iHike Program Allows Virtual Badlands Treks

Mar 21, 2014

Web Ranger iHike program showing SDPB journalist Jim Kent's progress on a virtual hike through Badlands National Park.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

Badlands National Park has announced the introduction of its virtual Web Ranger iHike. The computer program challenges people of all ages to get outdoors, get active, and get moving by matching actual distances walked or hiked with equivalent virtual distances on Badlands Park trails.

I spent some time at the Badlands learning about the program and going for a short hike with a park ranger. Then I tried it on my own in the Southern Hills – with some canine support.

It’s quite a haul from my home to the Visitor’s Center at Badlands National Park. But it’s a beautiful day for a drive…or hike, for that matter. I’m on my way to meet Julie Johndreau, Acting Chief of Resource Education at the park.

From the comfort of her office, Julie’s going to explain to me how the new virtual Web Ranger iHike works…so simple, I’m assured, that even I can use it. Then we’re going to “put it to the test” – so to speak, by taking a hike and recording it on the program. Julie Johndreau explains how the idea came about.

“We’ve done a program called ‘Walk the Badlands’ with the Kadoka fourth-grade class for many years now,” Johndreau explains. “And so that’s a program where you go into the classroom and tell the kids about the park and they log their exercise throughout a semester. And for every half-hour of exercise that equals one mile hiked in the Badlands National Park. So, they chart that through this logbook and they earn some prizes along the way. And then at the end of the year they come out to the park for a field trip. And I always thought that was a really fun program and wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring it to kids all over the country through an on-line experience?”

From Julie’s thoughts to the National Park Service Headquarters. She recently discovered that a similar program is available to the general public through the NPS website. At this point only 5 national park locations are taking part in the program, now among them Badlands National Park. Julie says the Web Ranger iHike program is pretty easy to use. 

“To create an account you can log in through Web Rangers or iHike virtual trail,” Johndreau directs. “And once you do that you can choose a trail. So then when you get to your trail, you’ll see an overview of the trail map and where you’ll start.”

Just a couple of points. Since you’re required to enter a distance walked before you can access the program, you need to have already gone for your hike before sitting down to your PC. That’s just Julie’s way of keeping us honest. And you can enter your hike in steps - if you use a pedometer; by city blocks – if you’re an urban hiker, or by distance – if you’re adept at calculating mileage.


“Makes me want to get out there,” Johndreau comments. “Especially today...it’s so mice out.”                            

“Well do you want to go?” I ask.                                                                      

 “Yeah!” Johndreau replies.

Ranger Julie Johndreau hiking Badlands National Park's Saddle Pass trail.
Credit Courtesy Badlands National Park

It's a beautiful day in the Badlands. The sun is shining, temperature’s in the 50s, and just the hint of a breeze. And since it’s off-season, we have the place pretty much to ourselves.

Julie drives us to Saddle Pass, just a few miles from the Visitor’s Center. Crossing a small bridge, we begin our ascent up the side of a steep, very steep, eroded butte. The entire trail takes under an hour to complete. I’m tempted to do it, considering the fantastic weather, but remind myself that the virtual tour is what this story’s about. After 15 minutes or so, we reluctantly turn around and head back to the office.

Then Julie logs in our short hike.

“We did about a half-a-mile,” notes Johndreau. “So, I’m going to enter that and I think that will take us to our next stop on the virtual hike here.”                                                                       

“Which would be what?” I ask.                                                                

“We are going up to,” Johndreau calculates. Boom…we just hit it and there we are. We are at the Saw Tables up on top of the Castle Trail…Medicine Root Loop.”

Well done. But now for the solo test. Back to Hot Springs and a hike nearby my home.

Preparing to leave the house, I place his collar on my dog and ask if he’s ready for a walk. He offers a whiny bark in reply.                                                                      

And we’re off. Just me and my Belgian Shepherd along a trail through the Southern Black Hills, which I’ll then transpose…virtually…to a trail in the Badlands. Over the 40-minute trek we spy a hawk circling high above us…encounter a trio of horses (sounds of horses) and….take care of…… business…as required.

Arriving home, it’s a Milk-Bone and water for Buddy and the Web Ranger site for me.

And much to my amazement, I’m successfully logged on. I’ve begun my personal record of hiking through the Badlands. Very cool.

Besides offering the average person the chance to see what it’s like to walk the Badlands – with photographs of the area popping up on the screen as you watch your virtual hike progress, the Badlands iHike can also be used by schools as a tool for class projects. As Ranger Julie points out, it allows kids in Ohio, Alabama or even here in South Dakota, to get in shape while taking virtual hikes along Saddle Pass, Castle Trail or Medicine Root Loop…with hope that one day, they’ll actually be here to hike those Badlands trails. 

Badlands National Park


National Park Service iHike Program