LeConte Lodge

The only way to get to LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is to hike up a mountain. To stay the night, you need to make reservations far in advance. We sent in our reservation request in August last year and then waited till the October 1 drawing of names. We did not get our first choice of dates (mid-October for the fall colors) but got our second choice of April 5.

When the date got near, it was still cold and snowy at the top near the lodge. So we bought Stabilicers and IceTrekkers. We also had to pack layers since the weather at the bottom trailhead was fairly warm, but it was freezing at the summit.

We started on the Rainbow Falls trail in the morning with the weather a little cold and foggy. As you can see on the elevation chart below, the trail goes up and up almost constantly. Due to rain and snow in recent days, the trail was quite muddy.

It was good that we brought the ice cleats as the last 1.5 miles of the trail was covered with snow and ice.

We got to the LeConte Lodge in the afternoon and enjoyed some amazing views.

After dinner, I went to Myrtle Point for a nice view of the sunset.

There was no electricity in our cabin, but it was warm due to a propane heater.

The next morning, weather was a little warmer. We had planned to go down the Bullhead trail, but it had not been cleared after the winter storms, so we headed back the same way we had come. Here’s the map for our return hike.

On our way back from the smokies, we drove on the Foothills Parkway and Deals Gap, which was a lot of fun.

Skiing in Colorado

In February, we headed out to Colorado for our first ski trip out west. It was a different and much more fun experience than skiing here in the East.

I had my Garmin Oregon 450 with me along with Snowranger maps and I recorded my tracks.

The first day we were at Copper Mountain. Here’s my tracklog at Copper, analyzed by the Mountain Dynamics website.

Next day, we went to Keystone resort. You can see my adventures there.

Our second day at Keystone was more fun.

Then it snowed 10 inches at Breckenridge, so we headed there for Friday. You can follow my GPS track if you like.

Saturday was a day of rest, from skiing. We went to Vail, where we did snowtubing, walked along the ridge and relaxed.

Finally, our last day was here. We headed back to Keystone for some skiing.


Zoom in and you can see the lifts, gondolas and ski runs on Google Maps.

Italy Trip: Technical Note

Free maps from Open Street Maps in Garmin format as well as points of interest were really useful during our vacation in Italy.

We returned from a fun vacation to Italy a couple of days ago. I’ll have an account of the vacation along with photographs soon but first some technical notes.

I checked air fares on Expedia and Orbitz but in the end booked on the Delta website since they were marginally cheaper. Also I was using frequent flier miles to get one ticket for free. The only way I found to book one award ticket (bought with frequent flier miles) and other regular fares was to first reserve the award ticket (since they are less common), then buy the regular fares on the same flights and finally book the award flight.

For hotels, I checked reviews and prices on Trip Advisor to shortlist a few and then used the hotel websites to make reservations.

For planning all the sightseeing and for making a shortlist of restaurants, I used Fodor’s Italy Gold Guide and Lonely Planet’s Italy Guide.

I took my Garmin 60CSx GPSr with me. I found that Open Street Maps had maps available in Garmin format. The ones I liked the best were OpenMTBMap since they were routable and could route for hiking or mountain biking instead of cars. That was a huge success for us in Italy. We never got lost and we used the maps to go everywhere and find restaurants etc. near our location. It made life much easier and even when we wanted to walk around in the back alleys in Venice we could do so without any fear of really getting lost since whenever we wanted to go back we could use the GPS.

The maps came with lots of POIs(Points of Interest), but I wanted some specific ones too: the hotels we were staying in, train stations for travel between Rome and Venice, restaurants, Cafes and Gelaterias that I wanted to go to specially and some important sightseeing. So I used Google Maps to locate these places and saved them to My Maps there. Google Maps’ My Maps allows you to export the list of placemarks in Google Earth (KML) format. Then I used GPS Visualizer to convert the list to GPX format and used Garmin POI Loader to transfer the locations to my GPSr.

I plan our vacations in detail and these maps and list of locations on the GPS were very useful everyday as we went about sightseeing and enjoying Italian food. In fact, while walking around, I would notice that there’s a nice gelateria nearby and we would go enjoy some gelato.

I read almost three books on the Kindle during the trip, even though I read only on planes and trains. While it was a fun experience, I found one some hitch: Flight attendants want you to turn the Kindle off during takeoff and landing.

UPDATE: One thing I forgot. I tried to reserve train tickets between Rome and Venice on the Italian Rail website but it just kept denying my credit card. Apparently, it’s a common problem for credit cards with non-European addresses. However, I didn’t really need to buy the tickets before going there. There was enough space when I made reservations three days before the train travel at the Rome Termini station.

iPhone 3G

I bought an iPhone 3G a few months ago and have been in love with it.

