As confidence rises that Kiwis will soon be liberated from Covid’s strictures to rediscover our own country, I’m sure I’m not the only way itching to lace up the hiking boots for a wilderness jaunt in our spectacular national parks. Unlike domestic tourism, venturing offshore to the starring national parks strung across North and South America will be some time away. American conservationist John Muir famously wrote in 1873, “the mountains are calling and I must go.” For now, technology is tiding us over by calling the mountains to us through the virtual realm. So if you’re planning a bucket-list trip in the future to one of the Americas’ jaw-dropping national parks, treat yourself to a taster of these beauties, below.
I am dedicated fan of Utah’s beguiling national parks and the virtual offerings are superb. Zion National Park is Utah’s oldest, accorded the Old Testament’s name for Jerusalem, because the European explorers were so awe-struck by its vertical grandeur. You too can commune with the gods as you follow the paths where ancient native people and pioneers walked. Gaze up at massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and rich red that soar into a brilliant blue sky. Zion National Park is like a film set so grand you know it’s fake, but you don’t care because it’s delirious to look at; the kind of flick where the art director was given free reign and didn’t worry about believability.
Whether you want to relive a previous trip up Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park, or want to get an idea of what it is like, check out the Angels Landing eHike. It offers a taste of the wonders of Zion—the sounds of birds calling and the soothing sound of the Virgin River, the sights of pink-hued sandstone cliffs at sunrise, and the heart-stealing view from the summit. https://www.nps.gov/zion
Equally revered by me is Bryce Canyon National Park. The bewitching crimson and orange hoodoos, spire-shaped rock stacks, of this startling desert landscape are now on full display, from the comfort of your lounge. The virtual tour centres on the knock-out viewing point of Sunset Point, overlooking Bryce Ampitheatre, a hoodoo-filled depression lying below the Rim Trail hiking path. Google Arts & Culture does a fine job showcasing Bryce with virtual offerings, as does the National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/brca
The Grand Canyon in Arizona is aptly named. At 445km in length, as much as 30km wide, and nearly 2km deep, the landmark is an eyeful. Around 40 sedimentary layers are visible in its steep cliffs, with the oldest basement rocks formed around two billion years ago. You can hike the canyon’s Bright Angel Trail via a Google Street View Trek. One of the most popular endurance trails in the national park, it zigzags up from the Colorado River to South Rim. Another VR project, AirPano, has high-definition 360-degree images for a bird’s eye view of the Red Rocks. https://www.airpano.com/360photo/Grand_Canyon_USA/
Yosemite is yet another monumental national park, where you might wish for a flip-top head. This spectacular natural landscape is home to more than 400 species of animals, including around 500 American black bears. Granite monoliths tower over meadows, rivers and forests, including one the park’s most notable sights, El Capitan, standing over 900 metres tall with a near vertical cliff face. Perched high in the Sierra Nevadas of California, it’s home to so many awe-inspiring spectacles, like Glacier Point, Mirror Lake and some of the world’s oldest Sequoia trees. One of the best virtual reality experiences I’ve come across transports you to the rock face of El Capitan, where along with other climbers, you free climb the monolith, where they jam their hands into “flakes” of rock and swing across the face to reach vertical cracks, and stop on a ledge, El Cap Tower, for the night. Explore the national park further with these 360-degree images, complete with sound effects, including Ahwahnee Meadow and Nevada Fall. https://www.virtualyosemite.org/virtual-tour-directory/ For live cam views, head to www.nps.gov/subjects/air/webcams.htm?site=yose
I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing Yellowstone National Park – it’s top of my USA bucket-list for 2021. But the National Park Service does a great job with its virtual offerings, to whet the appetite. Yellowstone National Park is a nearly 3,500-sq.-mile wilderness recreation area atop a volcanic hot spot. Mostly in Wyoming, the park spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho too. Yellowstone features dramatic canyons, alpine rivers, lush forests, hot springs and gushing geysers, including its most famous, Old Faithful. https://www.nps.gov/yell
Fuelling my pent-up desire to intimately connect soon with our Southern Alps has been the epic virtual tours across some of Alaska’s national parks, starting with Denali/Mount McKinley. Denali National Park is home to six million acres of wild land including North America’s tallest peak, Mount McKinley and the awe-inspiring Savage River. and it’s bisected by just one thin ribbon of road. https://www.nps.gov/dena
