National Parks: Take your iPhone on a Roadtrip

Your iPhone is great for connecting you to the people you love, but it can also be great at connecting you to the world around you. When you plan a roadtrip, you just don’t get out the giant road atlas and the stacks of paperback sightseeing guides anymore. For a long time now, you’ve been going to the Internet for all of your maps and activity planning. And now you’re leaving those reams of paper behind and looking to your iPhone.

For your next big roadtrip to America’s great parks and preserves, National Parks by National Geographic has you covered. Those piles of guides that were outdated in only a couple of years are now on your phone with updates from National Geographic in their National Parks app. Filled with colorful shots of the parks and packed with things to do once you get there, National Parks is a go-to for tourists to America’s national parks and preserves.

Parks at a Glance

Opening the National Parks app brings up the twenty parks included, which can be viewed on a map or sorted by region, climate, or activity. There’s a terrific filter function to help narrow down your choices; you don’t want to end up wandering around looking for snow in Death Valley. Tapping on a park brings up its page, with quick snapshot of the park’s info. You get a beautiful picture of the park and some quick stats, including current time and weather — both incredibly useful if you’ve downloaded the app to help plan a roadtrip.

You can choose a park from the main screen or use one of the filters.

You can choose a park from the main screen or use one of the filters.

After you’ve chosen the park you’re going to visit, National Parks gives you one free guide download. (All park guides run $0.99-1.99 after that.) Without the guide download, you’re limited to just a handful of park pictures and the same park information you could get from the National Park Service websites or brochures at the park entrance. That is to say, you get the hours, accessibility, lodging, etc. All useful and great to have on your phone when you visit, but nothing beyond what you could get from an Internet search.

What You Get for the Money

With a paid guide, you get bonus pictures and tips, trivia, and suggestions on what to do and see in the park. The suggested activities are the real resource. Never having been to the Grand Canyon for instance, it wouldn’t even occur to me that there’s anything to do besides hiking and donkey rides. This app lets you know all the great fun things you wouldn’t think about.

The paid guide gives you bonus features, like suggested park activities and photo tips.

The paid guide gives you bonus features, like suggested park activities and photo tips.

National Parks also points you to all the beautiful sights you wouldn’t find on your own. The paid guides come with about a dozen extra photos, all absolutely beautiful. The paid guides also include photo tips, listing some of the best spots to capture similar photos, down to the GPS coordinates and how long before the full moon or after sunrise you can expect to get the shot. (No surprise the app leans a bit photo heavy, as it’s sponsored by digital camera manufacturer Canon.)

Rounding out the App

Some of the fun extras available to everyone, free and paid, include in the ability to “check in” at each park (or at various activities if you’ve upgraded the guide) or the option to “heart” the park, adding it to your favorites, and you can see how many other people have been to or favorited the parks. If you’re going to be hitting a few of the different parks on a road trip, you can add them to an in-app itinerary, though if the National Parks app allowed you to add areas of interest or things to do within the park to an itinerary, this feature would be a lot more useful.

In addition to the guide, you can check in or create a park itinerary.

In addition to the guide, you can check in or create a park itinerary.

There’s a bit of a social aspect to National Parks, but it feels tacked on. The Twitter account for each park is included on its information page, along with its most recent tweet. Clicking the Twitter link takes you to an in-app browser where you can view the park’s timeline. Some of them are actually useful, but most are only updated every month or so and really have no purpose in the app.

What’s Missing?

Unfortunately, there are only twenty national parks included with this app and no way to download additional ones. With well over 300 parks, preserves, monuments, and memorials in the National Park Service, that’s a lot left out. There’s no getting around that fact, and if you need a guide for a park that isn’t in the National Parks app, you have to look elsewhere. Luckily, there are plenty of other parks apps out there, but most of them just aren’t as good to look at, as thorough, or as interactive.


National Parks by National Geographic is still a great app, even if it doesn’t cover every park in the United States. If you’re going to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, or the Great Smoky Mountains, it has you covered, and well covered at that. For just the time it takes to download, you’ll have a good-looking guide with lots of info for the casual or serious park tourist. For a buck or two more, you can have any of the other nineteen additional guides available at your fingertips. Not bad.


It looks good and has got the big name parks, but it’s missing more than a few of the rest.