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How to Visit a National Park Without Actually Visiting a National Park

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Take a virtual tour of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords with Google Arts & Culture. 

Photo by Sekar B/Shutterstock

Take a virtual tour of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords with Google Arts & Culture. 

Get your fill of the sights and sounds of U.S. national parks even when you’re stuck at home because of coronavirus.

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Now is the time to stay at home to help “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak spread, but that doesn’t mean you have to have to give up the great outdoors entirely. There are real cognitive benefits to interacting with the natural world, which is why most shelter-in-place orders make exceptions for safe, socially distant outdoor recreation. Of course, for many of us, a stroll around the neighborhood just won’t scratch that nature itch like an invigorating hike in the Great Smokies or Rocky Mountain National Park would.

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:

Google Earth offers virtual tours of 113 national park sites, including Wupatki National Monument in Arizona.

Take a 360-degree virtual tour

Google Arts & Culture teamed up with the National Park Service to create free, immersive, guided tours through five national parks. The series, The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks, was released in 2016 in honor of the National Park System’s (NPS) centennial celebration and focuses on lesser-known sites, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Utah’s Bryce Canyon, and Dry Tortugas in Florida. 

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. 

Click through Google Earth tours

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Google has also created 360-degree Google Earth tours of 113 national parks sites, including 31 parks and a number of monuments, historic sites, and seashores. Some of these are popular sites you may have visited or dream of visiting, such as Mount Rushmore or Alcatraz; others you may never have heard of, including Florissant Fossil Beds in Colorado or Wupatki National Monument in Arizona. These tours don’t include recorded narration, but like other Google Earth experiences, you could spend hours—days even!—clicking your way along pathways and spinning around to get full views of the park scenery at the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Canyon de Chelly, Point Reyes National Seashore, Ellis Island, and more. 

Get a bird’s-eye view of an eagle nest like this one with a webcam in Channel Islands National Park.

Watch a live webcam

You may not be able to visit Yellowstone, but you can watch Old Faithful erupt from the comfort of your couch. These days, many national parks have webcams set up so that far-flung park lovers can enjoy the views. Some even capture sights that you might never see otherwise, such as the Brooks Falls brown bear webcam in Alaska’s Katmai National Park—at times, we’ve seen around a dozen bears gathering to fish salmon out of the stream! Take in the New York skyline from the Statue of Liberty, admire the cherry blossoms at the National Mall, watch water cascade over Yosemite Falls, spot fish darting in and out of swaying kelp on the Channel Islands National Park ocean webcam, or peek at a bald eagle’s nest.

Listen to nature sounds

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.

Learn about the science of Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone with the park’s story map.

Explore interactive multimedia tours

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If virtual tours don’t dive deep enough for you, you may be more satisfied with the topic-specific multimedia tours created by a number of national parks. Through new and historic photos, maps, and blurbs, these interactive tours explore a single place or topic in a national park, such as the Angels Landing hike in Zion or archaeology in the Grand Canyon. Take an “e-cruise” around Acadia National Park, “climb” the Grand Tetons, or wander through Upper Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park. 

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.  

Photos in the National Parks Conservation Association’s new book offer fresh perspectives on favorite places.

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. 

Buy now: $32, amazon.com; $50, barnesandnoble.com

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