6. Topo Tour

Once students understand the basics of how to read and create a topographic map (see From Maps to Models lesson), students will study and label a topographic map of their local watershed. They will identify the creek closest to their school and mark the boundaries of their watershed. In the process, they practice recognizing hills, ridges, valleys, stream beds and other geographical features on a topographic map. Finally, students take their maps and walk a part of their watershed, matching their maps to their real world surroundings. If a walk through your neighborhood is not possible, the lesson can be conducted without the watershed walk. The watershed walk portion of this lesson may be combined with the Sediment Study Project.

Can understand the construction of topographic maps and the use of contour lines to show the Earth's surface in three dimensions.
Can identify major geographical features on a topographic map.
Can recognize what lines on a topographic map represent.
Can correlate real world topography to contour lines on a topographic map.

Contour line
Topographic map

Attachment Size
6topo_tour.doc 59 KB
topo_tour_handout.doc 29.5 KB

6. Topo Tour - Logistics

30 minute to study maps in the classroom
45-55 minutes to walk the watershed



  • One 7 and 1/2 minute (1:24,000) USGS topographic map of your local area (see Sources section)
  • A few simplified topo maps showing only 7-12 contour lines (select a few of your students’ topo maps of their clay islands in From Maps to Models or see the Sources section for websites that have simplified maps available)
  • Several additional topographic maps for students to use as a comparison (see Maps to Models Sources section)
  • Topo Tour student worksheet
  • Colored pencils

Classroom then a 1 mile walk through the neighborhood

6. Topo Tour - Background

Teacher Background
Information about topographic maps, how they are drawn, and what the symbols on them mean can be found in From Maps to Models Background or at the USGS website.

It is important to show students why a topographic map is useful in the real world, and not just as a classroom exercise. Students tend to be familiar with reading regular road maps. It’s important to show students that when contour lines are overlaid on a regular map, information about the topographical landscape is revealed in the patterns among the swirls and squiggles of the contour lines.

The way I conduct my classes is first by showing my students a topo map of the neighborhood immediately surrounding the school then taking them on a walk that highlights the changes in local geography including a hill, a ridge, and a creek-carved valley. Each of these geographical features are important for geologists and other scientists to be able to recognize on a topo map. In my classes, the watershed walk was combined with the Sediment Study Project. Different classes went to different study sites along the creek (source, mid-stream, and mouth) to observe the flow of water and collect sediment samples. On our way there, we plotted a course that would take us by interesting geographical features that can be identified on the map. Before heading back, the students plotted a return route that minimized sudden elevation changes. The precise routes and features to visit will depend on your own local geography. Suggestions are included within the lesson plan below.

If a walk through your neighborhood is not possible, do the classroom portion only.

Student Prerequisites
Previous experience reading and/or creating topographic maps.

6. Topo Tour - Getting Ready

Getting Ready

  1. Get a 7 and 1/2 minute USGS topo map for the neighborhood surrounding the school.
  2. Walk, bike or drive the watershed yourself.
    • Identify interesting geographical features on the map. Look for hills, ridges, cliffs, valleys, stream beds, etc, anywhere you can observe distinctive topographic features with abrupt changes in elevation.
    • Visit these places to see if they can be observed from public areas (sidewalks, parks, parking lots, etc.) making notes as you go. Pick the 3 best places to visit on your walk.
  3. Make a copy of the USGS topo map for each student. You don’t need to copy the entire map. Size the map to include your school, the nearest creek, and the geographical features you will be visiting on your watershed walk. Ideally, include the boundaries of your local watershed. For some watersheds, this may not be possible. In this case, make 2 copies of the map using the enlarge/reduce feature of the copier. On one, include the entire watershed. On the other, zoom in on your school and the areas you plan to walk.
  4. Adapt the Topo Tour worksheet for your watershed. Currently, all references are to Glen Echo Creek in the 94611 zip code in Oakland, CA. You will want students to label a few major landmarks including your school, any local parks, perhaps a nearby grocery store and some major roads.
  5. Make a copy of the Topo Tour worksheet for each student.
  6. Make overhead copies of simplified topo maps to show students examples of the geographical features you want them to be able to identify. Use the maps your students created or see the Sources section below for other maps to use.
  7. Collect other topo maps for comparison.

