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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 byways.org 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.

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