California’s Department of Parks and Recreation is getting a facelift, and Google is operating.
The Mountain View-based company has spent the last three months traversing the California countryside, through the towering redwoods and atop Mt. Tamalpais to create virtual maps for more than a dozen parks, helping the once-antiquated state agency plug in and capture a new audience online.

“Information is key for people who are not active users of state parks,” says Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation. “You want to know what a place is like. You want to prepare in advance.”

Google mapped the parks at no cost, using Google Trekker, which was previously used on the Grand Canyon in 2012, according to the Los Angeles Times. Users can view the virtual images of the 14 parks mapped using the Street View feature, with the aim of attracting a younger generation of potential hikers and campers.

“It’s really important to connect a new generation to California parks,”  says Jon Christensen, a UCLA senior researcher working on the software. “We know that generation is very technologically adept and socially connected.”

The impetus to play tech catch-up was prompted by an accounting scandal in 2012, which revealed millions of dollars concealed in a department account during the height of state park budget cuts. Earlier this year in April, the Parks Forward Commission, an independent group created by the Legislature, issued a report finding that the parks system “is debilitated by an outdated organizational structure, underinvestment in technology and business tools, and a culture that has not rewarded excellence, innovation, and leadership.”

In addition to the maps, California officials have also begun experimenting with mobile parking payment at some state beaches in Orange County, while budding architecture students at Cal Poly Pomona are designing park cabins as an alternative for camping out in a tent. And state officials plan to triple the number of parks where visitors can pay fees by credit card by the end of the year, too.

Elsewhere in San Francisco, Stamen Design is teaming up with conservation group Resources Legacy Fund to develop a mobile application to assist users with navigating programs and activities throughout the state’s park system, regardless of whether they’re operated by a government agency.

“Years from now, when we look at the parks system, this is the time when we had the opportunity to make great change,” says Lisa Mangat, acting parks director.

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