Tag Archives: maps

More plotting and planning…

Above the Great LakesAs I was writing in the last post, until I book the flights my plans are never really set in stone. The beginning of the year is often the time when I start probing prices of airline tickets even if my holiday is still months away. I never book them so early in advance as prices are often the best only 8-10 weeks before the flight dates, but it is still good to know what the average prices are at this early stage, and what the options are in terms of the airlines and the connecting airports.

So I started investigating flights to Denver and quickly realised that they are more expensive than I had anticipated. Direct flights were ridiculously expensive but even for the journeys involving inconvenient changes in America prices were still higher than I was hoping for.

British girls in SFONow, why is changing planes in America inconvenient? The biggest problem is the fact that you have to go through the immigration and customs at the first place you land in the US. It means that when you change, let say, in Chicago, you have to queue for immigration there, then collect you luggage, go through the customs and then check your bags separately for the remaining leg of the journey. It is a real pain and if the connecting time is short you can easily miss your flight. Especially as waiting for immigration can be absolutely unpredictable. I was once waiting over an hour in Chicago and I heard of occasions when people waited for 2-3 hours. The other problem is that American airports are not really designed with international changes in mind. International terminals are often separate from the others and connections are far from logical.

So I started thinking about other options.

I’m still committed to visiting Montana and the northern Rockies but the problem is there are really not that many big international airports there and all the smaller ones involve all the inconveniences I have mentioned above. I even investigated options of flying to Calgary and then heading south from there but it was becoming even more expensive than Denver.

Then I thought about Seattle. It is actually closer to the Glacier National Park than Denver and it opens the prospect of visiting more of Canada. I also remember it as a really nice place, albeit I haven’t been there for more than a decade. Conveniently I also found that the flights there are cheaper than to Denver. The cheapest option so far involves flying with Icelandair via Reykjavík; the change in Rykjavik is going to be much easier than in any of the American airports and also the journey time is broken into two convenient segments, three plus seven hours.

As I mentioned already, it is way too early to buy tickets as my plans can still (and probably will) change plus some other cheap deals may pop up in the meantime. But, it gives me the impetus to play again with maps (paper as well as digital) and start plotting some ideas for a trip. One of the latest results looks something like this:US and Canadian Rockies from Seattle 2

For now I have left one of my favourite places, Portland, out of the itinerary. I really like it but I have been there twice already and skipping it gives me more time to explore the Canadian Rockies, something I wasn’t seriously contemplating even a few weeks ago but an idea which was always on my personal long distance radar. In general the Pacific Northwest is another of my favourite American regions. And it is very varied too. It is not all about coast, mountains, rain and the temperate rainforest. For example the eastern Washington state offers dry, sparsely populated open spaces to drive through, almost like on the Great Plains. Also, I could finally see the famous Mount St Helens. I went there in 2004 but due to the weather conditions the visibility was so bad I couldn’t actually see the mountain itself. However, if the weather in September is bad I can spend more time in cities than in national parks so I could actually go and visit Portland after all. As I said, I’m always flexible with my plans, which are actually no plans but rather general ideas.

The biggest problem of my latest plans is the fact that I was kind of looking forward to visiting Denver and the surrounding areas. It is one of the biggest cities in the US that I haven’t visited yet and I have heard a lot of good stuff about the place. I even started thinking about flying to Seattle and coming back from Denver. Such, so-called “open jaw”, tickets seem to be not that much more expensive but unfortunately fees for the one way car rental are much higher than I was hoping for. For the moment then I have abandoned such plans.

It all leaves me with the ideas shown on the map above. It literally is just a few days old so I don’t even really know where to stop and what to see, for example between Seattle and the Glacier National Park, but at least I have something to focus on. Now I can enjoy another of my favourite pastimes, reading guidebooks and consulting maps and atlases of the places I might visit. It is something I never get bored of. I can also start looking for some interesting travel writing or history books about the region.

In the meantime I’m just finishing an fascinating book about the Irish in American cities so the review is coming here soon. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Almost ready to go.

map and bookIn about two weeks I’m yet again heading to the US. After months of monitoring prices, the flights are booked, car rental largely sorted and even hotel for the first night is booked. I have to admit that I enjoy all those preparations almost as much as the travel itself. It is practically extending the actual holiday as during the last few weeks I’m really getting focused on my destination. It is always the case. I start reading guidebooks and travel literature connected to my destination and spend a lot of time staring at maps.

This year we are heading to San Francisco where we are going to start our road trip across quite a few western states. Luckily one of the books which was for years collecting dust on my shelf is Simon’s Winchester A Crack in the Edge of the World. It is a perfect read before the trip we planned. I’m half way through it and I really enjoy it. It is not just account of the great earthquake which destroyed SF in 1906, it is also a great introduction into complicated tectonics of California. In short, a perfect book for anyone heading there who is even vaguely interested in geology and geography of the region. Of course I also keep browsing a dozen or so guidebooks at the same time.

When I’m not reading I keep researching things online. Nowadays with Google maps and Google street view you can practically do your trip before you even leave your living room. Of course it would be spoiling the fun but it is handy to check how to drive out of the airport and where to stop in San Fran. I already know the SFO (San Francisco International Airport) layout and how to get from car rental place onto the freeway and then how to get to Twin Peaks which suppose to offer great panorama of the city.

I also used online maps and search tools to find a decent hotel next to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station so we can leave our car in the hotel as parking in San Francisco is a real pain. Believe me I was there more than once. So this time I picked a hotel in Berkeley just a few minutes from the BART station which in 20min should take us to downtown San Francisco. I chose Berkeley because hotels there (unlike most in SF itself) don’t charge for the parking. It will also make our journey inland easier after finishing with the Bay Area.

