Editor's note: The developer of Chimani's Acadia National Park app pointed out a feature that was overlooked -- one of possibly many that we might have missed. This one concerned additional screens for finding information. We explain below.
The number of national park phone applications recently grew by two, with Chimani's Acadia National Park app and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park guide(s) recently sent to market by Nomad Mobile Guides. We recently test drove both. Here, in alphabetical order, is what we found.
After a too-brief glimpse of the surf-pounded Acadia shoreline on the title page, this app ($9.99 from the iTunes store) drops you onto the main control panel, which features nine icons similar to those you'll encounter in a national park. They range from buttons for auto tours through the park and schedules for the Island Explorer shuttle buses to a park map and cycling routes.
Users new to apps quite easily could overlook the fact that by swiping your fingers across this first screen you'll find there are two more screens that include 16 additional icons, ranging from camping and swimming to birding, horse riding and ADA accessibility points around the park. Whether overlooking these two is a user interface issue, or an operator failure issue, remains to be seen. However, whichever one is the root cause, it could be cured through a "user's guide" page in the information settings.
Tap on any one of these icons (except the Favorites page, where you can organize favorite trails, viewpoints, etc of Acadia), and the content continues to unspool. The Auto Tour index, for instance, gives you an overview of Acadia's Park Loop Road, some brief history on Mount Desert Island and establishment of the park, and a series of destinations, such as the Bar Harbor Overlook, Frenchman Bay Overlook, and the 1947 Fire Overlook. On each of these individual pages there's a "map" button you can touch that opens up the park map to show you exactly where these overlooks are. There's also a link to "related points of interest." For instance, from the Porcupine Islands Overlook entry there's a link to the Cadillac Mountain North Ridge Trail that lies nearby.
Audio also is integrated into the auto tours so you can listen while you drive to your next destination, rather than try to read when you really should be paying attention to the road.
Tap the Information button and you can sort through information on visitor centers, park headquarters, shuttle buses, how to deal with heavy traffic flows during the peak summer season, and weather basics.
The Hiking icon takes you to a roster of hiking trails that, while not listed alphabetically, come with their own color-coded icons to let you know if the hike is very easy (green), easy (light brown), moderate (darker brown) or strenuous or non-technical (an even darker brown). The "non-technical" designation is somewhat curious, for while these trails don't require ropes and other climbing gear, they're certainly strenuous.
The program underlying the park map is quite ingenious. Along with being able to zoom in to a specific part of the park, the map is populated with a plethora of icons ranging from ranger events, auto tours, and hiking to shuttles, sunrises, camping, swimming, birding and many, many more.
At first glance, these icons -- there's even one for restrooms, information that can't be overstated -- clutter the map to the point of annoyance. But if you go into the app's information center, which you get to be tapping the i icon in the upper righthand corner of the menu page, you can winnow these icons all the way down to one if you desire. And, of course, the entries for auto tours, hiking trails, campgrounds, etc., are keyed into the map, so a quick tap shows you where in the park they're located.
If there's a pitfall to the map, hikers will quickly identify it. For while the map includes topographic lines to show the rise and fall of the landscape, there are no elevation markers at trailheads or mountain summits, or anywhere, for that matter, to make the topo lines useful. Another needed fix is to provide the number you can call for campground reservations into the text on Fees and Reservations. The number's in the app, but you have to use the "search" function to find it.
Among the app's nice bells and whistles are the above-mentioned tide charts, which you find by searching for "tide information," the sunrise/sunset data, and the shuttle bus information.
If there's a central drawback to this app, it's the lack of photographs. It'd be nice to have at least one image to accompany each of the overlooks so newcomers to the park can sort through and decide which ones they definitely want to enjoy. For instance, the narrative for Duck Brook Bridge -- "...the largest bridge on the Park Loop Road -- in fact, it is the largest continuous concrete arch bridge east of the Mississippi..." -- begs for a photo. And the one photo that accompanies the entry for the park's Historic Carriage Roads does not do these beautiful paths and their incredible stone bridges and gate houses justice.
Ditto with the hiking trails. There's a reason they call it the Precipice Trail.
