National parks are known for many things – remote natural beauty, stunning works of architectural and historical significance, flora and fauna flourishing in their native habitats – but online accessibility isn’t necessarily one of them. In an effort to improve the situation, Google Maps is introducing four updates to help travelers explore. 

Rolling out for US parks in April and internationally in the months to come, the app’s new updates for iOS and Android will make it easier to see each site's main attractions, research and navigate popular trails and download maps for offline use. 

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“After visiting 24 of the 63 US national parks, I know how rewarding it can be to explore the outdoors,” Google Maps group product manager Michael Curtes said in a press release. “I’m also all too familiar with some of the challenges that come with planning outdoor adventures — like finding the best trailheads or nearest public bathrooms…. With these updates, everything from finding your way around a park to discovering things to do when you’re there will feel like, well, a walk in the park.” 

Detailed directions for popular trails

Anyone who’s pulled up Google Maps in the wilderness has likely found a big block of green space – and little else – filling up their screen at least once or twice. With this latest crop of updates, however, you may have some extra support when you head out for a hike

Hiker hiking with backpack looking at waterfall in Yosemite park in beautiful summer nature landscape.
Download a trail map on Google Maps © Shutterstock / Maridav

Searching for a trail now reveals the route in full from start to finish, as well as bullet points from the comments on the type of trail (whether it's a loop or out-and-back, for example), its level of difficulty, the time it takes to traverse, suitability for activities like running, walking, or cycling and the availability of amenities, such as restrooms and parking.

Directions for walking and cycling are also more precise, beginning with step-by-step instructions on how to reach the trailhead, and park entrances will soon be clearly marked on the grid too. 

Visual aids offer a simple link to park attractions and amenities

Whether your itinerary includes the country’s most- or least-visited protected land (in 2022, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina and the National Park of American Samoa, respectively), you’ll want to take full advantage of its sites and activities. 

To that end, look for thumbnails highlighting the main attractions, from Yellowstone’s Old Faithful to Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. Tapping those pics should yield a plethora of user-generated material, including tips, reviews, photos, videos and possibly even info on closures and crowds

Downloading maps for offline use is about to get easier 

Downloading a Google map to use when you’re someplace without Wi-Fi or cellular coverage has long been a reliable travel tip, but between navigating to the right screen and selecting the appropriate area, it’s always been a fairly fussy process. By May, though, a download button is set to appear on all NPS listings, providing a much-needed shortcut – and a prominently placed reminder to make sure that offline map is taken care of before you find yourself sans service. 

A woman travels by motorhome through Monument Valley in the USA desert and checks her mobile phone parked on the side of the road.
Download maps so you never need to worry © DanielGonzalezPhoto / Shutterstock

What to know about planning a trip to the national parks in 2023

From extreme weather events to routine closures for maintenance and construction, the situation on park grounds can change from day to day, and even minute to minute. Still, if you’re joining the throngs at a US national park this year, do your research in advance: which sites and activities require reservations, when you can get in for free, what to pack for your visit and much more

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