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America's National Parks Go Online, Street-View Style

By Laura Michonski
October 3, 2012
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Courtesy Nature Valley

Nature Valley has teamed up with hikers and videographers to create the ultimate virtual tour of three iconic American Parks—the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Canyon.

The site, NatureValleyTrailView.com, which launched today, provides interactive maps of popular trails complete with videos of trail markers and points of interest. The result is 360-degree street-level imagery of over 100 miles in each park—as well as helpful information for each trail (distance, difficulty rating and elevation) for folks looking to embark on their own trekking adventure.

To create the maps, eight hikers set out into the parks with an 11-lense, Dodeca 2360 camera, which captures video footage from every direction simultaneously (editors then stitch the images together to create an immersive experience). And while the team has only covered three parks so far, they have plans to expand into other parks.

Hear about the team's experiences documenting the parks:

The project calls to mind Google's efforts to bring street view into art museums and to document the remote villages of the Amazon River Basin, but Google had nothing to do with this project. The venture was sponsored by granola-bar company Nature Valley which has aligned itself with our national parks in an effort to preserve them.

This project helps our parks in three ways—one, it provides much-needed cash to the park system, two it educates the public on these valuable natural resources, and three it digitally documents the land for eternity.

Of course, the role of big business in preserving our parks is not without controversy. Critics worry that corporate sponsors will wield undue influence over parks. But before you start freaking out about advertisements cluttering our views of the Grand Canyon, keep this in mind—90 percent of our budget for the National Park Service comes from Congress. And, as Mother Jones reported in a recent article, there are plenty of rules that protect the parks from conflicts of interest and corporate pressure.

As far as I'm concerned, I think it's cool—you can visit our nation's parks from the comfort of your couch, you can teach your children about the beauty and importance of our nation's natural resources, and when you're ready to visit you have a tool that can help you make the most of your experience.

What do you think?

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In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the National Park Service has announced that all 397 national parks around the country will be offering free admission from Saturday, January 14th, to Monday, January 16th, 2012. “Dr. King’s story and those of so many others whose efforts changed our country are preserved in the national parks, places where history happened," said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. "I hope every American can take advantage of the upcoming fee free weekend and visit their parks to experience their history firsthand.” Those wishing to learn more about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., can pay a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia, where both the home he was born in and his tomb with the Eternal Flame are on display. Follow in his footsteps along the National Historic Trail from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, now a designated historic byway. If you happen to be on the east coast, visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and sit on the steps from which Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech, or visit the newly opened Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in the National Mall. Events commemorating Dr. King's life will also take place at Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Tennessee, while the MLK Film Festival will be held at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington D.C. from January 14-16. Not sure where the closest national park is? Use this tool to find a national park near you and see what activities and events are offered in each park. It should be noted that all National Parks will also be free on the following dates: April 21-29, National Park Week; June 9, Get Outdoors Day; September 29, National Public Lands Day; and November 10-12, Veterans Day Weekend. We want to know: What are your favorite National Parks? Are there certain ones you take your family to every year, or others you plan to visit in the future? Tell us all about it! MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 7 National Parks You've Never Heard Of Quiz: Think You Know the National Parks? National Parks (Minus the Crowds)

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On November 7, Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey, became the latest addition to the National Park family. After a long fight by Paterson residents and officials to have the 77–foot waterfall recognized, their dreams were fulfilled—partially—by Monday’s agreement. There remain years of work to mold Great Falls around Park Service standards, but the will, and the funds, can now be brought fully to bear on the project. See the parks. When Ulysses S. Grant declared Yellowstone the country’s first national park in 1872, early conservationists could have only dreamed of the vast network of protected areas that grace America’s states and territories today. Less than 140 years after Yellowstone’s induction, the National Park Service (NPS) now operates 397 parks and monuments. Great Falls might be years away from completion, but visitors have 396 other options to explore in the meantime. And there’s no better time for a park jaunt than this Veterans Day weekend, when over 100 national parks will waive their entrance fees. From November 11–13, explorers can enjoy the beauty and history of National Parks from Florida to Hawaii at no charge. (Many other National Parks are free throughout the year.) No doubt many visitors will take advantage of this largesse to visit Yellowstone, the Everglades and other crown jewels of the Park Service, but there are worlds of wonder beyond the well-trodden path. Why not take a chance on one of the Park Service’s more unusual and lesser-visited locales? Check out the following: Dry Tortugas. Hot and remote, the Dry Tortugas are one of the Park Service’s most inaccessible destinations. One thing they aren’t is dry; the seven islands lying seventy miles west of Key West received their name from their lack of terrestrial fresh water (and an abundance of turtles), but tropical storms inundate the little archipelago with some regularity. Visitors must take a ferry or seaplane to the park, but the reward is worth it: renowned for its marine life and snorkeling, the Dry Tortugas offer clean beaches and clear water, as well as an historic American fortress to explore. Best of all, you probably won’t have to share it with many other people. Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial. The Park Service isn’t exactly modest in its holdings: from the Grand Canyon, to California’s Sequoia National Park, to Wrangell–St. Elias in Alaska (the reigning champ at over eight million acres), it has its share of massive parks. But these spaces contain enough to fill a lifetime, so they might not be the best choice for a weekend trip. If you’re not up for getting lost in a vast wilderness, why not go to the opposite extreme and visit the smallest destination in the NPS? Commemorating the life of an American Revolutionary hero, this National Memorial includes exhibits and artifacts from Kosciuszko’s military career in the new country he helped to liberate. Housed within Kosciuszko’s small Philadelphia home and measuring in at only .02 acres, the memorial is perfect for a quick historical tour. Aniakchak. Only serious adventurers need apply for an expedition to Aniakchak, a swath of land in southwest Alaska encompassing the volcano that gives the park its name. Extreme weather, a rugged, remote landscape and various other inconveniences—like bears—have earned Aniakchak its place as the very bottom rung of the NPS popularity ladder, but the natural riches of wild Alaska are a pot of gold for the few willing to seek out the end of this rainbow. Sure, by the Park Service’s own estimates only a few dozen people make it out to Aniakchak each year—but what an unforgettable experience those determined few must have. African Burial Ground. From frontier Alaska to the glittering streets of New York, the National Park Service spans all environs. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Aniakchak is the African Burial Ground, located in Lower Manhattan. The monument preserves the remains of several hundred free and enslaved Africans buried in the 17th and 18th centuries. The burial ground was forgotten and built over in subsequent centuries, only to resurface in 1991 as a result of construction excavations. A monument and visitor center now honor the memories of the interred. (The African Burial Ground does not charge admission, but will be closed on Veterans Day.) Nicodemus National Historic Site. Billed by the Park Service as “the oldest and only remaining all Black Town west of the Mississippi,” Nicodemus was an important outpost for African Americans moving westward after the Civil War. The historical site in Kansas is comprised of several historic buildings within the still–living community of modern Nicodemus. 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