Take a virtual vacation with the Park Service

Blitzed out by the end-of-the-fiscal-year pace? If you can't take a real vacation a visit to the National Park Service's ParkNet World Wide Web site (www.nps.gov) should offer enough virtual touring and truly dazzling images to lower the blood pressure.

The Park Service has spiffed up the graphics on its home page since my last visit a year ago but the new images do not confuse the user with visual clutter. ParkNet also has resisted jazzing up its main page with the Java applet-driven graphic gewgaws sprinkled about many commercial sites.

The main graphic element features various historical park photos - such as an old-fashioned touring car complete with running boards entering a park - and live links to underlying information. The central image changes about every two minutes according to my watch. These historical photos help ParkNet stand out in the clutter of the Web - an important feature when people can jump in and out of sites in less than a second if they do not see what they want.

The virtual vacationer can quickly get to the meat of ParkNet by clicking on the "Visit Your Parks" button which is illustrated with the picture of a smiling ranger. The button takes you to the main information page which offers a variety of links to parks around the country including a handy list of park telephone numbers and addresses.

It also provides links to pages providing fee and reservation information as well as a park guide under the "Find a Park" link. This powerful link allows Web surfers to search for parks by detailed regional maps park name theme or state map. If you are interested in for example a virtual vacation at Haleakala National Park on the Hawaiian island of Maui go directly to the alphabetical list (www.nps.gov/parklists/byname.htm) click on the link for Haleakala National Park and up pops six pages of concise well-written information on the park.

The online Haleakala guide follows a standard format that ParkNet has established for all the parks listed on the Web site including information on climate directions fees facilities lodging and camping facilities and hikes and trails. While these guides will never replace a printed guide book they do provide all the basic information anyone needs before visiting a national park.

One of the best sections of ParkNet - a digitally rendered view of selected parks (www.nps.gov/carto/virtual.html) - is hard to find because the Park Service does not offer direct links to the section from its main page. These computer-generated models based on U.S. Geological Survey digital elevation model data satellite images and in some cases aerial photographs offer stunning life-like views of the parks. The virtual view of Crater Lake National Park even offers an animated "fly around" to users who have the QuickTime plug-in.

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