When the original iPhone came out in 2007, I really wanted one but I decided to wait for a while because I had my Treo 650 and had a cell service contract with AT&T as well.

I am glad I waited because I got the iPhone 3G last year and fell in love with it. It really is a revolutionary phone. Even Michelle loves it and found the touchscreen interface very intuitive. She loves to watch YouTube videos, take pictures (she has even figured out how to take screenshots), play games (Touch Hockey is her favorite), draw (Doodle Kids is the app she uses), and look at Google Maps.

There are a couple of things I do miss:

  • Lack of copy and paste is the most annoying and I hope Apple adds it as soon as possible.
  • Push notification support for applications and Gmail.

I have setup the iPhone to use my wireless network at home and also the AT&T wifi network at Starbucks and McDonald’s, etc. However, 3G data speeds are also very good.

iPhone wifi speediPhone 3G speediPhone EDGE speed

Download (kbps) Upload (kbps) Latency (ms)
Wifi 1863 242 86
3G 1201 249 169
EDGE 96 36 887

In accessories, I bought a Jawbone 2 bluetooth headset which reduces noise quite a lot better than any headset I have seen.

Since I use the iPhone a lot, I have to charge it every night regularly. The iPhone battery cannot be changed by the consumer, so once the battery’s gone through enough cycles, I’ll have to get Apple to install a new battery.

The applications I use the most are the following:

iPhone Apps 1iPhone Apps 2iPhone Apps 3iPhone Apps 4iPhone Apps 5iPhone Apps 6iPhone Apps 7iPhone Apps 8

I recently switched my ZackVision email accounts from being hosted by my webhost to Gmail using Google Apps. It should not change anything for those sending me emails, but I like the Gmail interface and their spam filter is also much better than the one I was using at my webhost. One problem with the email switch was transferring the tens of thousands of emails I had in my different mailboxes. Google has an Email Uploader for the purpose but it was not transferring a significant number of my emails. So I just had to set up IMAP accounts in Mozilla Thunderbird for my old and new (gmail) accounts and move the emails folder by folder. This took some time.

In addition to email, Google Apps also provides me with my own calendar and documents. So I uploaded all my Outlook contacts to Gmail and decided to switch completely away from Outlook. Instead of syncing my contacts and calendar between Outlook and iPhone via iTunes, now I am using “Google Mobile Sync”http://www.google.com/mobile/apple/sync.html to sync over the air between my iPhone and my Google calendars and contacts at my own domain. So the only real thing I need the iTunes sync for is podcast subscriptions.

And now I am salivating over the Kindle 2.

Geocaching

It’s a fun treasure hunt game using a GPS.

Geocaching is:

an outdoor treasure-hunting game in which the participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers (called “geocaches” or “caches”) anywhere in the world. A typical cache is a small waterproof container containing a logbook and “treasure,” usually toys or trinkets of little value.

Geocaching started when selective availability of the GPS system was turned off in May 2000, increasing the accuracy of consumer GPS units by ten-fold. You can read more about its history here.

My friend Wayfarer got me into geocaching in April 2006. I became a member of the Geocaching.com and was off finding caches. My first find was one my daughter and I found together in a park that we visited often.

My best day was when Wayfarer and I found 14 geocaches together in April last year. May 2007 was my best month when I found 22 caches.

At times, geocaching has been a lot of fun. It’s especially fun to hunt for them in the wilderness. However, sometimes geocachers hide microcaches (those that are very small) in parks etc, and those can be difficult to find. In the city, some hiding places are so crowded that one arouses suspicion during the search. At times, the bomb squad is called.

The houses were evacuated, the bomb squad called to disarm the suspicious device that was found in a quiet Tustin neighborhood. A member of the bomb squad placed an explosive device to detonate the offending object and BAM!

The lid blew off the rectangular ammunition box and revealed … some notes and a few pieces of candy.

Bounty from what turned out to be nothing but a high-tech scavenger hunt.

On the other hand, some tourist destinations, like Jekyll Island or Callaway Gardens, have hidden geocaches all over the place as a way to attract visitors with another activity.

So why write about it more than two years later? Because I passed a milestone: On July 9, I finally got to 100 geocache finds.

I use the GPS receiver Garmin GPS60CSx for navigation/finding the cache and Treo 650 smartphone for storing all the info about the caches from the Geocaching website. GSAK is the software on my PC which keeps a database of caches I might be interested in and Cachemate runs on the Treo for the same purpose. I also use Garmin MapSource (I have the Topo maps, Google Earth (on the PC) and Google Maps (on the Treo) for mapping.

Why GPS is Better Than a Wife

While a GPS receiver doesn’t compare to a wife, it’s probably better for navigation purposes.

