Bay Area Hiking

Two Great Programs for Bay Area Hikers

I found two programs that are great resources for hiking the Bay Area. One of them is called Topo! It has digitized USGS topographic maps of different regions of California and other states. One version covers the San Francisco Bay Area, the Wine Country, Monterey Bay, and the Big Sur area. You can zoom in or out on different portions of the area and print out custom maps. One of the neatest things is that you can draw in a path along a trail or take a straight cut across an area, then the program will calculate and display an elevation profile for the path you've drawn. The main problem with the program is that it's not a street map program, so only a few roads are labeled. Park trails may be shown if they are old farm roads, but footpaths are probably not shown. You need to have a park map handy which shows the hiking trails and compare it to the topo map. Then you can sketch in the trails yourself on the topo map.

Topographic maps are essential for serious hikers, but I find them hard to interpret. It's hard to tell at a glance whether the land is going up or down. It would be great if you could see a 3-D representation of the landscape. I found one program that does this, but it's not what you might think. It's actually a flight simulator, Flight Unlimited II. It's an excellent and very accurate flight simulator, but that's not why I bought it. I bought it for the scenery. It has very accurate renditions of the entire Bay Area, from the mouth of the Russian River down to the just north of Santa Cruz, and from the Pacific Ocean east all the way to Sacramento. The terrain was based on satellilte photos, and tall buildings and structures are 3-D rendered. You can fly under the Golden Gate Bridge or around the Pyramid building in San Francisco. You can see the shape of the terrain, lakes, large streams, roads, and some of the wider trails. You can get an idea of the type of vegetation along the trails. The terrain is very realistic-looking if you're greater than 500 feet above the ground. Take a look at this screen shot of Mt. Tamalpais. Here are some more screen shots. You can capture screen shots to a file and print them out to take them with you on a hike. There are special modes where you can move rapidly like a flying saucer in the X-Y direction in whatever geometric plane the airplane was in (this is a cheat mode called "zoar") or zoom up and down like a helicopter. If you point the plane down and enter the zoar mode, you can zoom hundreds of thousands of feet into the air like a rocket. Using these cheat modes, you quickly explore any part of the Bay Area. I've been able to find and follow trails I've been on in Almaden Quicksilver, Santa Teresa, Sierra Azul, Ranch San Antonio, Grant Ranch, the Marin Headlands, Uvas County Park, and some of the parks along Skyline Blvd. I printed out views of the High Meadows and PG&E trails in Rancho San Antonio and took them with me on a hike there. It gave me a better idea of what to expect and was surprisingly accurate. I've also explored trails that I someday hope to take in Point Reyes, Henry Coe State Park, and Mount Diablo. I've been able to discover what lies in areas that are currently inaccessible or off-limits. I've found little lakes that I never knew existed, since they aren't on normal street maps.

Flight Unlimited II is great, but it wasn't intended to be a mapping program. The problem is that it's sometimes hard to tell exactly where you are. It does have a map that you can jump to tell approximately where you are and where you've been, but its resolution is limited. My dream hiking software would be a program that combines the topographic detail, profiling, and labels of Topo!, the up-to-date road names of a standard road map program, and the dynamic 3-D realism of Flight Unlimited II. It would include all trails and footpaths in all the parks. It would have the resolution to accurately show landmarks, rocks, small creeks, vegetation, and other terrain details from a hiker's ground level perspective. It would adjust the view for the seasons and time of day. Combine this with a palm computer with GPS and you have the ultimate hiker's guide. It would show you where you are at the moment and show the trails ahead to help you decide which ones to take. Add a digital camera attachment, cell phone link, Web access, and you have the makings of a real-time virtual Web hike. It could automatically plot your route and annotate the photographs with the location and direction. This is all a dream, but someday it may be possible.

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Ron Horii, San Jose
Created 10/8/97. Last update: 7/8/98