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Among geographers’ many tools, the one likely to come to mind first is the map. Maps provide us with a generalized picture of all or part of Earth’s surface. A large-scale map shows a small area in more detail than a small-scale map that may show Earth’s entire surface, but include only very large features.

A common map that is useful to everyone is the highway map. Highway maps help us find our way from place to place; they often identify parks or sites of historic interest; and they always include a scale to estimate distance.

Learning the Language of Highway Maps

The map segment on the right shows part of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. Below the map a legend identifies symbols used on the map. Use this map from the National Scenic Byways site at to practice map reading skills by answering the following questions.

  • What symbol represents the featured scenic byway? How are other roadways identified?
  • What is represented by the “X” just north of the byway, near the center of the map?
  • What towns are connected by U.S. Highway 19?
  • Use the map scale to estimate the distance from Black Mountain to Asheville?
  • What rivers feed into Lake James?
  • What is the elevation of Mt. Mitchell?

Extending the activity…

  • Have students work in pairs to locate other maps on the National Scenic Byways site. Have each pair write 4-5 questions based on the map they have chosen. Then let other students practice their map reading skills by answering the questions.
  • Contact your State Highway Department and ask for a classroom set of state highway maps. Develop questions based on map symbols and map scale that encourage students to learn about their state while practicing map reading skills.

Bring the exciting competition of the National Geographic Bee to your school! Take advantage of the early-bird registration; the $100 fee includes contest materials and prizes. Schools with financial need can apply for discounts here.


Key National Geographic Bee Dates

August 18, 2015 - December 18, 2015
Early bird registration ($100)
Check or credit card payment accepted

December 19, 2015 - January 18, 2016
Registration ($120)
Credit card payment accepted

February 5, 2016
Deadline for School Bee Champs to take online qualifying test by 11:59 pm EST.

March 4, 2016
State Bees qualifiers are announced.

April 1, 2016
State Bees are held in every state and Washington, D.C.

May 22-25, 2016
National Championship held in Washington, D.C.

Test Your Geography IQ

Can you answer these video questions from the 2015 National Geographic Bee Championship? Questions from Pharrell Williams, Wynton Marsalis, and National Geographic Explorer Fredrik Hiebert will test your knowledge of the world.

How to Help

  • Photo: Geo Bee Winners

    Fund a School

    Donations help fund schools to participate in the National Geographic Bee.

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    Tracking Violent Storms

    Springtime brings the possibility of extreme weather, including violent thunderstorms and tornadoes.

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