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Reviews > Software > Topographic Mapping > National Geographic National Parks 3D > Test Report by Jennifer Koles


Initial Report - April 13, 2007
Field Report - June 21, 2007
Long Term Report - August 24, 2007

Personal Information

Name:  Jennifer Koles
Age:  32
Gender:  Female
Height:  5 ft 5 in (1.65 m)
Weight: 140 lb (64 kg)
Email address: jennksnowy at yahoo dot com
City, State, and Country:  Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

Backpacking Background

I started taking overnight backpacking trips three years ago in the Uinta Mountain Range in Utah. I found myself taking entirely too much gear. I am finding out slowly how to minimize my needs and not require extra luxuries. My previous outdoor experiences consisted of 4-wheel-drive camping in primitive areas and day hiking. I use a four season convertible tent or a three season tent for my shelter. I plan to take more trips, increase my duration, and reduce my two to three day backpack base weight from 17 lb (8 kg).

Product Information

Manufacturer: National Geographic
Year of Manufacture: 2006
Manufacturer Website:
MSRP: $49.95 USD

Version: 4.3.0

The National Geographic National Parks Explore 3D is outdoor recreation mapping software that contains maps of twenty five National Parks in the continental United States.

The packaging indicates that this program is designed to run on a PC or a MAC with the following system requirements:

Windows 95, 98, NT, ME, 2000, or XP: 486 DX/66 MHz PC or higher, 64 MB RAM + 8 MB video memory. Macintosh OS 10.2 or higher: 350 MHz G3 or better, 128 MB RAM + 16 MB video memory.

The software comes packaged in a cardboard box that is sealed with tape. The cover of the box opens and inside there are illustrations and descriptions of the program features. The inside of the box contained a small plastic two ring binder type CD case. The case contained an eight page quick start guide, the serial number, and two CD's. Disk one is an installer CD and the map data is contained on disk two.

This program is a TOPO! interactive map product. It is designed to provide the tools to navigate, explore, and print customized topographical maps.

Some of the features of this program include:

Enhanced trails: The route tool enables the user to manually draw a trail or automatically highlight one. An elevation profile is automatically generated showing the length of the trail along with the elevation information.

3D view and fly-through feature: A 360° view of the map or fly-through the area to see the terrain features. A split screen shows 2D and 3D views of the map.

GPS ready: Way points and routes can be transferred between the software and the GPS unit. Maps can not be transferred to the GPS unit.

Software package

The park maps contained in this program are:

Acadia, ME; Arches, UT; Big Bend, TX; Bryce Canyon, UT; Canyonlands, UT - Needles and Island in the Sky; Channel Islands, CA; Death Valley, CA; Glacier / Waterton, MT / Alberta; Grand Canyon, AZ; Grand Teton, WY; Great Smokey Mountains, TN / NC; Isle Royale, MI; Joshua Tree, CA; Kings Canyon, CA; Mt. Rainier, WA; North Cascades, WA; Olympic, WA; Redwood, CA; Rocky Mountain, CO; Sequoia, CA; Shenandoah, VA; Theodore Roosevelt, ND; Yellowstone, WY / MT; Yosemite, CA; Zion, UT

Initial Report

April 13, 2007

Prior to Installation

I visited the National Geographic website to see what information was on their site in regards to this product. The site lists the features of the software and a demo feature. The demo showed how to open a park to view the maps along with what the various zoom levels look like on the map. It also showed the 3D feature with the 2D split screen.

I also visited the site to see if my system meets the minimum requirements for installation of this software. The software will be installed on a laptop and a desktop computer system. The desktop system has Windows XP OS Service Pack 2, Pentium 3 processor, 2.20 GHz, 1 GB RAM, and a NVIDIA GeForce FX 5400 graphics card (BUS PCI 8x 256 MB DDR). The laptop has Windows XP Professional OS Service Pack 2, Pentium M processor, 1.7 GHz, 512 MB RAM, and an Intel graphics controller.

I found the website to be very informative and I really liked the demo feature of the program. I thought it was pretty cool. This made me a little familiar with the program and what it looks like. I believe it made my first time using the program less intimidating.

When I received my National Parks Explorer 3D program it was everything that I expected and much more.


The installation was a breeze. I took the installer disk out of the case and popped it into by CD drive and it automatically loaded the InstallShield Wizard. I then selected a destination folder for the program. After that I selected the option to install and the files began to copy. After the files copied to my computer I opened my program files and selected TOPO!-National Parks Explorer 3D. A window popped up for me to enter the serial number. After registering the serial number the program began to initialize and the registration form popped up. I completed the form and then I was prompted to enable Live Update. This feature will check for software updates automatically each time the program is opened. I enabled that feature.

