IT’S sunny and cool on Skyline Drive on a late April day, a recent spring storm having left snow that still sits by the roadside.
I’m at Pinnacles Overlook in the middle section of the Shenandoah National Park with two interpretation specialists who are demonstrating the cool new “NPS Shenandoah” app more than two years in the making.
On a smartphone, Roy Wood and Claire Comer tap the app to instantly pop up a map of all the roads, trails and more in this park that’s 105 miles long.
Then, they demonstrate how to focus in on the spot where we’re standing, enlarging it to the point that the small path just below the rock wall is seen winding down the mountain.
They start to show me an even cooler function called lens view—where the app uses your camera to pop up an image that puts labels on some of what we’re seeing—when other park visitors intervene.
“Hey, what’s that?” asks a father who is touring the park with his son, who lives in Culpeper.
Wood and Comer gladly show the pair the app, explaining that the driving force behind the creation of the application is an ongoing quest to broaden the experiences and lengthen the stays of park visitors.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Comer, an interpretive specialist, notes when the lens view image doesn’t label all the peaks and other things seen when the phone/camera is pointed south.
Wood, the park’s director of interpretation, adds, “To have each of those peaks show up there, someone has to hike up there and mark the spots. And we haven’t done that everywhere yet, but we’ll be steadily adding things to this as it goes forward.”
Before the father and son leave, the staffers give some advice they say is critical before trying to use the app in Shenandoah: Because of spotty cell and Wi-Fi service in the park, it’s necessary to download the app ahead of time (there are Apple and Android versions that can be downloaded free).
And then, also before visiting the park, it’s important to open the app, select “Settings” and then click on “Download Offline Content.” Failing to download that extensive block of information will make for trouble if you try to access it in an area without cell service, like much of Shenandoah.
Aside from the map/wayfinding feature that will help people move through the park—which also points out services and recreation opportunities—the app has sections on “What to see,” “What to do,” program schedules, trailheads and imbedded tours.
“Right now, we have three complete tours, which are like narrated walking tours,” said Comer. “One’s on Rapidan Camp, there’s another on the Big Meadows CCC Camp and the other’s on the Fox Hollow Trail in the North District, near the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. And we have one on the Stony Man Trail that’s close to being added.”
Wood added that while all the trails in the park’s GIS system are included, there are hikes from trailheads or to spots such as waterfalls that have more information and points noted along the way. With audio settings on, some of that information will be played aloud when nearing the spot being described.
The app also points out the location and information about exhibits and campgrounds, great places to see sunrises and sunsets, and information about 68 overlooks and spots along Skyline Drive. It also has a “collage” function to make and share photo collections with friends.
Comer noted that the app’s creation—funded with money from visitor entrance fees to the park—stemmed from a desire to inform visitors about all the things they can do in the park.
“We are always looking at ways to get people to spend more time in the park,” said Comer. “We want to get them out to take a walk or visit one of our exhibits, where they will often realize there’s a week’s worth of activities they’d like to do here.”
She said the idea early on for the Shenandoah app was largely conceived as just a wayfinding tool, but it quickly became apparent that it could be useful to share much more information.
“What we’ve done is part of a larger effort across the park service to develop an app that will work at any park,” Woods noted. “App development is difficult and expensive, and not every park has the people to do the coding. The work on our app and on others around the country is an effort to create a framework that any park can use.”
He said a critical juncture came when specialists at the National Park Service’s media center at Harper’s Ferry “came to us and said they were working on launching this national project and asked if we’d like to be part of it. Because we aren’t that far from them, it made sense for us to be a pilot project in the effort.”
He noted that those experts worked with a hired contractor and Shenandoah staffers to create the app, which already has been downloaded several thousand times.
Wood and Comer noted that there are some things to fix and expand on the app. Developers are hoping to find a way to make alerts automatically download from Shenandoah’s website.
There’s also thought for the future of possibly developing a Junior Ranger app for Shenandoah, focused more on discovery and activities for children.
“But we’re getting good feedback so far,” Comer said, “and would like to hear from users how we could include other things that would make it helpful for them on visits here.”