5 Outdoor Virtual Tours to Get Back to Nature With Hikes, Dives, and Spelunking
Feeling cooped up and missing being out in nature? The outdoors are still waiting for you, but you can take a step towards them through these virtual hike websites and natural tourism apps.
At times when you can’t get moving on the roads, take the information highway. You can visit virtual museums at home or disappear into the wild with these virtual outdoor tourism sites and apps.
Take a virtual tour of Yosemite natural park, go spelunking into the world’s deepest cave, catch the Aurora Borealis in the frigid north. And you can even join a live interactive hike where you get to tell the person where to go.
1. Virtual Yosemite (Web): Virtual Hike in the World-Famous National Park
Virtual reality photographer Scott Highton shot panoramas of the magnificent Yosemite Natural Park to create a virtual tour experience. The team also captured the sounds of each distinct environment to make it feel like you’re there. Now if only virtual reality could capture smells…
You’ll start at Glacier Point, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Each panorama point has an audio track too, of both natural sounds (like gushing water) or people’s sounds (murmuring and camera clicks). A small write-up pane tells you more information about the point of interest.
You can let the camera auto-rotate to give you a full 360-view of the area, or pan and scan manually. Most panoramas also let you zoom in and out. Red markers in each image indicate other points you can jump to. If you want to quickly move between points, use the panorama index or the map.
The Virtual Yosemite tour is also an excellent leanback experience. The website randomly switches to new locations every two minutes. I’d recommend visiting it through a browser on your smart TV, and then let it do its magic.
2. Son Doong Cave (Web): Explore the World’s Largest Cave With Nat Geo
Hang Son Doong, or “mountain river cave,” was discovered pretty late in a remote part of central Vietnam. Before it was run over by tourists, a team from National Geographic captured 360-degree interactive photographs and virtual reality content to let you explore the pristine cave.
Move around the virtual cave with your mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen. On certain phones and tablets, you can also move the tablet in any direction to “look around”. It’s quite cool, almost like the tablet is a window into the world.
On the left, you’ll see a short description of what you’re looking at, with a map of the entire Son Doong cave on the right. Click anywhere on the map to move quickly, but it’s obviously a better experience to take the guided step-by-step tour.
The team captured the sounds of each unique environment within the cave to add to the virtual reality feel. Some of the spots have super-high-resolution images, over 500 megapixels. The app notifies you when you’re in such a position, so you can zoom into minute details of the fascinating environment.
3. The Faroe Islands (Web): Control a Hiker Through Their Webcam
Like most tourist hotspots, the Faroe Islands had to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the administrators have come up with one of the most ingenious ways to do remote tourism. They’ve created a virtual tour much like a video game to let you explore the 18 islands.
A local official or islander straps on a helmet with a camera, and a backpack with instructions. The official’s view is displayed live to viewers around the world. And these viewers, sitting in the comfort of their home, take turns to control the islander.
With a virtual remote controller, you can make the islander go in any direction, run, or jump. Activities including hiking, sailing, riding horses, and even taking (and controlling) a helicopter ride.
It’s an unprecedented virtual exploration of the islands, its unspoiled and pristine habitat, and its 80,000 sheep (which is where it derives the name from). The whole thing is a fun interactive experience that works on both computers and smartphones. Visit the website to see a countdown to when the next virtual tour begins and set an alarm.
4. Virtual Aurora Tours (Web): Snow-Clad Forests and Northern Lights in VR
Among the white sheets of snow and the clear skies, Earth puts on a spectacular light show for its humans. When solar winds disturb the magnetosphere, in some parts, you can look up to see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. Lights Over Lapland captured the experience of going to watch the Aurora Borealis in a virtual reality tour.
This is a series of YouTube videos, in which you can move pan-and-scan within an active video to change the camera angle. It’s particularly breath-taking in some of the action shots like the virtual dog sled tour, shot from a first-person view. Look around the snow-capped forest for a breath-taking ride.
Other videos from this Swedish VR tour include an ice hotel, Lake Torneträsk, and reindeer. But the highlight is the Northern Lights above Abisko National Park. You could pause and move the camera, but I found it a better experience to let the video play on loop while changing the angle ever so often.
5. The Click Effect (Web, Android, iOS): Dive Underwater With Whales
Virtual reality storytellers WITHIN have a number of cool interactive movies on their app and website. For those who love the ocean, dive into the virtual waters and check out the unique clicking communication of dolphins and whales.
Marine scientists Fabrice Schnoller and Fred Buyle recorded 360-degree video and audio of their free dives (i.e. diving without oxygen tanks). While 100 feet underwater, they studied and captured the clicking between mammals, and explored a shipwreck. It’s turned it into a fascinating virtual underwater dive for those who can’t scuba.
The Click Effect is best seen through the WITHIN app on phones or through a VR headset, as you can move the device to look around. But it also works perfectly on a computer screen. The occasional commentary by Schnoller and Buyle can break the immersive environment, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
Best Google Earth Virtual Tours
It’s impossible to ignore Google Earth when it comes to virtual tours. It offers unparalleled immersive experiences, especially since Google gets access to spots that others can’t go to. It was hard to pick a single trip, so we rounded up the best Google Earth virtual tours you can explore from the comfort of your home.