Steps to Build a Blue Trail: Promote

Create a Map and Interpretative Guide

Wateree Map | Jamie Mierau

Maps and interpretative guides are fundamental tools for communicating with Blue Trail users. Properly designed, they can greatly enhance the Blue Trail experience by aiding navigation and geographic orientation, warning of potential safety issues, and deepening an appreciation of the natural, cultural, and historical attributes of the area. A map and interpretative guide can also entice users to become stewards of the Blue Trail.


Maps can range from simple to sophisticated, from small foldout maps to larger spiral bound guides with interpretative information. For many blue trails, a simple foldout map is sufficient. This format works especially well for short day trails and overnight trails of approximately 50 miles or less. Longer trails may require a larger compendium of multiple maps.

Since most blue trails are linear in extent, mapping can pose challenges both as to size and scale of the map. Preferred scale must be balanced with the geographic extent of the trail. On a large format, up to 25 miles or more of a water body may be depicted in sufficient detail on one side. With a smaller format, smaller segments may be depicted per page. Water bodies of significant width (1 mile or greater) may also need to be divided into smaller segments for effective presentation. Planning agencies, consulting firms, and colleges and universities are good sources of mapping assistance and it’s not unusual to be charged for these services. The National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program is another helpful resource.

Key map elements

In some cases, there is a tendency to provide too much detail and information on a map, making it difficult to read and understand. It’s better to stick to principal facts and let the users find their way and make their own discoveries. Not only does this place the emphasis on personal competence, but it can result in considerable personal satisfaction. The following key elements should be included in a Blue Trail map.

Brief overview: The scope and mission of the Blue Trail, start and end points, and its significance and relationship to your community.

Safety: Prominently display safety and emergency information including launch sites, water levels, weather variables, and hazards (dams, rapids, poison ivy, etc.). Note the skill level necessary for certain segments and include any boating, camping, and fishing regulations and private property along the Blue Trail. A description of the launch site can also help users assess whether the Blue Trail is suitable for their skill level. Include information on opportunities to access emergency help when cell phones do not function in remote areas. For more information see Resources: Safety.

Interpretation: Include key information about natural, cultural, and historical qualities of the area and their relationship to the region. Develop a theme for your Blue Trail and identify corresponding points of interest. Think about flora, fauna, fisheries, transportation, settlements, anything that makes your Blue Trail and community unique.

Stewardship: Emphasize stewardship and provide guidelines for responsible use and promote responsible wildlife viewing. Word these messages in a positive way to inspire a stewardship ethic. Encourage Leave No Trace techniques.

Amenities: Identify amenities such as riverside restaurants, connecting trails, bathrooms, potable water, picnic areas, campsites, etc.

For more information: Every map should point users to a place where they can find additional information such as a website or phone number. For more information on websites see Promote a Blue Trail: Create a Website.

Interpretative guide

A well-written interpretative guide can be an effective companion piece to a map and may include a map. Interpretative guides allow you to tell a broader story about your river and its natural, cultural, and historical uniqueness. Aside from its main purpose of assisting users, an interpretative guide can be an excellent promotional piece to be displayed at local businesses, chambers of commerce, museums, and so on. A high quality interpretative guide and map may be an effective fundraising vehicle.  For more information on fundraising see Plan a Blue Trail: Raise Funding.

If you create an interpretative guide, assume it will be carried with users on the river so it’s best for it to be compact and reasonably water resistant. A soggy kayak is no place for a coffee-table volume.

Online maps and interpretative guides, such as the Eagle River Blue Trail Mobile Site , are a popular alternative to a printed guide. Users are able to print sections that interest them most and they can easily bring it with them on their adventure.

Key interpretative guide elements

Everything that is included in your map should be included in your interpretative guide. If you produce an interpretative guide, consider including the following additional elements:

Detailed stories of place: Every river has a unique and valuable history.  Share these stories with the users.

Comprehensive list of amenities: Provide the information for a broader array of amenities along the Blue Trail including outfitters, tackle shops, restaurants, Bed and Breakfasts, grocery stores, museums, and any amenity that may enhance the user’s experience. This may be a good opportunity to partner with your chamber of commerce and businesses located near the river. For more information see Plan a Blue Trail: Identify Partners.

