Magazine article Sunset

Navigating the Map Maze

Magazine article Sunset

Navigating the Map Maze

Article excerpt

Paper or electronic, maps today have more information and are more useful than ever before. The trick is finding them. Here's help

How do you want to see the world? As a satellite does, in crisp photographic detail? As navigators did in ancient times, in a series of bays, headlands, islands, reefs, and rivers? As a traveler who needs an instant guide to a hard-to-find address? At different times, we may need to see a place in different ways: from the perspective of a hiker, gardener, naturalist, or geographer. There is a map to meet each need--and then some.

While many maps are still printed on paper, some of the most useful, and often the most up-to-date, are electronic. The problem is knowing where to go to get what you want. The following sources offer maps that provide many ways to view our world.

Satellite views

The view from space is irresistible: Once you recognize your region, you can t help looking for your city, street, a nearby park, and finally a dot that is (maybe) your house.

Canadian publisher Kontempa International (around $17 U.S.; 888/444-6277 or has satellite maps with spectacular Earth and regional views.

To pull up zoomable satellite views on your computer, first click the Search & View button and then the EarthSat button on the Environmental Systems Research Institute website (

National atlas

For quick interactive maps locating everything from toxic Superfund sites and population distribution to active volcanoes, check out the National Atlas (, compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Data is regularly updated online from government sources.

How do you get there?

Free printed maps or directions to almost any address in the country are available on the Internet. These map sites work well in general, but tend to have irritating flaws--like neglecting to indicate which way to turn to get onto an on-ramp.

MapQuest ( will give you both a map and written directions to get you where you're going, as will Rand McNally's website ( Rand McNally also has state highway maps available for downloading in an Adobe PDF file; these files are free, and the images are optimized for printers. MapBlast! ( only generates maps on-line.

Landform (relief) maps

Nothing gives you a faster picture of topography than relief maps. Just a glance reveals earthquake faults, river valleys, and mountain ranges in a way that standard topographic maps can't.

The best relief map we've seen of the United States is "Landforms and Drainage of the 48 States," published by Raven Maps & Images ($40; 800/237-0798 or

The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University ( has produced stunning relief maps of every state; view or download them for free from their website. If you have a photo-quality ink-jet printer, you can make remarkably beautiful reproductions of these.

In addition, the USGS has a new map that weaves together geology and topography. Called "A Tapestry of Time and Terrain," it's viewable at tapestry.usgs. gov/two.html, or you can order a hard copy for $7 by calling (888) 275-8747.

Climate maps

Maps look at climate in different ways. Current weather satellite maps beamed down from the GOES-8 (Eastern United States) and GOES-10 (Western United States) satellites show everything from cloud patterns to hurricanes. They are updated every 15 minutes--check the Weather Underground ( …

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