Roads and Trails Chapter

The Use of GIS in Facility Management

It’s often the things we take for granted that make our national park vacations so memorable. We may choose a park for its natural features, such as geysers or glaciers, or simply because we want a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. As we enjoy nature’s offerings, we may not notice the smooth roads, working restrooms, and safe trails that help form the backbone of the national park system. We tend to take our safety and personal comfort for granted before we set off from a visitor center in search of a bald eagle, or a distant mud pot. Imagine our reaction, then, if we arrived to find a park full of potholed roads, dangerous trails, broken toilets and splintered benches. To make sure that doesn’t happen, national parks use all the tools at their disposal, including the latest in GIS software and other computer programs.

National parks often go to great lengths to provide basic services as such as drinking water and sewers. Some parks capture millions of gallons of rainwater. Others build sophisticated water recycling plants to conserve what little they have. Parks must restore trails and repair buildings in rugged, remote areas far from civilization. Many buildings are more than 50 years old and require special care to protect their architecture and historic significance. To meet these challenges, national parks increasingly use GIS to map the locations of roads, trails, utilities and buildings, along with their condition and need for repair. GIS technology turns reams of complex data into a clear map with many layers, each showing one or more themes. Using GIS maps, park managers can identify and schedule needed repairs and better understand the work and cost involved. In this way, GIS serves the national park mission to protect parklands for our enjoyment and education. And when we don’t have to worry about the condition of roads, trails, and restrooms, we can focus on all the things that make our national park experience so special.

Thomas Fake, Pacific Islands Landscape Architect
Honolulu, Hawaii


Melanie Beck, Santa Monica Mountains NRA
Using the Power of a GIS Trail Inventory for Trail Planning

The coastal mountains near Los Angeles widen to meet the curve of the seashore in a patchwork of public and private lands that make up the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It joins federal, state, and local park agencies with private preserves and landowners to protect a diverse Mediterranean ecosystem where native peoples once made their homes. Now it is “LA’s backyard” for hiking, mountain biking, walking dogs, bird watching, and backpacking along a network of 320 miles of trails and dirt roads. GIS serves as a trail guide of sorts for the National Park Service and its partners as they plan the future of the new 60-mile-long Backbone Trail. Planners studied the condition of the trail and plotted the information onto GIS maps. The maps quickly displayed patterns that might otherwise have gone unnoticed in reams of data. In this case, GIS maps showed the risk of erosion based on the steep trail grade in some places. The information will help trail planners as they decide whether to limit activity on the trail or even reroute certain sections. GIS software produced maps that illustrated the geographic relationship between key aspects, or attributes, of the trail. The map of the Backbone Trail showed at least 10 attributes, including trail width, trail activities, alternate routes, and future planning options to balance trail use with preservation.

Backbone Trail: Mountain Bike Bypass Around Boney Mountain Wilderness

Trail Grade: Steepness Analysis of the Backbone Trail

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Riley Hoggard, Gulf Islands NS
Habitat Analysis and Road Relocation Following Hurricane Opal

Hurricane Opal demonstrated the power of nature when the storm hit Florida’s Santa Rosa Island in 1995. Sustained winds of 125 mph and a 15-foot storm surge heavily damaged buildings, destroyed roadways, eroded shoreline, razed sand dunes and filled wetlands with sand in this part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. To help document damage and rebuild the park, the National Park Service created GIS maps using ArcView software developed by ESRI, and global positioning system technology. GIS helped show how the island literally “rolled over” on itself in the storm, moving 200 feet closer to the mainland in certain areas, with the gulf beach receding by as much as 150 feet. The hurricane gave the park service the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the island’s main road, which had blocked the natural growth and migration of the dunes, fragmented their habitat, and disrupted a second dune system. GIS mapping illustrated the problem and helped convince the Federal Highway Administration to relocate three miles of the seven-mile-long road. The park is also using GIS to help identify areas prone to storm flooding and damage, and island features to avoid during future reconstruction.

Storm impact map of the eastern end of the Santa Rosa Area showing relocated road sections.

Storm impact map of the middle section of the Santa Rosa Area showing relocated road sections.

Storm impact map of the western end of the Santa Rosa Area showing relocated road sections.

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Richard Menicke, Glacier NP
GIS Database for Rehabiliation of the Going-to-the-Sun Road

Soaring peaks, lush forests, deep-blue lakes, glaciers and sculpted mountains make Going-to-the-Sun Road a spectacular drive by anyone’s standards. Carved from Montana’s mountainside for part of its 50-mile length in Glacier National Park, the road also is an engineering marvel threatened by age, weather, poor drainage, and deterioration. The road opened in 1933 and needs extensive repairs to avoid the risk of catastrophic failure. The National Park Service turned to GIS to help restore the road for modern travel without marring the surrounding natural, cultural and historical resources. The park service created a database to display themes of the road on a GIS map. The themes, or map layers, identified mileposts, pullouts, guard walls, drainage culverts, survey points, wayside exhibits, avalanche chutes, trailheads, retaining walls, and intersecting roads. The park service linked this information to other databases that described the condition of the road and historic guard wall. Developing a GIS database with help from GPS software will provide a consistent map to help engineer and design repairs and identify cultural and historic items for preservation.

Mapping results at Alder Creek, with image of retaining wall

Image of GPS data collection (K. Mich, NPS) during Oct 2000.

Image (b&w) of Going-to-the-Sun Road circa 1933, shows historic stone masonry guard wall.

Image of Going-to-the-Sun Road looking towards Logan Pass.

Mapping results at Logan Pass

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Kerri Mich, Intermountain Support Office
Utility Mapping in the Intermountain Region

The National Park Service wants to capture the knowledge of its veteran maintenance crews and managers by recording what they know about the position of water and sewer lines and other utilities across our national parklands. In the past, people who oversaw park roads, buildings, trails, and campgrounds kept most of the information on paper, or in their heads. Now many of those managers are retiring without leaving current maps. To preserve this valuable knowledge, park service teams are using GPS and GIS technology, first to record the information and then to create maps that show the locations of park utilities. GPS systems accurately record utility locations to one meter, and interviewers can record a worker’s comments about things like pipe length, width, and when the park installed or fixed it. Maintenance crews check resulting GIS maps for accuracy and make additional notes as needed. Examples of success so far include Aztec Ruins National Monument, Fort Union National Monument, and Salinas Pueblo National Monument in New Mexico; Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Arizona; and Hovenweep National Monument in Utah.

Aztec Ruins utility features

The waterline at El Morro overlaid with sensitive resource areas. Staff was working on the waterline and needed to know the sensitive areas.

The GPS crew at Fort Union

Fort Union utility features

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