The tech press has been buzzing for the past couple of weeks over the flaws in Apple's new Maps app, and the blowback has been so embarrassing that Apple has issued a formal apology, and encouraged its customers to try other products instead.
In the context of tech reporting, this is an embarrassing faux pas to which Apple seems to be responding appropriately, and it's likely that significant improvements will be coming in the app in due time. For those of us who regularly try to find our way around the California desert, however, the flaws in the iOS 6 Maps app could well prove extremely dangerous.
I noticed this when I tried to use the app to find travel time between my home in Joshua Tree and the nearest Metrolink station, only to have the app inform me that "you can't get there from here."
Charting a route from my neighborhood to anywhere else in the world, Maps instructs you to head north on Olympic Road to the 29 Palms Highway, with a slight jog at El Cajon, as shown in the screen capture to the left.
It doesn't matter whether you're heading west or east: you get routed through this intersection with its eastward bend, then bent bac northward a mile downhill to Route 62. The app offers no alternate routes. Olympic is your only choice.
There's a few problems with that, but here's the big one. Here's what that bend looks like in satellite view without the route layer on top:
The pavement ends at the corner of Olympic and Chesapeake, and the remaining just short of a mile of Olympic down to Route 62 is unpaved as well. Ordinarily that's not such a huge deal around here: there are plenty of dirt roads, and most of them are navigable by low-clearance passenger cars if you drive carefully.
But this route is different, as you can see from the photo at the head of this story: that white barrier blocks all traffic from the dirt portion of Olympic. Beyond lies unmaintained road that can strand even a high clearance vehicle.
To either side, high-speed paved and well-maintained roads will get you where you want to go without risk to your undercarriage or your well-being. But Apple doesn't mention them even as alternate routes.
In this instance, the flaw in the app is an annoyance. If you found a similar flaw elsewhere in the desert, it might be much more than that, especially if you were counting on that route to get you to a gas station before your fumes ran out.
Tell the app to get you from Nipton to Cima in the Mojave National Preserve, and it gives you two options. The first works fine: It's all paved, approximately, and it's reasonably direct: Nipton Road to Ivanpah Road to Morning Star Mine Road. It's one of my favorite drives in the Mojave Preserve.
The alternative? Well, it might not kill you if you're used to driving bad desert roads. It takes you past the turnoff onto Morning Star Mine road and has you use Brant-Cima Road instead. Brant-Cima Road is a two-rut that parallels the Union Pacific railroad line, and is used mainly by track crews and a few locals. In some places it's perfectly nice and picturesque. In other places, it washes out reliably, as in the Google Maps screen shot below, where the railroad's flood control work diverts two washes across the road. Unless you can drive up and down steep banks two feet or higher, you're gonna get stuck.
Adding insult to injury, the text instructions on that route instruct you to turn onto Brant Road [sic], then onto the paved Kelso Cima Road 14 miles later. The map itself, though, shows a route charted along Ivanpah-Cima Road, the turnoff of which is confusingly near Brant-Cima Road, which ends 14 miles later on Morning Star Mine Road. Follow the text instructions and 14 miles after turning onto Brant Cima Road you'll be out in the creosote and Joshua trees wondering where the pavement is. And firing up the iPhone to reorient yourself won't work, if your carrier's AT&T: you lose coverage a few miles south of Ivanpah Road.
This would be an adventure in the best of times: I've had a few such myself. In summer, if you haven't brought enough water for an extended delay, it could prove fatal.
This kind of error stems from trying to incorporate a world's worth of map data without ground truthing it. A few years back, Google Maps had some of the same issues in the California desert: confident recommendations of routes on roads that were actually century-old stock trails or private roads used by ranches. They've fixed many of those errors since. For instance, Google Maps won't even let you force it to chart a route along Brant-Cima Road.
It may be that Apple will catch on as quickly and eliminate some of the spurious routes in the coming weeks. But not all the app's problems come from spurious roads. Take for example this route, offered up in response to a request for a route from Baker, CA to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park. If you have even a basic grasp of California desert geography, you'll see that something here has gone horribly wrong. The route from Baker to Furnace Creek is long -- about a two-hour drive at the speed limit -- but incredibly straightforward: take Route 127 north to Shoshone, turn left on Jubilee Pass Road, and eventually you get there.
The Maps app has you drive past Shoshone, Past Death Valley Junction (where you could just turn left on Route 190 and drop down into the Valley), into Nevada and onto US 95, through Beatty, onto Nevada Route 266 and California 168, then up into the White Mountains. You'll climb steadily up the flank of the Whites, passing the Ancient Bristlecone Pines and the University of California's research stations, until you get to the western face of Station Peak. You'll be a four-hour drive from the destination you wanted, at about 10,500 feet above sea level instead of 130 feet below sea level, and all because Apple's Maps knows about a tiny little stream on the east face of the White Mountains called Furnace Creek but not the major tourist destination in Death Valley.
In fact, that's not even the best way to get to the Furnace Creek Apple knows about, which runs across Route 266 right at the California-Nevada state line.
Most experienced desert travelers are going to know better. For one thing, Apple's ludicrously wrong route to "Furnace Creek" passes a number of signs pointing the way to Death Valley, as well as a few tourist info places. For another, most desert rats will have real maps. But as people rely more and more on smartphones for everything, it bears repeating: never use a phone's maps for travel in the desert. Not Apple's, not Google's, not anyone's. Use an actual, field-tested, hikers'-model GPS if you have to and know what you're doing. Never use a GPS where you can use an authoritative printed map. For traveling in the California Desert, the Bureau of Land Management's maps are best, with a number of atlases and gazetteers almost as helpful.
And as even desert rats get lost or stranded now and then, never venture into unfamiliar desert territory -- especially off-pavement -- without adequate supplies and safety precautions. I list them here, in a past article about a desert tragedy caused by tourists relying on bad maps they got from the Internet. Don't you join them: save your iPhone's Maps app for meeting your friends in town, where the worst that can happen is that you all end up at different cafés.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.