Basic Program Use

The main program menu appeared. It actually displayed Yosemite National Park first, but I have my favorite park selected in the view below. The parks can be selected by clicking on the red pins and then on the Go arrow where the park picture is displayed or by clicking the arrows on the park picture box and then selecting Go. When the arrows on the park picture box are clicked on the program randomly selects parks to display in the box.

Main program screen.

I then selected my favorite park that I visit at least once a year. I was prompted to insert the data disk 2 with additional options to copy the maps onto my hard drive. I selected to receive a prompt when the CD is needed. In the future I am going to store the maps on my hard drive.

The default map view is the National Geographic Reference Map. This is a large area map of the region to be viewed. The default tool is the zoom tool that is used to view different levels of the map. There are five view levels. The first one being the default regional map. The second level is the National Geographic Park map. This is the same map that is printed on the brochure that I received when I visited the visitor center at Grand Teton National Park. The third through fifth level are the Trails Illustrated Map. These maps appear to be the same as the one I purchased in a retail store last year before visiting the park.

On the first level map the program only allowed me to zoom in on areas of the map that were included in this park. Yellowstone National Park is on the same first level map as Grand Teton National Park. Grand Teton National Park was the park selected from the main menu and they are the only maps I am able to view without returning to the main menu or by selecting from the File menu to view maps from a different park.

Second level zoom.

This is an example of the second level zoom.

Third level zoom.

This is an example of the third level zoom.

Program Tools

Tool bar

I have used different versions of TOPO! in the past. I have TOPO! 4.0 installed on my desktop computer. I have the Utah state series along with the Western United States National Parks (that is not the title of the program, just the region it covers). This tool bar appears to be much cleaner and easier for me to use than the other TOPO! program I have installed on my PC. I like the large buttons on the tool bar that have icons and one word descriptions for their use. I like the one word description under the icon instead of hovering over it with a mouse to determine what it is used for. I think it has a nice user interface.

When these icons/features are selected there are notes on the bottom of the map with information on how to use the tool. For instance the zoom tool has notes to click the left mouse button to zoom (hold shift key to zoom out). This is a nice feature since many times I have difficulty remembering the functionality of various programs.

The features of the tool bar:

Print: This button will give a print preview of the map that is going to be printed. With options to center, save, and to reduce or change the size. There is also an option called maps by mail. This option opens another window that has Trails Illustrated Maps for purchase of the National Parks.

Select: This tool selects one or more routes to edit their display or export to a GPS.

Zoom: Views different map levels. There are five map levels available for viewing.

Center: Centers an area of the map on the screen.

Travel: Scrolls the map on the screen.

Note: Places notes on the map such as pictures, text, or websites. These notes can be exported to a GPS by using the GPS menu.

Route: Draws a route on a designated trail or a freehand route.

Compass: Draws straight lines to measure direction and distance.

Find: Search for a named feature on the map.

Grid: Adds Latitude/Longitude or a UTM reference grid.

GPS: Upload/download and tracking features for connecting to a GPS.

3D: Views the map in 3D.

Info: Opens a park guide in Adobe.

Help: Access to a complete instruction and help guide.

Menu Options:

File: Has options to save, open, close, import, export, and print the maps.

View: Options for various map views, preferences and settings.

Tool: A listing of the Select, Zoom, Centering, Traveling, Note, Route, and Compass tools.

GPS: Options to import, export, and change GPS settings.

Info: View a park guide or the user guide.

My First Map

Since Grand Teton is my favorite National Park I made my first map from that park. How hard can it be? I opened the Grand Teton National Park Map and I zoomed the map to level three centered over the Teton Crest Trail. I am not going to map the entire Teton Crest Trail, just a small portion of it.

After selecting the route tool I left clicked the mouse on the designated trail and I traced the trail. This was the fastest I ever traced a trail in a mapping program. I could not believe how quick the automatic feature was. I remember the days of zooming the map in and erasing a route several times.


The route is purple when drawn.

After I completed drawing the route the distance and the elevation profile popped up with an option to view the 3D fly-over.

Elevation profile

The elevation and distance profile box can always be activated by right clicking on a route.

I then selected to view the 3D. Here it is.


While the program is in the 3D fly-over function I had to click on the 3D tool to return to the previous screen.

The way points are automatically added.

Way points

Then I selected the print option.

Print feature

Well that was the quickest map I ever made.

I decided since I made my map so quickly that I would take a look at the park brochure by activating the Park Info tool. The brochure is identical to the Trails Illustrated Map that I purchased for this park in a retail store. Except the map is not included in this brochure.


Here is an example of the park brochure from using the park info tool.

That's it I am all done. Well not really. I have four more months of testing this software.


Field Report

June 21, 2007

Field Report Use

During the past two months I have used the National Parks Explorer 3D program to explore areas in Canyonlands National Park, Utah; Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; Kings Canyon National Park, California; and Yellowstone National Park, Montana.

