Visitor Recreation Chapter

Park rangers and others who share their knowledge of our national parklands are always looking for ways to inspire visitors. This is a constant challenge for park interpreters, as visitors grow increasingly sophisticated in what they expect from gift shops, museums, trailside displays, brochures, and websites. Before they leave home, many visitors check the Internet for color images, maps and other background on national parks. And when visitors arrive, they want clear yet visually exciting information to help them understand the trails, volcanoes, geysers, wildlife, cliff dwellings, climate, streams, campgrounds and other resources they are about to explore.

Park interpreters now have a new and exciting tool to communicate a sense of place to park visitors. National parks, in partnership with the US Geological Survey, have created GIS maps that offer stunning 3-D images of park topography and key features. At Grand Canyon National Park, for example, GIS maps help make sense of the immense scale and grandeur of geographic features that have a tendency to mystify and astound. Using satellite photography, GIS technology translates topography into layered maps that illustrate canyon views, rock layers, and how trails cross canyon walls. Yet GIS technology does more than make pretty maps. For example, GIS in the Grand Canyon shows the relationship between temperatures and canyon walls, information that could help save lives in a desert landscape with little or no water. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, maps use GIS layers and satellite imagery to create a birds-eye view of the landscape. With this technology, serious volcano watchers and novices can instantly find what they need from the same map exhibit. The evolution of GIS has the potential to revolutionize web sites, media and other programs that help us interpret national parks. Technology now offers hand-held computers for backcountry navigation, virtual hiking experiences, and GIS in park planning. The evolution of GIS will open up new exploration, such as virtual flying, as interpreters help visitors make the most of their vacations in our national parks.

Jim Gale, Chief of Interpretation
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park


Riley Hoggard, Gulf Islands NS and Jeffrey Reed, University of West Florida
Personal Watercraft Environmental Assessment - Resource Mapping and Analysis

Whales, nesting ospreys, turtles, dolphins, and sea grass are all vulnerable to personal watercraft as they skim the surface waters of our national parks. Noise and vessel maneuvers easily frighten shorebirds. In shallow water, an accelerating watercraft can blow out patches of sea grass that support marine life and estuaries. And it’s hard to see, much less avoid, a turtle or other sea creature from a personal watercraft going 45 mph. To study the impacts of personal watercraft, Gulf Islands National Seashore used GIS software to map areas within view or earshot of personal watercraft areas. The park in Florida and Mississippi wanted the maps for public education, to understand how natural resources overlapped, and to determine areas where personal watercraft did not threaten the ecosystem. The maps displayed nesting sites of ospreys, eagles, herons, and shorebirds. The maps also showed popular areas for personal watercraft, swimming, and fishing, and displayed their locations in relation to documented sightings of air-breathing sea animals, such as endangered sea turtles, manatees, whales, and dolphins. The maps continue to help the park as it balances wildlife and habitat protection with recreational opportunities for park visitors.

Resource map of Fort Pickens Area, Florida.

Resource map of Horn Island, Mississippi.

Resource map of Perdido Key Area, Florida.

Resource map of East and West Ship Islands, Mississippi.
 Click for Technical Article

Marie Frias Sauter, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal NHP
Hiking Trails of Great Falls Maryland: Mapping for Visitor Safety

Hikers scramble over rocks and enjoy spectacular views in the Great Falls area of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park near the nation’s Capital. Yet the historic, scenic, and recreational features that draw visitors to one of the most difficult and heavily used trails along the middle Potomac River also led to more injuries and missing hikers. To improve visitor safety and education, the park and its conservation partners upgraded trails and signs. They also spent two years creating a GIS-based map and safety education publication called “Hiking Trails of Great Falls Maryland.” The two-sided brochure shows hiking trails on the front. The back offers visitor safety tips, trail descriptions, National Park Service regulations, emergency contact numbers, and alternative trails for less-strenuous hiking. The brochure also suggests ways for visitors to leave nature as they find it on trails. The map creators used various data collection and display software including ArcView software developed by ESRI, and global positioning systems. The park printed the brochure on water-resistant paper to meet the needs of visitors in most weather conditions and as a park keepsake.

Canal Boat Interpretive Program at Great Falls

View of Potomac River looking towards Mather Gorge

        PDF of map brochure: "Hiking Trails of Great Falls Maryland"

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Larry Murphy, Submerged Resource Center
Use of GIS for Visitor Information at Dry Tortugas National Park

The seven islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park offer stunning underwater views of shipwrecks, fish, coral, and other sea life. President Roosevelt set aside the pristine sands, shoals and reefs as a national monument in 1935. It has protected the area 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, as a national park since 1992. The park service has surveyed more than 50 square miles of seabed for display on GIS maps to benefit park managers, researchers, and the public. GIS mapping helps park managers identify and select scenic diving and snorkeling areas for public enjoyment and long-term study. One underwater area known as the Windjammer Site offers stunning views of a shipwrecked iron-hulled sailing ship that sank in 1906. Visitors can find a GIS map of the site at the park, on the Internet, and in a laminated version for underwater use during visits. The underwater trail guide and fish-watchers guides enhance the underwater experience. The park envisions adding historical and archeological information with photographic and video imagery to make visits even more special. The park also is experimenting with ways to bring the experience to non-divers, children and physically challenged people who want to know more about historic shipwrecks and the diverse natural environment around them.

Front of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key

 Fort Jefferson on Garden Key at Dry Tortugas NP

 Visitors to the Windjammer wreck 
site can use the underwater "trail guide" 
to enjoy this historic wreck site.

Windjammer "Trail Guide" (front page - site map)

Windjammer "Trial Guide" (back page - site interpretation)

Additional Information

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Marianna Young, Saint Croix/Lower St. Croix NSR
Scenic Quality Analysis in the St. Croix River Valley

Gliding quietly in a canoe, you look up in awe at walls of ancient basalt towering over the river. Soon, the canyon opens into a wide valley carved from ancient glaciers. As you paddle, your gaze follows a great blue heron as it rises from the shoreline toward a bald eagle that dips and soars on the currents. This is the kind of view you would find during a visit to St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and its sister unit, the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But idyllic scenes like this one are facing the kind of development pressures that threaten many national parks today. These pressures take the form of new housing, gravel pits, commercial strips, and hobby farms and their accompanying roads, communication towers, power lines, and more. Development threatens to fragment habitat and destroy critical natural, cultural and scenic resources beyond the boundaries of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers as they flow to the Mississippi River. To preserve the area, the non-profit St. Croix Scenic Coalition, with the National Park Service serving in an advisory role, is using GIS software to identify and map valued community assets, such as scenic views. As a first step, area residents identified overlooks, trails, and roads that offered significant views in a particular area. The coalition downloaded the data into GIS software, which analyzed and displayed what could be seen from the different locations, and how often. Residents then returned to those locations and rated them using specific criteria. The resulting GIS map displayed the scenic quality of the area. These maps can help set priorities for conservation, direct development to other areas and help plan ecological corridors. The coalition hopes the effort will help reduce the harmful impacts of rapid development. A community cannot protect scenic areas it has not identified. Preserving natural areas in the St. Croix Valley serves the National Park Service mission to protect America’s wonders for future generations.

Representative scenery shot of Lower St. Croix NSR

  Evaluation Criteria worksheet for ranking scenic views

Map - Viewshed Analysis of St. Croix River Valley

 Map - Scenic Quality Analysis of St. Croix River Valley
Click for Technical Article