Ersatz Outdoors: Hike National Parks on Your Computer Screen

Is there such a thing as “armchair hiking”? Maybe a “Monday morning backpacker”? Ok, so Monday Night Football it’s not, but hiking America’s national parks this month has become more accessible to the masses thanks to a combination of technology and an investment of resources by the granola company Nature Valley.

Called Nature Valley Trail View, the Google-maps-like platform provides a virtual hiker’s-eye view of more than 300 miles of trails on your computer screen. The interactive content and guides are available for three parks to start, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone.

Scene from a virtual hike

The technology was introduced this week at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. According to Nature Valley, the project took more than a year to create and is the result of “boots-on-the-ground fieldwork and proprietary technology.”

Trail View project required manual recording of 300+ miles of trail

A quick visit to was an eye-opening experience for me. In the strange virtual-hiking world I could learn about a hike in Great Smoky Mountains or the other parks, and then (the kicker!) I could actually see every step of sections of trail in the park, all with the click of a mouse, hiking boots not required.

You can “hike” along the virtual trails by clicking arrows and minding an onscreen compass. There are panoramas to view, complete with the white noise of a forest and moving water. Zoom in close to examine rocks on the ground or a cliff face.

To build this experience, the project required hikers to carry cameras and record every foot of the highlighted trails. The site’s software melds the still images, creating a hiking experience akin to Google street view but way out in the woods.

Virtual hike starts at a parking lot in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

You watch the moving, movie-like footage on a computer screen while your GPS location, elevation and compass direction sit along the screen. The experience is annotated at specific points to offer in-depth parks information for trip planners.

Nature Valley’s technology certainly won’t replace getting out there yourself. But the site is informative and, for me, got the juices flowing to hike somewhere new. Breathtaking panoramas drew me in and I soon found myself digging for my hiking shoes. And this is really the whole point.

Recording unit used on Trail View project

The project’s goal “is to inspire consumers to enjoy all that nature has to offer,” a company marketing manager said. “Our vision. . . is to get people interested in visiting, and even preserving, our beautiful national parks.”

Sold. Now it’s time for me to get away from this computer and hang up a sign, “Gone Hiking.”

—Sean McCoy is a contributor in Denver.

Hit the high trail, no hiking boots required

Stephen Regenold

Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.