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Backpacker Magazine – May 2010

The Map Vault: Inside the USGS Repository

No one loves maps more than a backpacker, and the USGS's central repository in Denver is a veritable cartographic paradise.

by: Mark Harrison

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The USGS Map Vault lobby and corridor. (Emily Davis)
The USGS Map Vault lobby and corridor. (Emily Davis)
Building 810 is four football fields long. (Google Images)
Building 810 is four football fields long. (Google Images)


1. Colorado, carved Milled from a giant chunk of machinable plastic using a .015-inch drill bit and more than 250 million USGS digital elevation data points, this 8x6-foot relief map offers a stunning 3D perspective of Colorado’s topography .

2. T-Rex tread Made from the cast of a 66-million-year-old dinosaur fossil discovered in New Mexico during a 1983 USGS survey, this T-Rex footprint reminds visitors that exploration remains the agency’s guiding mission.

3. Topos “R” Us From historic re-creations to obscure mining maps, the USGS Map Store has more than 140,000 titles.

4. Scanning the globe The map warehouse is dominated by machines that digitally scan new quads and satellite imagery, and others that convert the USGS “National Map” into free, downloadable GeoPDFs ( USGS databases hold 579 gigabytes of geodata, but for now the printed quad still reigns: In 2009, the store sold 2.4 million paper books, maps, and reports—and served 1 million GeoPDF downloads.

5. Topo 2.0 Building 810 is also home to the USGS’s effort to transform classic 7.5-minute quads into a new “US Topo”  that overlays contour lines onto layers of transportation infrastructure and aerial imagery. The new maps will show a more precise picture of treelines, water sources, and forest road access while giving backpackers a better idea of what’s happening between the contours.

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