Here are some reasons:

  1. A GPS does not act all grumpy when asked to navigate.
  2. A GPS receiver does not take 30 minutes to tell you where you were half an hour ago.
  3. A GPS does not get directionally confused by the highway loop around the city.
  4. A GPS does not skip one page in the directions you printed out from Mapquest.
  5. A GPS does not refuse to navigate when you don’t take the route it recommended.
  6. A wife does not cheerfully recalculate a new route to your destination when you don’t take a turn.
  7. On the other hand, a wife will not suggest you cross a river. Instead, she’ll force you to stop.

Got any more?

Las Vegas

Last Christmas, we visited Las Vegas after eight years. With a kid in tow, there was no gambling or shows, but we had a lot of outdoor fun.

Recently, we visited Las Vegas. OK, so it wasn’t recently, it was last Christmas.

We had fun there. With a 2 year old who was fascinated with the colors and sounds of the slot machines, it was difficult to stay in casinos. Add the fact that neither of us is into any gambling. So we went to lots of places in and around Las Vegas.

Here are a few photographs from Madame Tussaud’s there.

At Madame Tussaud's
At Madame Tussaud's
At Madame Tussaud's
 

We walked up and down the Strip quite a few times. Here are the photos of the strip.

Continue reading “Las Vegas”

Chattahoochee East Palisades

We hiked the East Palisades area of Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in November. You can download my track log as well as see photos I took on the trail.

The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is a fun place around metro Atlanta despite the pollution in the river. I wouldn’t recommend rafting in the river now (I did it countless times in the distant past), but there are some nice short hikes there.

Here is the track log of the East Palisades loop trail in GPX format.

You can also get park maps in PDF format.

Below you can see the trail we followed as well as some photographs. Since we hiked there in early November, you can see some nice fall colors.

Continue reading “Chattahoochee East Palisades”

Geotagging Photos

Armed with a GPS and a digital camera with a love of hiking, it is time to store the location I take my photos into the images and then show them on a map. I review several software which can do this and present my workflow.

Now that I have a GPS, I can have some fun with hiking and photography. The idea is to record my position on the GPS while hiking (i.e., the tracklog). This will provide me (and others) with a good record of different hikes. In addition, I can pinpoint the location where I took photographs and hence tag the photos with those coordinates (i.e., geotagging).

Here is the procedure I use for the purpose:

  1. Set the GPS tracklog setting. My GPS allows time, distance and auto. Time and distance options are for specifying the time or distance respectively after which the GPS position should be recorded in the tracklog. Auto mode tries to determine the optimal interval automatically, though Garmin does not provide any information about how it determines the optimum interval. The preferable mode is specifying the time interval. If you are walking, then a time interval of 6 seconds should give you maximum accuracy and in my case the tracklog won’t fill up to its maximum of 10,000 points for about 17 hours. This just needs to be decided on once.
  2. At the start of the hike, set the camera clock to the time from the GPS. You can either use UTC (popularly known as GMT) or your local time zone. I prefer to set the camera to UTC since then I don’t have to get into the hassle of changing camera time at the end of daylight savings or when I travel.
  3. Sometimes, I also like to take a photograph of the GPS screen with the time showing so that I can later compare the difference in their clocks.
  4. Reset the tracklog.
  5. Mark waypoints on the hike for features, like parking, trailhead, scenic view, waterfall, etc. Write some shorthand in the waypoint name on the GPS to remember the reason later.
  6. Take photographs whenever I feel like it.
  7. Go home and upload the waypoints and tracklog from the GPS to my computer.
  8. Upload the photographs from my camera.
  9. Run RoboGEO to geotag the images and create a Google map.
  10. Use GPS Visualizer to create an elevation profile for a hike.
  11. Upload everything to my web server.

One thing I also want to do is to create a database of the tracklogs of trails which I hike. For this purpose, I will be providing you the GPX file for my hikes here. However, it would probably be a good idea to upload them to public repositories of trails. Does anyone know any such good sites?

Before using this technique on a hike, I decided to test it with a walk locally. I set my GPS tracklog setting to “auto”. With this setting the average time between tracklog points was 12 seconds but there was one interval of 2minutes and 57seconds, probably when I was sitting.

I tried several software solutions for geotagging and creating maps with the photos. Here is my review of them.

TopoFusion

Rich Owings told me about TopoFusion which is a great software with lots of features. But their PhotoFusion is not up to par. It is super-easy to use. All you do is load the tracklog either directly from your GPS or from a GPX file on your computer, point PhotoFusion to the folder where the photographs are and voila!

However, it does not output the coordinates of the photo locations in any form (EXIF data of the images or as waypoints in a GPX file). Hence, we are limited to its own output which shows the locations on USGS aerial and topographic maps with camera icons.

