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Stuck at Home During Quarantine? Take a Virtual Road Trip with Google Maps

The grass always looks greener on the other side, and never has that felt more true than while we are all stuck in our homes, sheltering in place so we can do our part to flatten the curve. You know where we’d rather be right now? On a road trip, getting some fresh air, spreading our wings and taking in new sights. While that isn’t feasible right now, we can get part way there with the help of technology (with the added bonus of doing so with a much lower carbon footprint). Just like you’ve been visiting with Grandma on Zoom calls, the magic of images and the internet help virtually transport you and your family to another place. You can turn it into a cultural or scientific lesson for young ones, a vista hunting expedition, or to plan out your next expedition (once it’s safe to travel). Using Google Earth or Google Maps, we can explore far away hiking spots and iconic world wonders with 360 degree photos.

Google calls their 360 photos “photospheres”, and anyone can make them using a modern smartphone and the Google Street View app or even on some android devices built in camera app. The process is a bit cumbersome, you have to point your phone in different directions, centering on a dot in each area until you eventually fill out the entire picture. Users can upload these shots to Google Maps and make them publicly available for all to see. While the normal Google street view will let you zoom in and get an eye-level view of an area, that is generally only available on major roads or hiking trails. For a view of places that are a bit more off the beaten path, photospheres are the way to go.

To start, open maps.google.com in your browser (or download the Google Street View app for your phone and follow the instructions). The larger your screen, the better the experience, so you can even try connecting your device to your TV (or VR device if you have one). In Google Maps, pick a location (such as our favorites below), and zoom in so you’re seeing a smaller area (Google will show more and more photospheres as you zoom in). Click and hold on the yellow figure in the bottom right of your screen, and you’ll see mapped roads light up in blue, and photospheres appear as small, light blue circles. Drop the yellow figure onto a photosphere circle, and it will change to a full screen version of the 360 photo. From there, you can click and drag around to see more of the image, or even zoom in and out on details.

Now that you know how to do it, check out our favorite spots below. These are just a small sample of the thousands of places you can explore.

  • Banff National Park, Alberta Canada - Banff is an iconic national park for mountaineers and extreme sports enthusiasts (it’s inspired an entire film festival as well). This huge national park was founded in 1885, actually the first in Canada, and encompasses over 2,500 square miles of glaciers, ice fields, mountain peaks and coniferous valleys. Luckily for those of us at home, it’s an extremely popular spot for hikers and climbers, and has been well documented in photos and videos. There are dozens of photospheres set throughout the park, try starting with this one here.

  • Stocking Island, Bahamas - The Caribbean is an iconic sea full of islands that are what most of us imagine when we think of a tropical vacation. The beautiful white sand beaches, lively culture and proximity to the U.S. make it an ideal spot for many of us to get away. The country is actually composed of hundreds of islands, one of which is Stocking Island, a lightly inhabited island that is a popular boating destination. Check out this incredible photosphere, taken by someone using a drone, that shows off the location’s crystal clear waters and beautiful islandscape.

Crater Lake

  • Crater Lake, Oregon: Crater lake is a popular destination for Americans and foreign tourists alike. Crater Lake is actually a lake and the name of the National Park, and it is the deepest lake in the United States at almost 1,950 feet deep. The lake sits in a volcanic caldera, and is famous for its extremely blue and clear waters and Wizard Island. Part of the reason for the lake’s incredible water is that it’s fed entirely by rain and snowfall, there are no rivers, and therefore no sediment, running into the lake. Even in photos, you can see the lake’s incredible color and clarity. Try starting with this shot, taken from one of the boats that take tourists out on the lake.

  • Monument Valley, Navajo Nation: Native American culture is one of the great riches of the Americas, and Monument Valley is fittingly one of the most iconic natural sights in America. The red desert rocks and towering buttes are the image of the southwest. Located in the incredible Navajo Nation tribal reservation, and known as “Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii” in Navajo, Monument Valley is a breathtaking landscape that is a very popular spot for travellers (thanks in no small part to the excellent hotel on site). Luckily, there are dozens of photospheres available as a result of the popularity, spanning throughout the entire tribal park. You can get closeup, 360 degree views of indigenous dwellings, stunning rock formations, and expansive plateaus.

  • Gulf Oil Rigs, Louisiana: One of the best things about photospheres is how many rabbit holes you end up going down once you get started. First you’ll end up reading about remote Caribbean Islands on Wikipedia (like Stocking Island mentioned above), the next thing you know you’re exploring 360 degree photos in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s how we found this photosphere, taken by some fishing enthusiasts who decided to park next to what we presume is an offshore oil rig. This is one of those strange yet cool places that most people will probably never see up close, so it’s interesting to get a close up view of these giant platforms off the Louisiana coast. Explore around this area and you’ll also find interesting photospheres from cruise ship passengers

  • Baxter State Park, Maine: Very far North of Louisiana sits Maine, with it’s beautiful lakes, coastlines and mountains. Being that the state is quite small and very northern, it’s not often a popular choice when we talk about destinations, but the state is covered with beautiful landscapes and features such as Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, the northern end of the famous Appalachian trail. This area actually has a lot of photospheres to explore thanks to the many intrepid hikers who’ve climbed the green, rocky peaks of Maine. While you’re exploring, don’t forget to dip a little bit south to view Maine’s incredible array of rocky bays and lighthouses.

  • Wai’ilikahi Falls, Big Island, Hawaii: Being so remote, Hawaii really is a special place full of endemic flora and fauna that are must see features of this island paradise. With 8 islands to choose from, there are plenty of sights to see. Since Hawaii is so volcanically active, there are tons of opportunities for geology lessons as well. You can see the view from the top of a volcano, the lush plants inside a tropical rain forest, and even the beauty of coral reefs. There are hundreds of photospheres spread throughout the region that highlight what makes this island chain so incredibly spectacular.

This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of places you can explore while sheltering in place. From the fjords of Iceland to the Great Pyramids of Giza, intrepid adventurers have documented distant sights far and wide. While we all have some extra time on our hands, we may as well explore some new sights and learn new things about the amazing world in which we live. Once we’re all free to move around again, maybe you can even visit one of these iconic spots in person and create your own 360 degree memories.