6. Topo Tour - Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan
Mapping your Watershed

  1. Begin class by showing examples of student created maps. Have students point out geographical features such as hills, cliffs, flat meadows, stream beds, ridges, valleys, lakes, etc.
  2. Next show students the large USGS topo maps. Ask for a volunteer to identify the map that has their school on it. Ask for a volunteer to point out a hill and describe in words how he or she recognized it. Ask another volunteer to point out a valley, a cliff, a ridge, etc.
  3. Give students individual copies of their watershed topo maps and the Topo Tour worksheets. Students can follow the steps towards delineating their watershed on their own or you can do the steps together as a class.
    • Identify and color code major landmarks on the map. Label buildings in black, parks in green, major roads in red, and water features in blue.
    • Draw blue arrows along the creek sowing the direction that water flows.
    • Identify the elevation of several features. Write its elevation beside your label.
    • Identify 10-15 hills or ridges on the map. Draw a green “X” on top of each of these hills or ridges.
    • Imagine a drop of rain falls on each hilltop you just marked. Where will the raindrop go? If water from that hilltop could find its way into your local creek, draw a circle around the “X” on that hilltop. If water from that hilltop cannot  find its way into your local creek, leave it blank. Remember, water will always run downhill. Help students recognize what is downhill and what is uphill.
    • Look at the circled “X”s. Starting at the circled “X” nearest the mouth of our creek, connect the dots between the X’s until you have drawn a “U” shape all the way around the creek.
    • Lightly shade the “U” shaped region in yellow. You have now mapped your watershed!

Watershed Walk
Tell students they will now be going on a walk to some of the more interesting geographical features near the school. There are several ways to lead this walk:

  1. You can point out the places you are going on the map ahead of time. Ask students what type of landscape they might expect based on what is on the map. When you get to the sites, see if their predictions are correct.
  2. Start walking! When you get to a site, have all the students stop and observe the surrounding landscape before consulting their maps. Have them study their maps to figure out where they are and how the feature they are looking at in the real world appears on their topo map.
  3. For advanced students, you may have them use their maps to decide where to go and how. Challenge students to plan a walk that gradually climbs up to the top of a hill along a ridge or that flows a stream bed into the bottom of a valley. Use your own local geography to pick the challenge.

6. Topo Tour - Assessments


  1. Play Topo Bingo! The USGS has created a fun Bingo game using topographic maps. Download the instructions, map and game at their site.
  2. A more traditional worksheet about topographic maps has also been created by the USGS. This worksheet asks students to find geographical features, read elevations, and use topo maps to plan where to put everything from walking paths to airports.

Going Further

  1. Have students use the local topo maps to plan a bike route from their house to school and back, keeping in mind that bicycling up a hill is really difficult but biking down is really easy and fun.
  2. Do the watershed walk as part of the Sediment Study Project.

6. Topo Tour - Sources and Standards

The US Department of Agrictulture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has a useful handout about reading topographic maps and how to delineate watersheds using a topographic map. The simplified drawings on these pages are great simplified topographic maps to use with students.

If you want to find a specific type of geographical feature to show students how this looks on a topo map, see the Rocky Mountain Resource Center. They have compiled example maps for hundreds of interesting features that may be shown to students.

Grade 6
Shaping Earth’s Surface
2. Topography is reshaped by the weathering of rock and soil and by the transportation and deposition of sediment. As a basis for understanding this concept:
a. Students know water running downhill is the dominant process in shaping the landscape, including California’s landscape.

Investigation and Experimentation
7. Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigations. As a basis for understanding this concept and addressing the content in the other three strands, students should develop their own questions and perform investigations. Students will:
f. Read a topographic map and a geologic map for evidence provided on the maps and construct and interpret a simple scale map.