The view from Upper Town Wall above Index took Jonathan Nelson’s breath away.
“It’s amazing to soak in the scenery, especially when the mountains are out,” he said. “You really are away from it all.”
Now, anybody can enjoy that scenery, and panoramic views from many other Washington state parks, thanks to a website that launched Oct. 1.
Forks of the Sky State Park, along U.S. 2, is one of more than 100 state parks with virtual tours at waparks.org. The tours provide 360-degree views of trails, lakes, rivers, mountains, coastal land, campgrounds, interpretive centers and vacation houses at state parks.
You’ll also find an interactive map, trip reports and park information. The website has received more than 10,000 hits since its launch by the Washington State Parks Foundation, with funding from the Washington State Employees Credit Union.
Nelson has photographed state parks over the past six years. More virtual tours are still in the works, including Wallace Falls State Park, which will be online soon. He said he hopes to complete all 124 state parks by next fall.
“I only have 12 left to go,” he said.
John Floberg, executive director of the Washington State Parks Foundation, said the website was created to raise awareness of the state park system.
“You get a sense of being there,” he said. “We’re capturing people’s stories and their experiences.”
Washington’s state parks are growing in popularity, with more than 40 million visits expected in the 2019 fiscal year, compared to about 30 million visits in 2016.
Just three other states — New York, Minnesota and Virginia — have virtual tours of their state parks.
Nelson said the Washington site allows people to see parks they might not be able to visit in person.
“And with this, you’re seeing the whole picture. Everything around you has an attraction to it,” he said.
Nelson, 50, of Burien, volunteered his time on the project, which began in 2013 at Fort Flagler State Park. His day job is at Kenmore Camera, where he’s worked for the past 20 years.
Sometimes he sets out as early as 3 a.m. so he can have enough daylight for photographs.
“I don’t stop until I run out of park or run out of sun,” he said. “Sometimes I’m not able to spend as much time in each park as I’d like, simply because of the time constraints.”
Nelson said the photography takes patience and an eye for the right vista.
“That’s part of the fun,” he said. “You can always find something to make into a spectacular image if you look in the right place.”
Using a fisheye lens, Nelson takes six circular pictures in sequence. At home, he stitches them together with software into one panoramic image. Nelson geotags his position during each photo shoot so they can be pinpointed on the map.
He works closely with Washington State Parks rangers while he’s in the field; one of them took him on an island-hopping tour of the San Juan Islands this summer.
He’s photographed the interior of the 1,055-foot-long Gardner Cave at Crawford State Park north of Spokane, historic gun batteries at Fort Casey State Park on Whidbey Island and the rolling landscapes of the Columbia Plateau State Park Trail near Washtucna in the Palouse.
Closer to home, Nelson captured 360-degree views of green Spanish moss around the Picnic Bend area, the Skykomish River at Big Eddy and the forest surrounding the Upper Town Wall trail.
Nelson said he hopes the website might help people find lesser-known gems like Forks of the Sky State Park and its stunning views from the Town Wall.
While the nearby Wallace Falls State Park is inundated with hikers, Forks of the Sky’s trails attract much fewer visitors.
“I see what a variety of parks we have in the system and what a fantastic resource for recreation it is,” he said. “I get excited every time I go to a park I haven’t been to.”
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.