Another problem is that the camera icons do not stand out and can be difficult to spot in the web page output. We also have no options to set the size of the map image for the web output, so we have to set the size of the main TopoFusion window to whatever size we want the final map image to be.

if I provide an output folder in the options for PhotoFusion, thumbnails and all other files are created there. But the original photos are not copied. However the link to full photos in the web page is to the output directory, so those links don’t work without copying the original images yourself.

Also, thumbnails are created but you have to specify both width and height and so there might be a black band if the aspect ratio is not correct. You can see that in the one landspace format thumbnail in my test scenario.

Finally, the output of PhotoFusion is a static map image and the user cannot pan, zoom out or do other interesting things with the map like you can with Google Maps.

One good thing about it is that the output includes an elevation profile and other useful info (like distance travelled etc.)

Here is my test of TopoFusion.

WWMX and GPS Visualizer

Let’s now look at some free solutions. While there are several free solutions, none of them are as easy to use or as complete for this task. One has to use multiple software: one for geotagging the photos and another for creating maps.

The best solution for the map creation is GPS Visualizer, an online tool that does almost anything you could think of.

But before using that, I needed to geotag the photos using my tracklog. I checked two programs for that.

WWMX Location Stamper is a Windows-based application which is simple to use but does not have many features. For example, the camera must be set to the same time as your computer and you cannot specify any difference in the clocks of the GPS and your camera. It needs a GPX file with a tracklog as input unless you use WWMX TrackDownload which can get the tracklog directly from a GPS. It shows the track and photo locations on a map within the application (I think the map requires you to be connected to the Internet) and then stores the location info in the image EXIF.

Another program for geotagging is gpsPhoto.pl, a command-line Perl tool to extract location info from a tracklog and write to EXIF. It has a lot of options. However, it is command-line and requires Perl installation on your computer. Also, you can’t check the results in a map. One pro for this tool is that it is OS-independent.

Once I had the images with their coordinates in the EXIF info, I had to get it in a format that would be acceptable for GPS Visualizer. For the tracklog, I could use the GPX format, but for the photo information, I needed CSV as described here and here. I wrote a short Perl script to do that using Image::ExifTool.

Now comes the time to get GPS Visualizer’s Google Maps form to generate the map. If you are going to fill out the same form again and again, it helps to use the Firefox extension Form Saver to store the form data so you don’t have to select the same options every time.

And finally using the GPX file, I created an elevation profile of my walk.

Here is the page with all the results.

So you might be thinking why go through all this hassle. First, it is free. Second, GSP Visualizer has lots of options and can do almost anything: Google Maps, Google Earth, SVG or JPEG maps, topographic, aerial, street maps, all kinds of profile graphs, etc. And you can control the presentation in detail. Take a look at the map linked to above. In addition to the Google maps, it also has USGS topographic and aerial maps as well as some imagery from NASA.

The downside is the amount fo time/effort used to create a map every time. Also, I would be dependent on another website to create and display my maps.

I do plan to use GPS Visualizer to create elevation profiles and other special maps, but it is too much work for regular stuff.

RoboGEO

RoboGEO looks good and does lots of stuff related to geotagging. You can set the location of your photos manually using Google Earth, or set it using GPS waypoints or use the tracklog. It stores the location info in the EXIF fields or can even stamp the location on the image itself. The output can also be in several formats: Google Maps, Google Earth, GPX/CSV, Flickr, ESRI shapefiles, etc.

For Google maps, the output is in the form of a web page, but it also creates an XML file with all the data in case you want to use XSLT to create your own web page. There is also an option for string substitutions in the generated web files if you want to customize. These options are not as good as having a templating system for web page generation, but they do provide ways to customize the web page code.

I used the string substitution option to add USGS topographic and aerial maps to my map pages. I got the required code to do this from GPS Visualizer and Acme Mapper.

The demo version of RoboGEO is sort-of crippleware as it adds big random error to photo locations and tracklog points. However, I liked it enough after trying it out that I immediately bought it.

Another gripe I have with RoboGEO is that it stores output files in the Program Files folder.

One feature I would really like to see in RoboGEO is to be able to put the waypoints in my GPX files on the map as well. This would help by pointing out parking, trailhead, scenic view, waterfalls, or other features on a hike on the map. I emailed Tim Helton about this and he’s agreed to put it on his to-do list.

Before I show you the map from my test created using RoboGEO, if you are overwhelmed with signing up for a Google Maps API key etc., you can simply create a Google Earth KMZ file embedded with the photographs using RoboGEO and put it online (example). Then just enter the URL of this file in Google Maps like this and voila!

Continue reading “Geotagging Photos”