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How much information can be put on one map?

What a confusing map! It shows the locations of important features, including Old Faithful, trails, development, trees, streams, and hillsides. But it has all those squiggly lines! Look carefully and try to notice some features about the lines. For example, they don't cross. Every fifth one is darker. What is this map trying to tell you?

Topographic Maps

Topographic maps represent the locations of geographical features, such as hills and valleys. Topographic maps use contour lines to show different elevations. A contour line is a line of equal elevation. If you walk along a contour line you will not go uphill or downhill. Topographic maps are also called contour maps. The rules of topographic maps are:

  • Each line connects all points of a specific elevation.
  • Contour lines never cross since a single point can only have one elevation.
  • Every fifth contour line is bolded and labeled.
  • Adjacent contour lines are separated by a constant difference in elevation (such as 20 ft or 100 ft). The difference in elevation is the contour interval, which is indicated in the map legend.
  • Scales indicate horizontal distance and are also found on the map legend.

Old Faithful erupting, Yellowstone National Park.

While this image isn’t exactly the same view as the map at the top of this lesson, it is easy to see the main features. Hills, forests, development, and trees are all seen around Old Faithful.

Bathymetric Maps

A bathymetric map is like a topographic map with the contour lines representing depth below sea level, rather than height above. Numbers are low near sea level and become higher with depth.

Kilauea is the youngest volcano found above sea level in Hawaii. On the flank of Kilauea is an even younger volcano called Loihi. The bathymetric map pictured shows the form of Loihi Figure below.

Loihi volcano growing on the flank of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Black lines in the inset show the land surface above sea level and blue lines show the topography below sea level.

Geologic Maps

A geologic map of the region around Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park.

A geologic map shows the geological features of a region. Rock units are color-coded and identified in a key. Faults and folds are also shown on geologic maps. The geology is superimposed on a topographic map to give a more complete view of the geology of the region.


  • Earth scientists regularly use topographic, bathymetric, and geologic maps.
  • Topographic maps reveal the shape of a landscape. Elevations indicate height above sea level.
  • Bathymetric maps are like topographic maps of features found below the water. Elevations indicate depth below sea level.
  • Geologic maps show rock units and geologic features like faults and folds.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

1. What is sea level?

2. How far apart are topographic lines?

3. What do the contour lines represent?

4. How do you know that there's a crater at the top of the volcano rather than a peak?

5. What is the purpose of a topographic map?


1. What will a hill look like on a topographic map? How will a basin look different from a hill?

2. How will a steep slope look different from a shallow slope?

3. What would a geologic map of the Grand Canyon look like? Remember that the Grand Canyon has many layers of rocks exposed like a layer cake.

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