New project lets you virtually trek 300 miles of national park land

Pull out those hiking boots. National Park Week, which starts April 21, is just around the corner.

With nearly 400 national parks – and free admission all week long –there are hundreds of ways to take advantage of this annual event.

To prepare yourself for what adventures may lie ahead, Nature Valley has just launched a great new way to experience some 300 miles of park trails --virtually.

Using Google Street View technology, the granola bar company has created its own version of trails at the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Yellowstone National Park-- all with 360 degree views. The Nature Valley Trail View project is part of the Preserve the Parks program, which helps to raise money for national park restoration.

“National parks are in almost every state, so people in the U.S. can easily have access to these places,” said Nature Valley senior marketing director Scott Baldwin. Baldwin said.  “Their interest can be sparked on our site and then they can go out and see the parks for themselves. We hope that the technology will continue to evolve, educate, and excite people.”

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The technology gives you on-the-ground, 360 degree views of attractions such as Osprey Falls or Bunsen Peak Road, in Yellowstone National Park, and gives facts, like its longitude and latitude and what other sites are nearby.  It has other cool features that allow you to virtually walk the trails with a compass guiding your way, while giving levels of difficulty for each site. Click here to take a tour.

In its third year, the Preserve the Parks program provides support for six national parks: Acadia, Everglades, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Joshua Tree, and Yellowstone.  Nature Valley encourages its customers to support the parks by entering UPCs on the site.

Global marketing communications agency McCann Erickson approached Nature Valley with the trail view idea in January 2011.

“A team here had come up with the idea to take the Google street view technology to national parks,” said Leslie Sims, executive creative director for the General Mills brand at McCann Erickson.

When the project kicked off, McCann Erickson and Nature Valley agreed that the endeavor should be a zero impact on the environment. But first they needed “boots on the ground,” to take the images.

The team included approximately eight people per day and endurance athlete Brandon McClain who hiked over 300 miles with a 50 pound, 11-lens camera on his backpack. Those in the front made loud noises and clapped sticks together to keep away bears, and the people in the rear aided in ensuring the team’s overall safety.

“As long as the team would yell and whistle to make their presence known, the bears would typically wander away on their own accord,” Sims said laughing.

See what happened behind the scenes:

Other Nature Valley staffers placed high resolution cameras at particularly scenic locations in the three parks to add still shots to the website and writers from Backpacker magazine came along to serve as expert trail guides. The team would hike roughly 10 miles per day.

Although he had a group to support him, McClain walked alone, so no people were visible in any of the shots.

“[McClain] operated the camera with a toggle gaming handset and a lens built into part of his sunglasses,” Sims said. “And, at the same time, he was walking and watching the camera.”

She added that the expedition had deal with challenges the heat, rain, and lightning.

“The team was going to go to the Grand Canyon in the middle of the summer,” Sims recalled. “It was so hot that one of the cameras started to melt during one of the tests, so we had to push [the trip] back as far as possible.

As the project continues they’re working to overcome some challenges of the incomplete technology, but are getting a hand from university volunteers who’ve come forward to help.

Despite the difficulties the team discovered how enormous of an impact the project had on them.

“Some of us had never been out in the national parks,” Baldwin said.  “The majesty of them is pretty amazing. The experience has made us so happy and fulfilled.”