The program was used after a trip to Canyonlands National Park since I did not have the software prior to the trip. The software helped me explore an area where we got off trail and explored a slot canyon. Since we did not have a GPS unit with us on that trip I had difficulty locating the exact location of the slot canyon on the map. However, I was able to locate the approximate location. With the software I was able to view the distance and the elevation of the trip that was completed. I was also able to view our campsite location.

I took a two day trip to Yellowstone National Park late this spring and I referred to the Explorer 3D program to plan my biking distance in the park. This route was drawn on the major park roads. I attempted to draw the route on the level two zoom on the park map. However, I noticed that I had to precisely draw the map with the route tool. There was no automatic function on the level two zoom. After some frustration I decided to zoom to the level three map. Then the route tool was performing with its automatic functionality. Whew! I flew through drawing my bike route through the park. I drew this map to primarily look at the distance I would be traveling and the elevation change. Drawing this map helped me plan how much water to carry and the distance between water stops. But, when I drew the map in the level three zoom and then zoomed to the second level zoom I noticed that my route was drawn slightly off the road. So I went to the level four zoom and my route appeared to be right on the road. The level one map is the national park map and it is not as detailed as the other zoom levels and I am wondering if that is why it is off slightly. I noticed that there was a mileage difference of 8% with my route as compared to the signage in the park.

My fiancé recently took a trip to the Kings Canyon area of California. We both used the National Parks Explorer 3D to explore the region for his trip. We viewed the following trails: Mist Falls, Granite Pass, and segments of the John Muir Trail.

Since I knew that I was experiencing some discrepancies with the route distances from my Yellowstone National Park map I wanted to check the accuracy of the maps. I turned to my fiancé for help with this as he has a large collection of Harrison maps (which have true measured distances on them) and guide books which break trails down into very accurate segments.

Checking against trails along the Pacific Crest Trail, the John Muir Trail, and some other trails in Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite we came to the conclusion that the distance is off by as little as 4% and as much as 18%. The average seems to be 15%.

I also noticed that there was a discrepancy in the mileage accuracy in planning our trip to Grand Teton National Park. So I referred to the Falcon Guide to the park to compare the mileage with my map that was created with the Explorer 3D program. The Cascade Canyon and Paintbrush Canyon Loop was off by 15%. I questioned this figure I came up with and asked my fiancé for some assistance. He came up with the same calculation.

He did notice how easy it was for me to draw the maps for his Kings Canyon trip using the route tool. I have to say it now takes me a few minutes to draw a route instead of a painful half an hour as it used to without the automatic route tool. The route tool is my favorite feature of this software program. I can draw the route and the program attaches it to the route even if I am off. It also enables me to retract on the route and redraw if I have to without using an erase function or deleting the entire map as I had to in the past. Maps can easily be drawn using the track pad on my laptop and on an airplane in flight. This is something that could not be done in the past with previous versions of the TOPO! program.

I am planning a trip to Grand Teton National Park in a few weeks and I drew my route using the handy route tool in under three minutes. I started to draw the route in the level five zoom, but then I got to a section of the trail that was grayed out on the map. I stopped drawing the route and switched to the level four zoom and I was able to view and draw on the remaining portion of the trail. I found it perplexing as to why some areas of the map can not be zoomed into level five. However, I found it easy to switch between the two zoom levels to complete my route. I did find that most of the parks only have a zoom to level four. I discovered some parks such as Acadia, Big Bend, Bryce Canyon, and Rainier also have a fifth level that is only in part of the park, most of the map is just level four. I am able to draw routes on levels two, three, four, and five (when present).

Map zoom issue

Example of zoom level five not showing the entire map.


After creating this map I saved it to my hard drive and I attached it in an email and sent it to myself. I was able to open the email and save the document to my hard drive. However, I was unable to open it in the program. I kept getting a warning box that the program had to close. The program needs to be open in order to open a saved document. Nothing would happen when I double clicked or right clicked on the document and selected to open with the TOPO! program.

I used the 3D fly through feature with my map from Grand Teton. I thought it was a neat feature to fly though the trail and get a sense of the elevation and the terrain changes. I do not use that feature on all my maps just because I think of it as a fun luxury and not for my needs.

Grand Teton Route

Grand Teton National Park route with the elevation profile included.

On the above map I viewed the elevation profile and I clicked on the highest elevation point on the profile to view it on the map. This is a handy feature to know where the points in the elevation profile match up on the map. The yellow dot with the red cross lines indicate the highest elevation point on the map.

Elevation marking

I am planning to use the map I created and printed with a GPS unit on my upcoming trip to Grand Teton National Park. In my long term report I will attempt to place pictures and notes on my map from our trip.

Many of the tools in the program were handy to use. The center tool was frequently used to center the maps I was viewing on the screen. There is also a center tool on the print preview screen that I used frequently while preparing to print the map.

