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Another Look at Those GPS Rangers in the National Parks


Ready to rent at a national park near you: the GPS Ranger. BarZ Adventures image.

It was just about a year ago that I wrote about the invasion of "GPS Rangers" into the national parks. Back then I wasn't so keen on this hand-held, rent-by-the-day electronic tour gizmo, but there does seem to be a hidden blessing in it.

Manufactured by BarZ Adventures, these devices use GPS coordinates to trigger a video commentary of the immediate area. Already the devices have been deployed at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah, Shenandoah National Park, and Death Valley National Park, as well as Independence Hall. If not already, the device soon will be available in Zion National Park.

My main concern with GPS Ranger is probably old-school. I think park interpretation should be delivered by in-the-flesh rangers skilled in interpretation, not some electronic device cued by a GPS location and not a question. Too, I worry that this sort of technology makes it easier to remove the interpretative ranger from the national parks and, in the process, automate interpretation.

Now, the creator of GPS Ranger, Lee Little, commented on the Traveler last September that he was prompted to devise this unit because he found himself in a national park without a ranger in sight.

"The goal of our system is to offer an educational tour for visitors that they most likely would not have gotten given the cut backs in staffing in our national treasures," Mr. Little said at the time. "Did you know that the GPS Ranger tour in Death Valley has over 3 hours of video content all approved by the Death Valley interpretive staff?"

Now, I'm sure the debate over the propriety of this unit in a park visitor's hands can, and likely will, continue.

But here's an interesting twist I learned just this week: The units can tell park managers where visitor traffic is greatest. Too, managers can alter tour content on a daily basis and so possibly direct traffic to your so-called "off-the-beaten-path" park feature or resource or away from an over-taxed or over-crowded site. Park managers can even drop sites that are closed for maintenance.

Beyond that, the devices can offer tours in American Sign Language (ASL) for the deaf/hard-of-hearing visitor.

With that said, the question remains: Is this a good move for the National Park System?


Many people today are comfortable with this type of technology and would likely get out of the cars and follow some trails to use the device. Something that is not as likely to occur with a scheduled tour given peoples desire for independence and time management. We made an effort our most recent National Park trip to do 3 separate programs, but I must say that we might have done more if we could have done it on our own schedule.

This is a great addition to the services provided by the NPS. It should not replace ranger lead tours, but is a great option for those who would prefer tours of a different pace from the norm, or would choose a less traveled path. And, as pointed out, makes it easier to accomodate the hearing impaired. I'm happy to have my tax dollars used in this fashion.

I think this is a good idea. My family and I enjoyed using portable audio tour guides at Carlsbad Caverns some years ago as well as similar devices at the Van Gogh museum in 2000.

I have used hand held electronic tour guides in many museums and other points of interest in Germany and Austria. They were available in different languages and very helpful in providing information about the location visited. The also allow the user to explore a location at his own pace.

I love this idea. So many times while traveling with my husband, the guided tours just do not fit into our schedule.
It is nice to have the rangers available for people who want ranger led tours, but it is also great to have this option available also.
We will make sure that we use the GPS tours on our next trip

As an educator I feel that this is a wonderful way to enhance a students experience. It allows students to get speicific information in a format that they are more comfortable with. Students will be more into using the GPS than a guidebook.

When I walk in the creek-canyons and woods surrounding my home here on the Olympic Peninsula, I come across many specific specimens & sites that I want to remember & revisit, to watch how they develop and further pursue thoughts & questions that they stimulate.

Long ago, I began to take notes on my walks, first describing locations in terms of dead-reckoning and triangulation from other features (it is often very hard to return to a given site within the trackless 'jungle' here.

Later, I began using my GPS to record the location of ... great ancient snags, robust patches of Devil's Club, the stray Dogwood, a Wild Ginger bed, nurse logs ... it's endless!

I am going to investigate this GPS Ranger product to see how it works, and how they try to implement the 'mission' ... which seems fairly close to my own activity.

I have trouble seeing anything negative about this. I just got back from an extended trip through Olympic, Theodroe Roosevelt, Badlands, and Yellowstone National Parks. I saw a lot of the old-school interpretation you speak of, Kurt. And I hate to say this, but old school isn't always the best school. Yes, I saw some beautiful interaction between rangers (perhaps volunteers?) and families at Hurricane Ridge. I was also warmly engaged by several rangers at the Hoh VC. I was really impressed by the knowledge of these folks and their willingness to say "I don't know" when the subject at hand exceeded their knowledge. I mean no arrogance by this, but I usually walk into a national park knowing more about specific aspects of natural history than a lot of the rangers. I spent two years studying Olympic natural history before going there. That's just my thing. I love probing the rangers to find any morsels they have to add to my book learning. Unfortunately outside of my experience at the rainforest in ONP, I've run into some rangers that don't seem to grasp more than the list of memorized facts they regurgitate. I also saw a lot of verbal regurgitation that lacked any enthusiasm. While a ranger at Hurricane Ridge had a bunch of ultra-hyper kids all excited and focused on sub-alpine meadow ecology, there was another young ranger stumbling through a monotone presentation about the mountains that was painful to watch.

Like teachers in our schools, there will be rangers with the talent to interpret and those that simply can't. I think electronic interpretation filling in some gaps that lack of funds or lack of skill create can only be a good thing. And just as the Internet hasn't sent books to their grave, GPS units won't replace rangers, be they grand or mediocre.

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI

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