Virtual GeoCaching

Ok, so it is true that there is no substitute for the experience of actually going to a place, and for my friends that mistake the joy of Virtual GeoCaching for the joy of actual traveling – please be clear that the purpose of this exploration is inherent in itself: Virtual GeoCaching¬† is fun solely for its own merit and challenge. Especially when you attempt to find places that you can’t just quickly identify with any search engine map.

Of course I have to make a quick note on my new definition of Virtual Geocaching – since actual Geocachers have already coined it as a response to Natural Area managers removing their physical cache boxes from sensitive areas – most recently 84 sites in the Bend Area – and people just take pictures to report that they found the location as opposed to adding to the cache box. My definition of Virtual GeoCaching puts a different spin on this concept, in that the hunt itself is virtual.

What makes the actual virtual Virtual GeoCaching challenging is that it involves finding those places that just aren’t included in easily mine-able place data sets. These places are most commonly landmarks in natural areas, and sometimes even natural areas themselves. My favorite example of finding a location on a USGS Topographic sheet was on my trip to Pictured Rocks National Shoreline along Lake Superior in Michigan’s upper peninsula. My friends and I traveled an 8 hour day to set up camp and prepare for our adventures that were to follow in the next three days – sea kayaking on Lake Superior to see the cliffs on the first day, a sauntering two mile hike along the shoreline to experiences varying geologic geographies and the lighthouse on the second day, and a more intensive dune hike along the Great Au Sable Dunes on the third day. So following the set-up of camp on the first day, we had some daylight to burn and wanted just a short trek to check out some falls, stretch our legs and temper our excitement for the adventures to come. So we went off in search of Munising Falls. The search in Google Maps directed us to a visitors center on the highway into town, and Apple Maps sent us almost to the neighboring county. It was only upon consult of the USGS Topographic sheet that I discovered the relative location of the falls (I had the digital US Authoritative Topo loaded into my GPS enabled Avenza Map App), and driving to the general direction of the falls helped us to stumble upon the famous “brown sign” indicating a natural park was within proximity.

To this end, Google Maps is slowly but surely adding to their database many of these natural locations, and certainly the recent acquisition of Street View in the Colorado River is a great stride toward this effort.

Google Street View of Colorado River in Arizona

Google Street View of Colorado River in Arizona


Trail mapping efforts across the globe are putting out feelers and GPS tracks to help chart these “un-searchable” places. Here in the US, National Geographic has brought their trail data to their relatively new Trail Maps App which uses USGS Topographic sheets as a base layer. Internationally, companies like Hema Maps in Australia also utilize topographic sheets as a base layer for their 4WD Offline App. In Africa, where Topo base maps are a bit harder to come by, Tracks4Africa, has been gradually building their database for use in their offline app, and includes many aspects like where to stay, eat, shopping, fuel, money matters, emergencies and obviously what to see and do when you visit a place.

Even considering these great efforts, undoubtedly many places still remain uncharted in terms of tabular and searchable data for Google Maps, and the following exercise in Virtual GeoCaching outlines a couple of these places.

Recently, I had been chatting with my friend who lives in Colorado and works for National Geographic about one of his many fly fishing ventures. I inquired about specifics, and he wrote to me:

“Hi Margaret, Quick fishing update. Last Thursday, we ended up doing a hike/wade trip as the CO river down around Pumphouse was running too high for a successful float trip. We fished a few pools of the CO River near Parshall and then hiked up the Williams Fork and fished many pools along the river. We caught many nice browns and hooked and lost some huge rainbows. It was a great Fall day in the Rockies!”

To which I took as a direct challenge to locate the places he mentioned. Now quite often, sharing the sweet spots for fly fishing is a breach of the unspoken fly fisherman’s code, but for the purposes of this exercise I am hoping I get a pass.

Searching for the Pumphouse in Google Maps brings up street addresses. So I had to deduce from this Orvis fishing report that the Pumphouse is on the Upper Colorado River, as it covers fishing conditions “Upper Colorado, Pumphouse to Grandy.” This site gave me tons of great info on fishing the stretch of river, but no coordinates. Google-ing the “Upper Colorado River Pumphouse” returned a site – Western River Rats – dedicated to documenting the places for fly fishing that has a page on the Pumphouse Run including photos and coordinates, with a description of the Pumphouse as “The Pumphouse run is the second most used run in the state. It is so popular because of the fine scenery and it does not flow next to a road. The entire run is away from traffic and offers a variety of scenery including 1,500′ canyons, wide basins ringed with high foothills and a good wilderness feeling.”

So the Pumphouse is actually a “15 mile run starting at the Pumphouse put in to the State Bridge take out.”

I use Google maps to find the stretch of river using State Bridge (39.864093, -106.650552) and the location mentioned on western River Rats as the put in W 106, 30′, 30″ N 39, 59′, 20″(39.9888889, -106.5083333).

pumphouse orientation

Here is the stretch represented on a map from the Rancho Del Rio site where I found a map. Without coordinates and drawn with relative locations (not at all to scale).

pumphouse map

The Bureau of Land Management map provides quite a bit more detail.

BLM map

Especially when we view the zoom to feature.

blm pumphouse zoom_crop1

Parshall and Williams Fork were much easier to find: 40.05633,-106.180594 because Parshall (obv) is a place in Google’s database.


The Google Place for “Williams Fork River” however gave a location that, for fly fishing, is probably just as good as any along this river: 39.849601,-106.067262

williams fork river

Which is just a little known fun fact – there are lots of places to park on public lands with a short walk to the river that will afford great opportunities to cast a line.

Here’s a lovely little spot along the South Platte River (near the intersection of Highway 9 and Highway 24) that I visited driving from my two-night stay/hike down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River headed toward Denver for the 2013 American Institute of Architects convention (where I got to tour the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, btw!)

39.023757, -105.814968


Happy Trails!


Margaret Spyker

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