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Recreation.gov -- nice try, needs work

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Jodi Peterson | Sep 18, 2012 06:00 AM

Ever wanted to plan a vacation around a bunch of federally-managed recreation sites, but didn't know where to turn? Yeah, me neither.  I mean, sometimes I plan trips to visit particular national parks, but I don't generally think of a vacation to, say, San Francisco, in terms of what federal facilities I can go see while there.

But the recently-revamped Recreation.gov website thinks that's exactly what you want to do. This "one-stop-shopping" site recently underwent a full overhaul. Recreation.gov first launched in 2007 and covers lands and facilities managed by about a dozen federal agencies (the Bureau of Land Management, the National Archives, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing) and two partners: The Smithsonian and the Tennessee Valley Authority (of snail darter fame).

According to Interior's press release:

The redesign of www.recreation.gov is an initial step in a multi-year strategy to engage visitors with enhanced interactive content and more multimedia, mobile, trip-planning tools. The seven million visitors who use the web site every year will be able to make reservations, see ready-made itineraries for destination cities, and search for activities on an interactive map.

But in many cases the information Recreation.gov provides is oddly limited – under "Car Camping for Beginners", for instance, you might expect to learn what to bring on a car camping trip. However, there's just one sentence about items you might want to toss in your car – they include "coolers, toys and fishing poles." Or maybe you'd want hints about how to light a campfire. Surely, at least, you'd expect to find links to federal campgrounds in each state. But no. The page simply lists 10 random campgrounds across the nation. To find other campgrounds, you have to click on one of the 10 provided, then type in the name of a state and select "Camping & Lodging". When you do finally get to a list of campgrounds, they're organized alphabetically. Then you have to click again to see details. Either way, it's laborious and hard to navigate. The site does at least make it easy to reserve a campsite once you've found the spot you want.

Recreation.gov screenshot

A screenshot of Recreation.gov

Looking under "Off Highway Vehicles" under "Find Places and Activities" does not give you what you might expect -- a list of trails for motorized adventures. Instead, after some typing of place names and clicking, you get a map. You then might zoom in to the labeled dots, only to find that what's being marked is not a trail but a national park or a campground. Or something even more abstract, like "Dolores River, CO".  I tried searching "Off Highway Vehicles" around Moab, Utah, expecting pointers to the area's famous public-land motorized playgrounds, like the White Wash Sand Dunes managed by the BLM.

But nope. The Dunes are not labeled on the site's OHV map of eastern Utah.

The map does label Canyonlands National Park  as an OHV attraction. But after half-a-dozen clicks in search of more details, I finally got to a page about the park that said "All vehicles must remain on established roads. ATVs and non-street legal dirt bikes are not permitted."

I'm not sure most casual recreators think about the difference between "off highway" and "all terrain" vehicles, but if you're trying to use this site to find out where you can ride cross-country on a 4-wheeler, you're going to end up mighty frustrated.

If your interests are more urban, you might check out the suggested itineraries the site provides for a handful of cities (including Denver, San Francisco and Las Vegas). But the itinerary lists only the name of each attraction, gives one sentence describing it, and tells how far the place is from the city. There are no links to additional information. So, if you think you'd like to go to Denver and then visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, the itinerary page will tell you only that the park contains the "tallest sand dunes in North America, surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. Try sand surfing. 200 miles/320K from Denver." To find anything more about the park (like how to get there, or where you can camp, or what kind of board one uses for sand surfing), you have to leave the itinerary page, go to the "find places and activities" page, type in the park's name, and then click another couple of links. Kinda tiresome.

Admittedly, the feds undertook a Herculean task when they attempted to pull together a huge number of recreation spots, managed by a bunch of different agencies, into one location. It's a solid first step. But it needs to provide the easy searching and sorting offered by any good travel site, along with a lot more depth and much better linking, before it'll be really useful. In the meantime, if you want to find public lands recreation info, you're probably better off just Googling general phrases like "national parks Colorado" or using a national parks app (made, of course, by someone unaffiliated with the federal government).

Perhaps in the case of recreation.gov, the concessionaire model is worth considering. The Park Service leaves hotel operations up to Aramark or Xanterra; maybe it should do the same for websites.

Jodi Peterson is the online editor at High Country News.

Daniel Lyle
Daniel Lyle
Oct 05, 2012 09:36 AM
Jodi, in your final comment you suggested the concessionaire model. Recreation.gov is operated by Reserve America (part Active Network) and is similar to a concession contract. They do a good job hiding behind the scenes and representing the government agencies while being a private contractor.

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