It’s the first, and in many cases the only souvenir you pick up from a national park visit. It’s also often your greatest resource. They are the iconic park maps, distinguishable by the simple white text across a black band and a photo of the place you are visiting. And now more than 1,000 of them are available online, for free.
NPMaps.com is the brainchild of park ranger Matt Holly, an 11-year vet of the National Park Service. The site’s purpose couldn’t be stated more clearly than with the subhead on the opening banner: Here, I uploaded a bunch of free maps for you. Wooo!
Holly, a 32-year-old Seattle native, started the project during the government shutdown in 2013. “During the shutdown, I couldn’t work, couldn’t recreate in the park, and couldn’t travel,” Holly told backpackers.com, “so I looked for a project to keep me busy.” He has plugged away at the project in sprints and jogs ever since. In an April 9, 2016, blog post, he announced the milestone of creating pages for all 59 national parks.
The national parks were Holly’s introduction to the outdoors. “Although I didn’t come from a family that was into activities like hiking and camping, my family did love going to places like Yellowstone, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Rainier,” he says. “It was Yellowstone and St. Helens that got me hooked; the rest of the nature seemed so boring and static compared to a volcano that blew its top just a few years prior and a place that had scalding water shooting out of the ground and boiling mud.”
Holly followed up two undergraduate degrees (geology and business) from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a masters in park management from Clemson. His career with the National Parks Service began in 2005, and has taken him to Yosemite, Sequoia, Voyageurs, and Acadia National Parks. He is now based in Fort Collins, Colorado, with the Natural Resource Science and Stewardship directorate.
The search for maps for NPMaps.com usually starts at the Harpers Ferry Center site, Holly says. Like many government sites, though, it fairly barebones and not necessarily a great user experience. “If you’re interested in getting just a PDF file of the main park brochure map, it can suit all your needs,” he says. “Generally the first map I have listed on each park page originally comes from the Harpers Ferry Center website, although I take the time to also convert the PDF into a JPG or PNG file to provide users with multiple file download options. Then the rest of the maps on each page are sourced from various park-specific web sites: I hunt down all the maps from campground handouts, maps embedded in park newspaper PDFs, maps from management documents, maps from hiking guides and brochures, and so on.”
It’s an arduous and time-consuming process, but it creates a much more user-friendly and complete resource. For Arches National Park, the NPS site offers three downloadable versions of the park map in fairly large Adobe files. Holly’s site, meanwhile, features 12 different free maps, with viewable JPEG as well as printable PDF formats. He also provides links to buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map and guidebooks through Amazon. “If over the next few months several thousand people use the map page I create, it means I’ve actually saved everyone time in the long run and visitors can spend their time planning their visits rather than looking for information,” he says.
The Amazon affiliate program allows Holly to run the site without advertising. “It’s not really a money thing,” Holly wrote on a June 9 blog update. “You’ll notice I don’t have any web ads so I can keep things as simple as possible to get you to the maps quickly. I make enough money from the Amazon map referrals to cover my web hosting fees, so I’m hoping to keep things ad free unless my web hosting costs increase from all the new traffic.”
Traffic is bound to increase. Since cresting the 1,000 maps milestone, Holly’s site has garnered the attention of numerous media outlets, and even got a Twitter shout out from Chelsea Clinton.
As for building the resource, Holly says he doesn’t see an end in sight. “I have no magic number I’m shooting for,” he says on backpackers.com. “I really don’t expect my work to ever end-there are over 400 national park units that are constantly updating their maps…. On top of that, there’s Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM land… I could be spending years on this.”
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