The grid tool was used on my Grand Teton National Park map to compare it with another map I have of the region. I found this tool to be very helpful.

The find tool is helpful in searching for specific areas on the maps. I typed in Jenny Lake in the search window and a few different options appeared. Such as: Jenny Lake, Jenny Lake Trail, Jenny Lake Overlook, Jenny Lake Lodge. I selected the option I wanted and selected go, then a yellow dot appeared with red cross lines on the map near the location I was looking for.

I have only used the compass tool to experiment on some of the maps I have drawn. I will use it in more detail in the long term report.

Long Term Report

August 24, 2007

Long Term Report Use

During the final two months of testing I used the Explorer 3D program to view and create maps for Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; Canyonlands National Park, Utah; Arches National Park, Utah; and Zion National Park, Utah.

I used the map that I printed for the Cascade Canyon and Paintbrush Canyon trails in Grand Teton National Park on a backpacking trip. I found the map to be helpful in determining my location on the trail and some of the camping zones. I used an altimeter to assist me in determining my location. I did realize that the Upper Paintbrush Canyon camping zone was marked in a different location on the map than the trail marking. When I backpacked on this same trail last year I did not recall where the sign was or even if there was a sign. I would estimate that the signage is 0.25 mi (0.40 km) off. I do not know if this is a discrepancy with the park signage or the Explorer 3D software.

Before departing to Grand Teton National Park on this backpacking journey I attempted to load my trip information on my fiancé's Garmin 60C GPS unit. However, I was unsuccessful at my attempts. The Explorer 3D GPS communicator settings detected the GPS unit, but was unable to establish a connection. The latest software was installed on the GPS unit and the latest updates were installed for the Explorer 3D program. I rebooted the computer, tried a different USB port, and restarted the Explorer 3D program several times. I was slightly disappointed since I wanted to use this capability of the program.

After returning home from my trip to Grand Teton National Park I put some pictures into my saved map of my camping location and other highlights from the trail. This was done by creating a note and by saving the picture in the note creation box. A URL can also be added here as well. The pictures do not display on my map and in order to view them I must open the note icon on the map. The note icon has the title of my note displayed.

I utilized the program to plan a route in Cayonlands National Park for a trip I will be taking in late September. This route covers 87.5 mi (141 km) of terrain according to the software however, my guide book indicates that the trail is 91.3 mi (147 km) long. I have not completed this trip yet, but my friends that completed it claimed it is over 90 mi (145 km). There is a significant amount of elevation gain and loss on this trail (over 15,000 ft or 4,572 m) and I am uncertain if that has any impact on the discrepancy.

Currently I am attempting to print the map at the level four zoom. I am realizing that the transfer of this map onto paper is going to require me to use a few sheets of legal paper in order for me to have the entire map. I am still working on this map by adding notes and marking my camping locations. I must say it took me only about 5 minutes to draw this route with the route tool. It is very nifty indeed!

I did notice that when I save a map and reopen it later that sometimes it saves the route with straight lines between the waypoints. I can delete this by clicking on the waypoint lines and selecting to delete the route. Once I deleted the lines between the way points and resaved the map the waypoint lines did not reappear. This is just kind of buggy. I am wondering if this is because of the way I have the waypoint settings configured in the GPS details properties of the program. I am using the default configuration for this setting.

I am also working on a few maps for Arches National Park and Zion National Park. I will be day hiking in Arches in late September and in Zion sometime this fall. While working on these maps I noticed that if I draw a route in one zoom level, such as level four and then go to view the map in another level, such as level five, the drawn route is slightly off the dotted route line on the map. This is more noticeable on some maps and routes more than others.

I attempted to use the compass function and I did not find it useful for my needs. I did not need to use straight lines to measure my distance or for direction. I played with this functionality to see how it worked but I did not input this into any of my saved maps.

Things I like:

  • How quick it is to draw a map with the route tool
  • The limited amount of time I used reading the instruction manual to create maps and use the functionality of the program
  • The graphical interface

Things that are not so hot:

  • The mileage discrepancies
  • I can not open a map that was attached in an email
  • I can not double or right click on a saved map to open it. I must have the program opened.


I have enjoyed using the National Parks Explorer 3D program during the last four months. I love the automatic route tool feature. It has cut down my route drawing time significantly as compared with other versions of TOPO! that do not have that functionality. I am slightly disappointed that the distances are off in the program, but as I noticed in the past the mileage is off in other versions of TOPO! as well. I love the easy to use interface of the program. I will continue to use this program for planning my routes for backpacking in the parks this program features. Even if there are a few quirks with the program I still enjoy using it.


This concludes my testing of the Explorer 3D program. Thank you National Geographic and for providing me with the opportunity to test the National Parks Explorer 3D.



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