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Intro to Geocaching – Getting Started

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I’ve gotten some questions and feedback on how to get started in geocaching, so I’m putting together a short series of four posts to point you  in the right direction.  This is the first one.  The second one will be on hardware.  The third one will be on software.  The fourth one will be on other equipment recommendations.  I can always add to the series so if you’ve got questions, comments or ideas, send them along.

Geocaching originated in Beavercreek, OR and has been around since May 3, 2000.  On that day, a computer engineer named Dave Ulmer hid a bucket in the woods and posted the latitude and longitude online in a GPS users’ group.  He called his new activity “The Great American Stashing Hunt.”  He did it to give his fellow GPS users a target to test the accuracy of their devices and had no idea what it would turn into.

A day later, fellow GPS enthusiast Mike Teague found it and posted his story on the group page.  Geocaching was born, although it didn’t get called that until several weeks later.

Today there are an estimated 5 million geocachers hunting 1.8 million geocaches in every country in the world, including Afghanistan and Antarctica.

Here’s a link to a geocaching dot com’s  history page.

Here’s a link to a good explanation and summary of geocaching on Wikipedia, including all the different kinds of caches and different organizations that list them.

Original geocache plaque

Dave Ulmer’s original stash is long gone, destroyed by a road crew. In its place, some geo-fanatics put this plaque with a geocache nearby in 2003. If you’re ever in the Beavercreek, OR area and want to stop at this holy shrine, the geocache is called “Original Stash Tribute Plaque”  on geocaching dot com.

Mainstream geocaching is the province of geocaching dot com, by far the biggest and most expansive geocaching site.  Starting out as a hobby site in 2000, it grew by leaps and bounds and is now run by a corporate entity called Groundspeak.  If you want to geocache, this is where you start.

To access full cache details, you have to register for a membership.  There are free memberships and premium (paid) memberships.  They cost $30 a year per account.  Here’s a link to a summary of the differences between them.  You can also register at that link.  If you just want to grab a few caches when you’re out doing something else or just try it out, a free membership should work just fine.  If you eventually migrate into caching at different places and need to to do searches remotely or along a route, you’ll want to go with the premium. You can also mix and match.  When I was geocaching with my kids, I had a premium account and they had free ones.

A geocaching membership also gives you access to waymarking dot com.   This useful tool has all kinds of destinations along with geocaches and benchmarks that are nearby.  It’s great for traveling and caching on the fly.  

There are other sites that list geocaches, such as Navicaching, Terracaching and Opencaching.  They require separate memberships but they’re free.  I’m signed on to them and a couple more but they simply don’t have the extensive cache lists and features that Groundspeak does.

Now you need something to geocache with.  If you have a smart phone, that may be all you need.

Geocaching technology has changed a lot in the last several years and smart phones have led the way.  Gone are the days of printing out cache sheets and sticking the serial GPS device out the window to get a signal.  Paperless caching is now the norm and smart phones enable geocaching on the fly, which was unheard of five years ago.

Smart phone geocaching apps can search, locate, map, list and log geocaches anywhere you have Internet connectivity.  They continue to proliferate and improve but they are only as good as the phone they are installed on – and not all phones are created equal.  Smart phone manufacturers have to make compromises in design, components and function to fit everything together.  Sometimes, the GPS function is a low priority. The GPS chip and/or the firmware may be slow and inaccurate.  It may be good on the Interstate highway but lousy on a back road.  The only way to know is to try it out and/or do some research.

The best way to get some background on geocaching phones is to do a Google search on “geocaching with (your phone model).”  There’s lots out there.

We’ve been through the wringer with phones.  Our Blackberry Storms were excellent.  Their GPS was fast and accurate. We geocached all over the country with them and used them until they literally wore out.  Next we got the Samsung Galaxy.  It was horrible.  We took them back and got the HTC Thunderbolt, which was the state of the art phone then.  It was horrible too.

That’s when I went on Google and ran down some information about phones.  Motorola phones use high grade GPS chips.  We traded in the HTC for the DroidX2 and have been very happy with them.

Luckenbach, TX

Our smart phone found the three geocaches in Luckenbach, TX but not Waylon, Willie and the boys. There’s more caches here than people – except on weekends.

I understand the i-phone is also quite good.