That said, developer Kerry Gallivan already has more photos in the app pipeline with additional shots from David Patterson, who has three nice ones associated with the Jordon Pond entry, for Bass Harbor Lighthouse, Bubble Pond, Bubble Pond Bridge, Bubble Rock, Carriage Road, Cobblestone Bridge, Great Head, Jordan Pond House, Jordan Pond Nature Trail, Jordan Pond Gatehouse, Otter Cliffs, Otter Point, Sand Beach, Stanley Brook Bridge, and the Thompson Island area. And more are on the way, and video is planned for the iPad version of this app.
When you do come across photos on the app, tap on them and they'll go full-screen and, in some cases, offer some extra shots of the surroundings.
Mr. Gallivan also is working to incorporate more information on the park's Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut areas.
Key to the heart of this app can be found right in the title. Yep, that passing mention of the Great Smoky Mountains Association. It's not to be overlooked, for it's the association, not app maker Nomad Mobile Guides, that provides the foundational editorial content of this app. Along with the National Park Service. Put those two institutions together and you've got a veritable treasure trove of information to play with and mine.
Where Nomad comes in is providing the architecture to negotiate this information superhighway. Just as the key to the richness of the content is the involvement of the cooperating association and the Park Service, key to driving it in part is the developer's approach to resize its content first and then insert it into the app, rather than letting the devise at hand figure out how to resize it. This resizing allows for much more content. While Chimani's download, for instance, is listed by iTunes as 267 megabytes, Nomad's is packaged at 62.3 megs -- a huge difference both when it comes to time needed to download and space consumed on your device -- and the payoff is in the added video, photo, and text content Nomad delivers.
And then, of course, the other key is the way the content is organized by Nomad. The developer comes at this task from two directions. One, a free application which offers content very similar to the basic information found on the national park's website, while the second, a $4.99 version called the Best of the Great Smoky Mountains, gets some turbocharging with additional content from the cooperating association.
The free version, dubbed quite simply the Smokies Visitor Guide, covers all the basics of how to visit Great Smoky. The homepage is quite simply laid out: You can choose from one of four icons -- Do, See, Know, or Services -- or go directly to the Smokies Visitor Guide with its table of contents. There you'll find information ranging from visitor and welcome centers and "concerns, guidelines & tips," to camping (sections both on backcountry camping and front-country car camping), fishing, picnic areas, and much more.
There's information on operating hours and seasons, how to avoid crowds in the park, a section on fall colors, information on fees and reservations (which also are missing contact numbers and links in this section, though that information is available in the "camping" section), and some good information on how to deal with black bears, which can be a real issue in the park.
This two-pronged approach does involve some redundancies, but that's OK for you'll likely more quickly find what you're looking for.
This is a multi-media-rich app, chock-full of photos, audio, and sprinkled with video. Simply tap the arrow that indicates a video is available and you get a full-screen presentation with narration. The video of the Roaring Fork area (on both the free and $4.99 versions), for instance, takes you through and past a number of old log cabins, spring houses, corn cribs, and barns. You learn about "dog trot" cabins and what a "granny hole" is -- basically a small square window cut into the wall next to the fireplace so grandma could stay warm while keeping an eye on the yard, hen house, etc.
For just $5 you can download the Best of... version, which is even more robust than the free version in the arena of hiking (56 hikes described vs just two, and those are front-country hikes), auto tours (five main routes vs. four, plus a section on scenic byways), and sections on self-guiding nature trails, waterfalls (both the ones you can drive to and hike to), day hikes (a sampler broken down to hikes with views, loop hikes, waterfall hikes, and more), and a guided auto tour to Cades Cove with 18 stops.
Another upgrade you get are sections titled You Might Also Like... scattered through the app that direct you to publications that will help you better understand Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Bells and whistles:
There are no tides to be concerned with in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but there are horse camps, and both versions of this app point out that nearly 550 miles of backcountry trails are open to horses and that there are five drive-in horse camps.
Nomad also has a map filled with icons that you can filter, and takes things a step further by offering a Google Earth view of the park. Alas, still no elevation markers, not even on Clingmans Dome.
Somewhat curiously, though, the section on "fishing" takes you to a description of Fontana Dam, and doesn't mention the park's 2,115 miles of streams and the wild trout populations that present more than a few angling opportunities.
But then, that's what upgrades are for.
One of the pluses of working with the cooperating association is that Nomad can add content from the endless series of publications available through the Great Smoky Mountains Association. For instance, soon available will be guides on wildflowers, Cades Cove day hikes, backpack loops, and more, with download prices ranging from 99 cents to $1.99. This approach essentially lets you build your own guidebook to the park.