WASHINGTON — All across the country, park rangers are turning into podcasters.
Hundreds of brief audio and video programs are up on park Web sites and on iTunes giving visitors a new national park experience.
People can learn about park resources, take a guided tour, get help planning trips, and, best of all, meet actual rangers.
“While nothing can replace a personal experience in a national park, we think our podcasts will enhance people’s trips or give them the opportunity to learn about a park that they can’t visit,” said Mary Bomar, Director of the National Park Service.
“Whether people download them to portable devices or watch them on their computers, these free electronic presentations give us another way to serve park enthusiasts of all ages.”
Many parks offer interpretive podcasts about wildlife, history, and topical issues like climate change and fire management.
The most extensive collection of park podcasts is from Yellowstone National Park where they are reaching out to new and nontraditional audiences to spark an interest in visiting the park.
The Inside Yellowstone series has more than 50 episodes, which are one to two minutes in length. More episodes are on the way.
“Our podcasts give people from every corner of the earth the chance to fall in love with Yellowstone and become its stewards for the future,” said George Heinz, one of the writers and on-screen personalities for the podcast series.
The park has another online series called Yellowstone InDepth that presents mini-documentaries on subjects like volcanoes, invasive species, bears, and wolves.
In addition to general information, podcasts are a great way to offer ranger-led tours of specific areas that people can enjoy on their own schedule.
More and more people download guided tours onto their iPods or mp3 players prior to their national park trip. When they arrive, they literally have a ranger in the palm of their hand to guide them on a walking or driving tour.
At Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, people stop at overlooks along the South Rim Road and watch podcasts about geology, history, life, and recreation at those exact spots.
Everglades National Park also has a car tour (audio only) that leads listeners on a guided exploration down the main park road.
Civil War, too
Four civil war battlefields — Gettysburg, Antietam, Petersburg, and Richmond — offer podcasts that allow you to walk or drive along as you listen to a National Park Service historian talk about decisive and dramatic battles.
Urban parks also use podcast tours to reach local residents who may not know much about the parks they pass every day.
Visitors already use the Web to research park trips, but now podcasts make it more personal.
Park staff record podcasts with important safety information about trail conditions. They also offers hiking and river running orientation videos as podcasts and will soon launch new podcasts about Leave No Trace to help people reduce their recreational impacts.
Glacier National Park offers videos online about hiking, and rangers say the programs speed up the backcountry permit process.
“Rather than having to watch the video at the permit station which is required, more and more visitors have watched it online ahead of time,” said Bill Hayden, interpretive specialist.
Other parks help people plan trips with podcasts, too. Visitors can learn about recreational activities at Curecanti National Recreation Area, like fishing, hiking, and camping. Katmai National Park and Preserve has an audio podcast weaving together music, stories, and tips for reaching that remote wilderness area.
While not available for download like podcasts, virtual tours give people a park experience right on their home computer.
For example, Clara Barton National Historic Site offers a virtual tour of Barton’s home, a building that served as the national headquarters for the American Red Cross.
The tour allows visitors to navigate through all three levels of the house and gives access to images, text and audio clips.
Acadia National Park has an eCruise along the rocky shores of Mount Desert Island and Glacier National Park offers eHikes that take visitors through stunning wilderness areas among glaciers, wildflowers, and bears.
New virtual tours are coming soon: Zion National Park will release an eHike for Angel’s Landing; Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks will launch eHikes that go through the Sierra Nevada foothills or among the giant sequoias; and the Statue of Liberty will provide an eTour covering Liberty Island, the inside of Lady Liberty, and a 360-degree view from her crown.
Worries. Some worry that creating podcasts and virtual tours about national parks may keep people, especially children, disconnected from the actual places.
“Personally, I don’t think that people are going to give up on the real thing,” said Todd Edgar, media specialist at Acadia National Park.
“After learning about parks from our online resources, people want to get outside and explore on their own.”
For many other national park podcasts and virtual tours, go to www.nps.gov.
If a park unit offers online programs, you will find them by clicking on “Photos and Multimedia” in the left navigation bar of their homepage.