If you’ve got your phone, then it’s time to load a killer geocaching app.  If you have a Droid, the three best apps are CacheSense, Neongeo and c:geo.   The features of all three are pretty much the same – touch screens with color, searching, navigating, logging.  I give the edge to Cachesense for two reasons. 1)  It loads much faster than the other two  2) It has a feature that lets you create template messages for your logs.  All you have to do is click on found and the templated message is called up.  If you like it, send it.  No more typing on a tiny keyboard.   A lifetime license for CacheSense is $10.

Neongeo is very similar but without the message templates.  It is Android only and costs five bucks.  It’s developer is very active and responsive to the community.  He turns out new features on a regular basis, often in response to geocacher input.  Over the last year, Neongeo has taken the Droid geocaching world by storm.  It’s an excellent app.

C:geo is also very good and has been around the longest.  It was the first app to deliver live, real-time geocaching on the fly.  It’s an open source app that works on Android only. Its interfaces and features aren’t quite as rich as the other two but  only hard core cachers would notice the difference.  The fully functional version is free.  C:geo has two potential downsides.  It doesn’t work on iphones and they don’t get along with Groundspeak.   Rather than use Groundspeak’s programming API, they “web scrape” the data they need.   Groundspeak considers them a rogue element, but that’s a developer problem and doesn’t seem to affect the end user experience.  Before CacheSense and Neongeo came out, we used c:geo all the time.  It was way better than Groundspeak’s own app.  But there’s always the possibility that Groundspeak will run them out of town.  C:geo has a cult following of sorts. The continuing conflict between the two is kind of a geocaching soap opera.  Here’s a C:geo FAQ link with some good information about the whole thing.

You really can’t go wrong with any of these three.  There are lots of others out there.  App stores have dozens listed  and I’ve tried several of them. These are the only ones I would recommend.

The iphone has its own apps and there’s quite a list.  You’ll have to do some homework and testing but from a hardware standpoint, the iphone itself is a solid platform for geocaching.

Here’s a link to Groundspeak’s phone apps page.

One final note – if you have a free Groundspeak membership, they limit your smart phone downloads to three geocaches a day.  Premium membership is unlimited.

If you don’t have a smart phone or if the one you have is useless or if you plan to geocache in the wild, then you’ll need a dedicated handheld GPS device.  We’ll discuss those in our next post.

Good hunting …. The Cachemanian Devils

Geocaching Destinations – Uncle Tom’s Trail, Yellowstone Park

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There’s no shortage of things to see and do at Yellowstone Park.  Between geocaches, benchmarks, passport stamps,  Kodak moments and the occasional geodash point, there’s enough to keep us busy for weeks.  That’s why we keep going back. This hike on the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is one of the more strenuous undertakings in the park but it’s worth it.

The first white explorer to see  the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was Charles Cook in 1869.  The canyon  runs for 20 miles southwest to northeast starting at the Lower Yellowstone Falls.  Along the way, it averages 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep.  The North Rim Road runs along its edge.

Old photo of the trail.

A National Park Service photo. On Uncle Tom’s Trail circa 1900. The original trail was built by “Uncle” Tom Richardson, a local rancher, in 1898.  It bore little resemblance to today’s route.  He led his clients down a series of ropes and ramshackle bridges all the way to the bottom of the canyon and the base of Lower Yellowstone Falls.  Lunch was provided.

One of the canyon’s most distinctive features is the layers of multi-colored rock that line the walls.   This entire chasm was once a geyser basin that was covered with glaciers.  The constant battle between Ice Age cold and volcanic heat produced physical and chemical changes in the rock that aren’t seen anywhere else.  When the glaciers retreated, catastrophic flooding  and erosion occurred, creating the canyon.  One of the dominant colors in the rock is yellow, hence the name Yellowstone.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

A great shot taken from an overlook further along the south rim. See the yellow stone right up front? The canyon walls are lined with it.

The original route is long gone, replaced by a series of  paved switchbacks cut into the slope.  When the switchbacks run out, there are 328 metal grate steps bolted into the rock face of the canyon wall. They take you straight down to an overlook at the base of the falls.  The modern route doesn’t go as far down as the original, but it’s close.

The start of the trail.

KidsRN at the trailhead. She’s not looking too excited about this.