Advertising: Too much advertising can clutter the interpretative guide and commercialize the experience, but sales of advertising space can pay the printing bill. The right advertisements can enhance the trail experience by providing a helpful directory of relevant outdoor retailers and service providers. Again, you may consider a partnership opportunity with a local business located near your Blue Trail.

Grants and sponsors: Public and private grants and corporate sponsors can often pay for products like maps and interpretative guides. These funders normally require minimal recognition thus streamlining the map and guide and devoting a maximum of space to trail matters. Some grant programs require specific formatting guidelines to be followed and may have limitations on sales of products produced with grant funds. For more information about fund raising for your Blue Trail see Plan a Blue Trail: Raise Funding.

Produce your map and interpretative guide

There are many resources available to help you get started producing a map and interpretative guidebook. Your local city or town hall can offer master plans, zoning bylaws, subdivision regulations, and road specifications. Check with your public works, transportation, and parks and recreation departments for current plans and projects. Your state department of environment, real estate tax offices, local tax assessors, and local or regional planning departments are other resources available to you. Local colleges and universities may also have the tools and students available to assist with your project.

Mapping programs

Short of learning complicated and expensive professional-level GIS programs, many are turning to off-the-shelf computer mapping applications. Listed below are just a few of these programs.

TOPO! software, a product of National Geographic Maps, is a powerful mapping tool intended for anyone with a general interest in outdoor recreation and mapping. This program allows users to zoom through different USGS map series, add custom text, symbols and routes, import GPS data from a receiver and other sources, and print custom photo quality maps of any size on ink-jet and laser printers or export to a website.

GIS Data Depot is a depository of free GIS data for the environment and natural resources, including parkways, scenic rivers, National Wetlands Inventory data, USGS data, and maps of dams, aquifers, mining sites, and more.

LandView is a desktop mapping system that plots jurisdictional boundaries, detailed networks of roads, rivers, and railroads, census block group and tract polygons, schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries, airports, dams, and other landmarks.

National Atlas has nearly 2000 map layers ranging from land use, to county boundaries, to environmental hazards and streams.

National Geophysical Data Center is a national repository for geophysical data that provides a wide range of science data services and information for habitat and solid earth geophysics.

National Map includes aerial photographs, elevation, geographic names, hydrography, boundaries, transportation, structures, and land cover. Other types of geographic information can be added within the viewer or brought in with a Geographic Information System to create specific types of maps or map views.

National Park Service offers topographic and thematic maps of the U.S. and comprehensive digital spatial data that contains information about surface water features such as lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, springs, and wells.

National Spatial Data Infrastructure has a data clearinghouse that allows access to more than 250 spatial data servers, primarily using GIS technology.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (U.S. Department of Agriculture) has soil survey maps and reports, watershed plans, river basin surveys and studies, and flood hazard analyses.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers information about wetlands, endangered species, and water courses.

U.S. Geological Survey publishes topographic and thematic maps of all areas in the U.S. and offers a comprehensive set of digital spatial data that contains information about surface water features such as lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, springs, and wells.

U.S. Geological Survey Water Data Discovery has real time and historic maps of stream flows, floods, droughts, and river forecasts.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a variety of data and mapping resources:

  • Envirofacts Warehouse provides access to information contained in most EPA databases
  • Enviromapper combines EPA datasets to allow users to look at many geographical levels of environmental data
  • Geospatial Data Clearinghouse provides geospatial data from EPA
  • Index of Watershed Indicators provides a compilation of information on the health of aquatic resources in the U.S.
  • Surf Your Watershed allows users to locate, use, and share environmental information on their community’s watershed
  • WATERS is a mapping system that displays state water quality standards in the geographic context

Printing versus the Internet

The Internet is a great way to make maps and interpretative guides available. Electronic versions of this information may be more easily updated and modified than hard copies, and the related pages of the website provide a great forum for Blue Trail news, requests for volunteers, and more. Consider the financial tradeoffs of providing access to downloadable information that otherwise might be purchased or available free of charge.