps for flora, fauna, and other natural features. And because almost all of these hiking apps have offline capabilities, it doesn’t matter how out of range you go—but don’t forget to bring an extra battery pack. In honor of the National Park System’s 103rd anniversary, Apple bundled five great apps into a national parks package in the App Store, but these—and our other favorites—are also available for Android phones. Whether you’re headed out a multi-week excursion through multiple national parks or simply sight-seeing in the nearest one, these apps will help you make the most of your time.

Guides

REI Co-op National Parks Guide

Beloved outdoor retailer REI launched this app in 2016 in honor of the National Park Service’s Centennial Celebration. It features guides to 63 parks, monuments, and recreation areas in the National Park System. Each guide provides need-to-know information on food, accommodation, and activities, as well as detailed trail and annual climate data. You can filter hikes based on difficulty ratings, distance, or popularity or browse curated lists of family-friendly hikes or the park’s most beautiful features (“Gems”), and the trail maps use your phone’s GPS to function offline.

Buy Now: Free, App Store; Google Play

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Chimani—National Parks Guide

With details and highlights for all of the 419 sites in the National Park System, including monuments, battlefields, and historic parks, the extensive Chimani National Parks app is particularly useful for trip planning. Search through destinations based on your dates of travel, region, interests, and type of traveler to find, for example, a perfect NPS spot for a solo camper to go in the Midwest in June (Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan) or for a family of horseback riders to visit in the west in October (the Santa Monica Mountains in California). You can keep track of the parks you’ve visited by using your GPS to check in at each and earn badges.

Chimani also offers in-depth guides with all essential information (including bathroom locations!) for 59 official parks. These can be downloaded individually for free or purchased as a bundle with the Chimani Perks subscription—$29 annually—which offers discounts on lodging, dining, activities, and retail shops throughout the national parks.

Buy Now: Free, App Store; Google Play

National Park Service Apps

As with other guide apps, those created by the National Park Service provide park and trail maps as well as information on where to eat, sleep, and play. But depending on the site, many of them also feature live data, including road closures, camping availability, and upcoming events; the NPS Yellowstone app even provides geyser predictions. And almost all of the 25 apps available for iPhones and 24 for Android phones include fun and informative self-guided walking tours, but it’s worth noting that not all locations are available on each device: Cape Hatteras, for example, is only available on iPhone, whereas the National Mall app is only available for Android.

Buy Now: Free, App Store; Google Play

Audio Tours

Just Ahead

An excellent road trip companion, Just Ahead uses your phone’s GPS to sync narration about the park’s history, geology, and wildlife to your location. It also suggests directions in tricky-to-navigate spots and shares trip-planning resources too. The app and its custom maps work offline, and the program can run in the background, which helps save battery life and allows you to play your own music between narrations. The engaging audio guides were written by parks insiders and experienced travel writers such as Mel White, author of National Geographic’s Complete National Parks of the United States, and Robert Earle Howells, writer for Outside Magazine and coauthor of National Geographic’s Secrets of the National Parks. The guides even cover common routes to and from your destination. Guides are available for 23 national parks sites; some, such as Arches and Canyonlands in Utah, are paired.

Buy Now: Free with in-app purchases of each guide ranging from $8 to $10, App Store; Google Play

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Trail Maps

AllTrails: Hike, Bike & Run

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Originally a website, AllTrails is a long-trusted resource for hikers around the world. The app version includes more than 75,000 curated and vetted trails, and users can search by location to find available routes, then filter by length and difficulty. You can even search for wheelchair-accessible or dog-friendly trails. Aside from the essential information, trail listings also include user reviews and photos, and real-time map overlays can show you weather, air quality, light pollution, and pollen count. Download trails before you leave, and use your phone’s GPS to track your progress or keep from getting lost.

Buy Now: Free, App Store; Google Play

Point and Identify

PeakVisor

Never again wonder what the mountain in front of you is named. Simply point your camera at the mountain, and PeakVisor uses augmented reality (AR) and your phone’s camera to display the names, elevation, and sometimes even Wikipedia pages of nearby peaks. The app also provides 3D topographic maps with marked hiking trails and points of interest, which you can use to compose a hiking route, and everything can be downloaded for offline use.

Buy Now: Free, App Store; Google Play

Seek

Like PeakVisor, Seek uses image-recognition to identify plants, insects, and wildlife and then provides you with information about each species, its range, taxonomy, and more. You can record your observations to earn badges—a feature that is particularly popular with kids. Seek is part of the iNaturalist family, another great app and a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society that collects images and information from community submissions to help scientists working to better understand and protect nature.

Buy Now: Free, App Store; Google Play

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Star Walk 2

If you can’t get enough of star parties and the national parks after dark, this is the app for you. Star Walk 2 uses your device’s sensors and GPS to determine the position of the stars and planets, then uses AR technology to overlay their names and coordinates as well as 3D images of constellations. It also provides detailed history and mythologies of different celestial bodies. The app even includes a “time machine” feature that allows you to view the sky in the past or future, which is particularly useful for planning trips around celestial events. Tip: The ads in the free version of the app can be distracting, so it’s better to go for the $3 in-app purchase of the ad-free version.

Buy Now: $3, App Store; Google Play

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