The hike is about 1/2 mile one way. The elevation at the top is 8,000 feet and in that 1/2 mile, you’ll go down to 7,500 feet.  Almost half of that 500 foot vertical drop is in the 328 metal steps mentioned earlier.  If you have heart, lung or joint problems or if you have issues with heights and ledges, this probably isn’t the hike for you.  If you go, wear decent shoes – no heels, bare feet or flip flops – and make sure you’ve got plenty of water.  It will probably take two hours round trip but about halfway up, it seems like forever.  The overlooks on top of the canyon rim are crowded but there’s not a lot of people on this  trek.  It’s a bit off the beaten path and a lot who start turn around.  You’ll see fewer and fewer people as you approach the bottom.

The steps of Uncle Tom's Trail.

Here they are. There’s plenty of room for three people to pass and lots of landings with benches. The grated steel is not made for high heels, flip flops or bare feet. If you go in the morning, watch for ice, even in the summer. The trail is closed in the winter and may close periodically anytime for storms, rain and ice.

There are four virtual geocaches in close proximity to the parking area, several benchmarks and numerous overlooks.  You can park and walk to several at a time but will have to drive between jump off points as there are finds on both sides of the canyon.  It makes for a good day’s outing.  Cell phone coverage here is lousy, so plan on using a GPS instead of a smart phone app.  You can try pre-loading the caches into the phone and utilizing its internal GPS but we haven’t had much luck with that.  Smart phone GPS is never as good as a dedicated device.

At the base of Yellowstone Falls.

Us at the bottom. There’s no virtual geocache here.  We thought there was but our GPS led us astray.  Actually, it’s our own fault.  The cache we were looking for, called “Spectacular Yellowstone Falls”,  stated very clearly in the description that you do not have to go to the bottom of Uncle Tom’s Trail except we didn’t read it.  But we would have done the hike anyway.  Now comes the fun part – going back up.

This link will open a Google map of the immediate area.

This link will open the “Spectacular Yellowstone Falls” page on geocaching (dot) com.

Have fun with this one.  We did.  (:-D)  The Cachemanian Devils

National Park Service Passport Stamps

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In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. The Cachemanian Devils

A Walk in the Park

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The United States is blessed with numerous parks for people to enjoy. There are national parks, state parks, county parks and municipal parks which provide activities ranging from picnic tables to mountain climbing. There truly is something for everyone. We of course like to get out our trusty GPS  for geocaching and other stashing activities.

The west gate of Mt. Vernon

Here’s a view of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon that most people don’t see. This is the West Gate. In Washington’s day, this was the entrance to Mt. Vernon. All the trees you see were terraces and fields with crops and orchards. Washington rode out here almost every day to take it all in. Today, this view is seen from a quiet residential street intersection in Mt. Vernon, VA. and is not on the official tour. We found out about it – and hunted it down – through a geocache.

The very first national park was Yellowstone National Park which was established March 1, 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. The National Park System wasn’t established until August 25, 1916 under President Woodrow Wilson. There are currently 391 areas in the system which cover over 84 million acres in 49 states (nothing in Delaware), the District of Columbia and in US Territories American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Alphabetically the parks range from the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace to Zion National Park. Some of them are very well known such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.  Some are much lesser known such as Cowpens and Pea Ridge.  The largest national park is Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The smallest is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania.

In addition to National Parks, there are also National Monuments (Mt. Rushmore), National Military Parks (Gettysburg), National Historical Parks (Independence Hall), National Historical Sites (Ford’s Theater) and National Historical Trails (The Appalachian Trail). In recent years, the National Park System has logged well over 200 million visitors annually.

All of this is run by the National Park Service. It does not permit traditional container caches in the parks but that doesn’t stop us. There are virtual caches, photo caches,  webcam caches, earth caches and waymarks which are equally challenging. They have the added benefits of being informative and educational. There are also geodashing points, where you can end up literally in the middle of nowhere. All these things will take you to parts of the park that are off the beaten path.

State, county and municipal parks are not so strict. With the explosive growth of geocaching in the last several years, it’s hard to find a park anywhere that doesn’t have at least one geocache in it. Even the tiny memorial parks have them. Many of these caches are quick park ‘n’ grabs but many will also take you as far in the wild as you want to go. We’ve canoed to several caches and rode on horseback to a cache in Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall in Wyoming. Historical markers abound in these parks and often the geocaches are designed around them. It’s a great way to explore and learn.

Geocaching and all that goes with it has brought us to some of the most interesting and beautiful out-of-the-way places in this country. It remains an unregulated activity which relies upon the participants to respect and protect the environment in which the caches are located. Please do your part to help preserve it for others to enjoy.

Cheers … The Cachemanian Devils

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