How to Explore National Parks With Virtual Tours

Virtual tours of national parks are providing a valuable service.

A kayaking scene from the Hidden Worlds virtual tour of Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.
A kayaking scene from the Hidden Worlds virtual tour of Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.

Google Arts & Culture)

"The mountains are calling and I must go," conservationist John Muir famously wrote in 1873. Many people can relate to feeling beckoned by nature, although for various reasons we can't always heed the call as quickly as we'd like. Fortunately, it's increasingly possible to tide ourselves over by calling the mountains to us.

Over the past year, it has been a bad time to congregate in crowds. It may be OK to get outside by walking around your neighborhood or visiting a nearby park, but only if lots of other people aren't doing the same thing at the same time. That has been the problem lately at some U.S. national parks, which have reportedly become even more crowded, despite widespread calls to stay home as much as possible.

Some national parks were closed in response, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Great Smoky Mountains; some have now reopened with limited services. This probably isn't the best time for most people to visit national parks anyway, especially popular ones.

At the same time, however, national parks offer valuable health benefits that could be particularly useful right now. Spending time in forests and other natural settings, for example, can improve mental and physical health in several ways, including reduced anxiety and depression, while the dramatic scenery in many parks can also help us experience awe, which may also boost our overall well-being.

And while virtual tours are obviously no substitute for actually being there, they do offer a compromise that lets us explore national parks from afar. That can help with planning future visits, but it's also turning out to be a nice resource to have when you're hunkering down at home.

Hidden Worlds

Hidden Worlds virtual tour in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Hidden Worlds tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park begins on a rainforest trail before diving into a lava tube, volcanic cliffs and the famous Halema'uma'a Crater. Google Arts & Culture

Virtual tours of national parks have been around for a while, but they've become deeper and more immersive over time. In one option, "The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks" by Google Arts & Culture, viewers are swept away to five different national parks, where they can explore the unique landscapes in multiple ways. The result is an "incredible lifelike journey," as Krista Karlson writes for the Sierra Club, and "an important reminder that the world is still beautiful and wonderful and weird, even in uncertain times."

Google Earth also has simpler virtual tours for 31 U.S. national parks, and while those are worth seeing, too, they aren't as immersive as the new Hidden Worlds project, which takes a deeper dive into five parks: Alaska's Kenai Fjords, Hawaii Volcanoes, New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns, Utah's Bryce Canyon and Florida's Dry Tortugas.

night sky at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah
A night-sky scene from the Hidden Worlds virtual tour of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Google Arts & Culture

At each park, the Hidden Worlds tour opens with a video that introduces us to the park and to a ranger who will serve as our guide. That's followed by a series of interactive 360-degree videos, in which we can look around the landscape while our ranger provides context about what we're seeing. Again, this may not compare with physically being there, but these videos still create a compelling and surprisingly realistic experience, especially if you've spent the last couple weeks cooped up indoors with few glimpses of natural splendor.

You can drop underground in a Hawaiian lava tube, climb down a glacier crevasse in Kenai Fjords or swim through a coral reef in Dry Tortugas, learning details about these otherworldly places as you gaze around. Additional videos let you explore even further, and thanks to the ongoing commentary from your guide (which can be paused if you want), that makes these tours educational as well as meditative. This is an "information-heavy" experience, as Karlson puts it, and could be useful infotainment for kids while schools are closed. Yet it's also a potentially valuable resource for almost anyone, both teaching us about these priceless places and helping lift our spirits while we're stuck at home.

Other Options

screenshot from Google Earth virtual tour of Yellowstone National Park
Google Earth offers virtual tours of 31 U.S. national parks, including Yellowstone. Google Earth

As mentioned above, Google Earth already lets us explore 31 U.S. national parks with virtual tours, which are less flashy and more self-guided than the Hidden Worlds tours, but still teeming with interesting details and captivating views. They include many of the country's most iconic parks, zooming in from a satellite view to let users explore famous attractions like the Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Trail, Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring, and Yosemite's El Capitan and Half Dome.

There are also a few other ways to virtually visit certain national parks. The relatively new Virtual Yosemite, for one, launched in 2019 with high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic views from more than 200 locations throughout the park.

You can also take online tours from the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) itself, typically on the official websites of certain parks. These tend to be much simpler than many virtual tours, often featuring a collection of photos, videos, maps and educational materials rather than slick interactive experiences, but some also cover lesser-known aspects of the parks, with unique images and information. On the Yellowstone National Park website, for example, you can find virtual tours of attractions like Fort Yellowstone, Fountain Paint Pot, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs, among others, as well as a scrolling "story map" about the park's Upper Geyser Basin.

The NPS offers webcams for many parks, too, letting people all over the world check in for views of current conditions at specific sites and vistas.

None of this may quench our thirst for freedom and wilderness, but as long as we're stuck at home, it's at least nice to briefly lose ourselves in these virtual replicas. They can help calm and entertain us during anxious times, but they also serve as valuable reminders that natural wonders are still out there waiting for us — and eventually, one day, we'll be able to answer their call.