If you’ve ever undertaken an Alaskan cruise, or dreamed of doing one, a headline rendezvous is the foray into Glacier Bay National Park. I absolutely adore it. A highlight of Alaska's Inside Passage and part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site, it is one of the world’s largest international protected areas. From the bottom of the deepest glacial fjord to the summit of its highest peak, Glacier Bay’s protected status is like a land reborn, a world returning to life, a living lesson in resilience. And the virtual tours take your right up to the snout of a calving glacier, as vast sheets of ice crash into the polar waters, in the warming spring. From the summit to sea, Glacier Bay's primal wild beauty is intoxicating. https://www.nps.gov/glba
Fancy some waterworks? One New York State’s most famous natural wonders is Niagara Falls and its surrounding State Park. Yes, it’s a state park, not a national park. Famed for its beauty and watery spectacle, Niagara Falls is actually a group of three waterfalls at the southern end of Niagara Gorge, spanning the border between Canada and the USA. https://www.airpano.com/360photo/Niagara-Falls-USA-Canada/
This YouTube video allows you and up close view of the Falls, the famed Maid of the Mist boat visit, the Cave of the Winds (which takes visitors within metres of the crashing Falls) and a helicopter ride over the Falls – all without getting your hair wet! It’s a VR video too, and even if you don’t have VR goggles at home, you can still enjoy by navigating the video with your mouse. See linked here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VBAwko0eig
One of the planet’s most awe-inspiring sights, the Iguazu Falls are beyond gob-stopping. It’s an electrifying experience to soak up the sheer power, roar and size of Iguazu’s cascades. They are four times the width and twice as high as Niagara – Niagara on Viagra. They fan out over nearly three kilometres in a horse shoe shape, and they actually comprise over two hundred and fifty waterfalls, with eighty metre drops into the gorge. From above, it’s as though a giant fist has pulverised the earth’s crust and created a deep chasm where the river plunges over the cliffs. The heart of the falls is colourfully called Devil’s Throat – Iguazu’s ecological blockbuster. A ferocious convulsion of surging water, dropping into a vast milky abyss that creates a permanent cloud of mist. It’s a deafening beast, generating a spray so intense it’s as though geysers have erupted from below. Get a taste of it here. https://www.airpano.com/360photo/Brasil-Argentina-Iguazu-Falls-2012/
One of the most popular national parks in Hawaii is now totally accessible online with immersive offerings. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to one of the world’s most active volcano, Kilauea, and the virtual tour lets you explore the Nahuku (Thurston) Lava Tube, which is a cave formed by flowing lava, which drains lava during a volcanic eruption. On the tour, you can also enjoy the stunning view from the volcanic coastal cliffs, “fly” over Kilauea, and see the effects of the monstrous eruption from 1959. https://www.nps.gov/havo/index.htm
Meanwhile, if you’re up for some edgy volcanic sightseeing in Maui, head to Haleakala National Park. All of East Maui is essentially the top of a massive volcano which last spewed molten lava a couple of hundred years ago. Its crater is 12km long and 4km wide. In the flesh, it takes two hours to drive up to the summit, and for sunrise, you need to book in advance. You’re ten thousand feet high and the sprawling lava-rock landscape is compelling, as its gilded by the sunrise, while the cloud line is below you. What intrigued me is the Hawaiian version of the legend of Maui catching the sun, which is also steeped in Maori mythology. Haleakala means House of Sun, and the Hawaiians believe it’s from this the mountain that Maui lassoed the sun to slow its movement. Catch a golden sunrise live on the web cams. https://www.nps.gov/hale
Despite climate change posing a menacing threat to many of the Earth’s glaciers, the defiant Perito Moreno remains undiminished – in fact it’s growing. Covering 97 square miles of Los Glaciares National Park, it is fed by the melting waters of the south Patagonian ice fields in the Andes. A set of interactive images on 360cities, give an impression of the scale (use the white arrows to click between views), as well as the variations of blue – the less oxygen in the ice, the bluer it gets. https://www.360cities.net/image/perito-moreno-glacier An immersive video tour of the wilderness beyond the glacier, takes viewers around the varied landscape of the protected Parque Patagonia, passing turquoise rapids, a rainbow and a pack of guanacos roaming the plains. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVg0iruZUGs
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.