All the above considerations might sound boring and mundane but I really enjoy this research stage of planning. It is fun to look at some strange random neighbourhoods where you would otherwise never go just because you are checking a hotel you found on one of the many prise comparison sites.

After San Francisco we are going to cover quite a lot of ground driving quite a few thousands of miles before flying back to London from SFO. Again, it is fun to plot all the possible routes and think how far can we go before we have to head back. I always have a lot of ideas plotted on maps (both, paper and digital) but still end up doing something completely different altogether.

Because it is important to remember that all this planning are largely just ideas. As much as I love planning I also love changing my plans based on weather, local recommendations or just random finds. That’s how I ended up in Idaho Potato Museum a few years ago, I just spotted a directional sign on the side of freeway. On another occasion due to rainy weather on the Oregon coast I ended up heading inland and visited an absolutely stunning Crater Lake NP.

This time as well, I have pretty clear idea where we heading but I also know that further we progress into out trip the more our actual route will be different. It always the case, for a day or two, or even maybe three, I stick to my plans but then things just keep changing. And I’m sure it will be the same during this trip but it still doesn’t stop me from planning, plotting and researching.

Anyway, here are my latest plans:2013 plans map

Guess what I’m going to do when I finish writing this post 😉

Maps of the United States

City MapsLast time I was writing about the excellent (if a bit geeky) maps produced by the USGS. However great its series are, they might be a bit too “raw” for casual users and, most importantly, unlike OS Explorer they don’t mark walking trails (this should change with the new editions where adding trails is planned, at least in areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management, Forrest Service and National Park Service). Some old 1:24,000 quadrangles show paths but they don’t indicate if there is a right of way along it. And we all know about US gun laws.

For trails you need the Trails Illustrated maps produced by the National Geographic. These are excellent walking maps with full topographic content but also marking trails, campgrounds, visitor centres, even toilets. They are also printed on waterproof plastic. Unfortunately they only cover national parks and some of the most popular national forests.

For National Forests not covered by the Trails Illustrated maps there is usually the possibility of obtaining maps produced by The United States Forest Service. Most of these maps are at a scale of 1:126,720 and many others are at scales such as 1:63,360, etc. These maps are famous for showing the numerous Forest Service back-country roads and they provide forest-wide information on attractions, facilities and services. However it is worth mentioning that many of those maps (especially the smaller scale ones) lack contour lines.

Interestingly USDA Forest Service is also producing its own series of 1:24,000 quadrangles, called FS Topo. They are broadly similar to the US Topo series but they don’t contain the orthophoto image layer. Their advantage is that, unlike the US Topo series (at least so far), they do show trails as well as numbers for the forest roads. They can be downloaded for free as a Geo-enabled PDF file from the Forest Service website.

Now, a few words about road maps and general maps in America. There is of course a huge choice of road maps for the whole USA, its regions, states or even particular counties. There are so many of them that it is actually pointless to even try to list them here. Especially as most of them are quite average, nothing really to shout about.

One company worth mentioning is Rand McNally which publishes road atlases for the whole country, road maps for each state and city maps. It is one of the most well-known and oldest map makers in America. It produced its first map in 1872, it was published in its “Railroad Guide”. The first Rand McNally road map was published in 1904 and in 1917 the company was the first major publisher to embrace a system of numbered highways. In addition to creating maps with numbered roads, Rand McNally also erected many of the actual roadside highway signs. This system was subsequently adopted by state and federal highway authorities. So the pedigree is there, but its maps are no more or less accurate than any others.State Maps

Some of my favourite road map publishers are GTR Mapping and Benchmark Maps. Both companies specialize in mapping western United States, in fact they don’t venture into the eastern half of the country at all. The best aspect of their maps is the fact that unlike most of the road maps in America they do show some topographic and landscape information.

State AtlasesFor those for whom the road maps are not enough but who don’t want to embrace the slightly geeky world of the USGS maps there is one more option. Maine-based DeLorme produces a series of Recreational Atlases & Gazetteers for all the states. These excellent atlases feature detailed topographic maps for the entire state in handy atlas form. Each atlas features the most up-to-date road information for the state, from interstate highways to dirt logging roads (including names of the smallest lanes and numbers of the forest roads). The maps also show an abundance of geographic features and landmarks, information on places to go and things to do, all cross-referenced to the map. The scales vary depending on the state. For some of the smallest ones (like Connecticut or Rhode Island) it can be as large as 1:65,000 but most of the states fall into the 1:150,000 – 1:250,000 category. I love using them even if I don’t need all the detail they provide.

One more item which I really have to mention here is: “USA: The Essential Geography of the United States of America” produced by Imus Geographics. It is an absolutely fantastic, 1:4,000,000 map covering the whole country. It has relief shading based on the satellite imagery, clearly showing the country’s topography with plenty of names of geographical features. For example it marks the highest point in each state (including elevation in feet), which is a geek’s dream come true. Colouring indicates forested regions and the map shows boundaries of national parks, forest and other protected areas and Indian reservations. It is also one of the few maps of the USA showing route 66 clearly marked. It is a great map for the overall general planning or just for dreaming about the distant trips.

So this is US mapping in a nutshell.

I could of course write much more, listing some small publishers or going into technical details of the USGS mapping, but that is enough for now. If you have any more questions feel free to ask.

And now let me go back to my maps and plan yet another roadtrip…