Spider Rock. Canyon de Chelly. Four Corners

How To Visit National Parks Without Leaving Home

During National Park Week in 2020 we couldn’t visit any of them. Most were closed, and the few that weren’t, were be too far for us to drive to.

So, instead of a road trip or a flight to some of the National Parks, we visited them virtually. We reminisced about old trips in many of the parks, planned future visits, and watched footage online from quiet parks around the country.

Reminisce About Old Visits to Different National Parks

Over the years, we visited many of the parks, starting with the times we had young kids. They learned a lot while exploring National Parks, while they all became Junior Rangers. They still use their knowledge earned so many years ago, protecting the environment, and now teaching their friends about National Parks and what they stand for.

I think of all the National Parks in Arizona we visited so many times over the years, and I enjoy the images of quiet parks, devoid of tourists. As much as I miss them, I know this quiet time helps them recover somewhat from the over-tourism of the recent years, especially when it comes to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.

Sunset at Grand Canyon South Rim
Sunset at Grand Canyon South Rim

I also think about some of my favorite National Parks I hope to return to as soon as possible, like Mesa Verde and Chaco, Bryce Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Hovenweep. I can’t wait to camp again at Sunset Crater and visit Walnut Canyon during the same trip. Or just take a few short trips to Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well, Tuzigoot, or Casa Grande within a short distance from my home.

Planning Future Visits

We still didn’t (and hope we might not have to) cancel a trip we had planned last year, before we ever heard of the coronavirus, for the end of the summer to the Pacific Northwest. During that trip we plan to revisit some of my favorite National Parks like Mount Rainier and the North Cascades among others.

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Mt. Rainier National Park

Most years, during National Park Week we can visit them free for a few days. This year, we can visit some of them virtually instead.

Visiting National Parks Virtually through Google Arts and Culture

While I already knew that Google Arts and Culture offers virtual tours to art museums, I also realized that they teamed up with the National Parks, offering great virtual tours for some of the most spectacular ones.

And since we can’t visit or revisit them in person, we joined the rangers virtually in exploring five of the US National Parks in the Hidden World of the National Parks.

Following rangers to well-known and hidden parts of five parks, I experienced some of the most amazing features of our earth. I virtually walked through hoodoos, dived underwater, climbed into a glacier and canoed through its lake, explored an active volcano and experienced new land being formed, and explored underground caves with the bats. Being stuck at home did not stop me from enjoying these parks through some stunning videography and photography.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

One of my favorite National Park in the US, Bryce Canyon, with its amazing hoodoos and dark skies, is a place we visit and spend time at often. We visited in April a few years ago, and I found it to be the best time to enjoy the scenery and a few hikes into the canyon.

But since we can’t repeat the adventure this year, we can still enjoy a virtual visit to Bryce Canyon. It’s great to see the familiar landscape on the tour centered around Sunset Point, the place we spent so much time at. Accompanying the ranger on the trail made me feel like I was back there, though I’ve never seen the park this empty of people. We even got to see the night sky. I could not imagine a better tour. The sights and sounds of the empty park during daytime and at night are worth the virtual visit.

View from Bryce Point
View from Bryce Point Overlook

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Though I’ve never visited Dry Tortugas National Park, and I doubt I ever will (I am not a diver), this was one of the most enjoyable virtual tour I’ve experienced. This park is almost exclusively underwater, with only a tiny part at Fort Jefferson, on land.

The rangers here are all divers, and following them – on screen – I watched one of the most diverse underwater ecosystems in the US. They swam through a coral reef, showing off its diversity and beauty in crystal clear waters, and through the Windjammer Shipwreck, that became a host for a new coral reef and underwater creatures. Though I will probably never visit this particular park in person – and maybe no one should – a virtual visit with a diver ranger made my day.

Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Another National Park I haven’t visited – and maybe never will – Kenai Fjords looks amazing. Through this virtual tour I followed a ranger to a crevice into a glacier.

While I would never attempt something like that, it is great to watch someone else do it – and I will revisit this site in the middle of the summer, when I am sitting in the hot desert at 100+ degrees, the ice on my screen might make me feel cooler. I also watched her kayaking through the Bear Glacier Lagoon of melted water, which looked like an amazing experience.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i

This virtual tour took me flying over the Halema’uma’u Crater of an active volcano on the island of Hawai’i, showcasing the still hot, red lava and its surroundings.

After the flight, I followed a local ranger through a rainforest and into a lava tube unlike any I’ve seen before. The Nahuku Lava Tube was still glowing red as she passed through it. Emerging on the ocean side I stood (virtually) on black basalt lava cliffs, contrasting the blue waters around Hawai’i Island, still growing as the lava keeps moving.

Carslbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Finally, I followed another park ranger in New Mexico, through the underground wonderland of Carlsbad Caverns, caves we were planning to visit for years. While we still haven’t made it in person, I was able to visit the caves virtually through this tour, see some of the most amazing underground rock formations I recognized from different cave visits, and watch thousands of bats flying out into the daylight.

This tour gave us the experience of a bat, moving in the pitch dark cave, navigating through echolocation, an experience you can only get virtually. Then we walked through the Big Room, the largest single cave chamber in North America. Unlike on a real life tour, on the virtual tour we could go off-trail and experience the stone formations, secret rooms, including Spirit World, filled with white formations, close to the top of the Big Room. This was another amazing virtual tour.

Check Out Virtual Tours of More National Parks

You can also learn about and take virtual tours of 13 more National Parks through Google Arts and Culture. These tours might be different, but still take you through some of the lesser-known National Parks and historical sites.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

Chaco National Park
Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Showcasing artifacts from the Chaco Museum’s exhibit, this virtual tour of the park gives a short presentation about when and how Chaco became a National Park. Here, you can access the museum’s collection, and not only see photos of the pieces, including pottery, beads, and household items found at the site, but also learn about their origins. You can also virtually walk through the museum through its interactive photos.

Death Valley National Park, California

The Death Valley National Park virtual tour includes the virtual museum exhibit, and a lesson plan for teachers using the museum’s collection.

Grand Teton National Park

The Grand Teton National Park virtual galleries showcase the David T. Vernon collection of American Indian Ethnographic Objects, including stories about some of thee beaded and embroidered objects. You can also walk through some of the park virtually.

Other National Parks in this Collection

Lesser-known National Parks are also included in this collection, including John Muir National Historic Site, Nez Perce National Historical Park, Morristown National Historical Park, among others. They all showcase collections from the museums at the parks, and in some cases, offer virtual tours of the sites.

Enjoy Virtual Tours Offered by the National Park System

The National Park System has its own virtual tours set up for various parks, where you can visit a few of the National Parks from your own home. The beauty of these tours is that you get to see (even if only on-screen) parks that you might not even know existed, besides revisiting some of your own favorites.

You’ll visit Maryland and tour Clara Barton National Historic Site in Maryland, the home of the founder of the American Red Cross. Or, you can take a trip to the Virgin Islands and visit the Virgin Islands National Park on St john Island. Fly back to Arkansas and visit the Hot Springs National Park, then take a trip to New York City to the Hamilton Grange National Memorial and tour the house Hamilton lived in for the last two years of his life. And, if you are a fan of Melville, or want to learn about the Underground Railroad you can visit New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. Or you can visit – or revisit Crater Lake, in Oregon, all from your own home.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake NP
Crater Lake National Park. photo taken during our visit (c) Jeff Fromm

Featuring the deepest lake in the US, and one of the top ten deepest in the world, Crater Lake National Park protects the lake with its fresh, clear waters, its shores, and cultural resources. Though I visited Crater Lake years ago, and I wish I could go back in person, the next best thing is this 360-video tour of this National Park.

During the tour you’ll learn about the park’s features and experience its beauty through visuals and sound. You’ll watch the sunrise over Garfield Peak, and ride a boat around a rock formation called Phantom Ship. Move around to see different angles, while learning about the lake’s and the park’s history.

Visit National Parks Through Their Live Webcams

Or you can always visit the National Parks online by watching images on their webcams. Though these webcams don’t move, you can watch them at different times of the day to see the changing scenery and wildlife that may come near. Most parks have at least one webcam set up, and some, like Yellowstone, have quite a few.

The nine webcams set up at Yellowstone National Park help get a closer look at the geysers the park is famous for. Though we all know of Old Faithful, the first established National Park has close to 500 active geysers. While you can’t watch them all, the live webcam set up at Old Faithful gives you a chance to watch it any time; while the other static webcams show different areas of the park. Bookmarks the site, check out all the webcams and come back often for views of the park.

Enjoy Your Virtual Visits and Appreciate the Quiet of the National Parks

While you might miss being at any of the National Parks in person, remember that this break is not only necessary for us, but good for the parks. Wildlife can return to normally high-traffic areas; pollution caused by too many cars and visitors is down in the parks.

We’ll have opportunities to return to our favorite parks in the future and revisit old favorites. Hopefully, we’ll learn to appreciate their beauty more, and maybe we’ll understand that overcrowding is not going to add to our experiences. We might start visiting less often, and keep our cars stopped, and walk more instead.

I don’t have the answers, but I hope that this break will open up new possibilities, will teach us all to live more in harmony with nature around us. At least while we wait to travel once again, or visit National Parks, we have a chance to reflect upon our impact on them, and find a way to lessen our footprint, and enjoy our surroundings, without polluting them.

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