Telling a Story with a Map: Canyon Junction

Explaining the story told by a single map and the role color plays in map making.

The final map representing my experience in Zion National Park.


Maps are arguably the most aesthetic form of data known to man. Everything from naval charts to topographic maps have been admired by the general public. Maps provide us with a sense of where we are; knowing where we are can help us understand who we are.

This map was less of a quantitative exercise and more of an expressive one. As I mentioned in a previous article, all geologists should take an art class. This is because art can be a tool that we can master to help us communicate fluently. An abstract painting or a postmodern novel may not be very obtuse but its execution helps us understanding something that used to confuse us. Likewise, creating diagrams, writing journals, and creating thoughtful presentations can unlock our full potential as narrators. After all, science is a narrative.

How Cartographers Tell A Story

A map should tell us a story. It may be a story of how generational immigration has shaped the USA or it may be a story of how tectonics shaped California. Many GIS specialists today are telling either a political story, or a civil engineering story. Applying aspects of aesthetic is an important component of telling these stories successfully. Many maps should have clarity, harmony, and clear composition. Clarity allows the information within the map to be quickly understood. The harmony of a map allows us to interpret the relationship its parts possess. Its composition allows us to see the whole picture. Beyond these three values, many maps tend to fall short.

Telling the story of my hike in Canyon Junction 

Our view of Canyon Junction in the twilight.

For this map, I wanted to share a specific experience with the viewer. During my geology field school we spent a week in Zion National Park. Zion is a place that looks almost angelic, the giant mountains stand so close they almost stand over you. During our time at Zion, I took a hike up to observation point before the sun rose. We started the trail by headlamp and finally stopped just as the sun’s first rays started bending over the ridge line. We had climbed above the usual lookout and hung our feet over the canyon’s edge. The light slowly glowed stronger and stronger like the coals of a dying fire. The peaks of the mountains across the valley began to look like beacons and the air became still as night transitioned into day. It is one of those views that you can never forget and its a view I share with two of my closest friends.

What I just imagined, but impossible for me to realize – the harmony of colors – with your help it was accomplished…[]… Your color table will remain a classic work, when my contributions will be already forgotten…

Christian Keferstein

I chose the colors of this map to imitate the soft warmth of the rising sun. It’s a monotone map to emphasize how unified the various features of the canyon appeared in twilight. The hillshading of the map matches the direction of the sun as it rose during our hike and illuminates the scene we saw at our summit. As for the points selected on the map, the three locations are the most pertinent features seen from the view and represent myself and my two close friends. They glow much like our headlamps did during the climb. 

An orthographic view of the now-3D DEM

For this map’s creation, I collected LiDAR data provided by Utah’s AGRC. I imported the raster tiles into QGIS and merged them together for the terrain. Once I did that, I copied the coordinates for the three features into a shapefile and named each point in the attribute table. The visualizations available in QGIS are limited so I exported the map into Blender3D for the map’s final render. Once in Blender, I subdivided a plane to the same resolution as the raster and used the merged raster as a UV displacement map. Finally, I imported my georeferenced points into Blender and modified the points to have an emission texture correlating to their color.

Most maps tell a story with data; this exercise helped teach me how we can use color and composition to also tell a story of emotion. A map can provoke many feelings in people and this particular map will always remind me of an experience I will never forget.

Being a Jack of all trades and Master of none is a true curse. I find myself diving head first in a new hobby or interest just about every other week. Through my writing and my online projects, I have been trying to hone this thirst for new activities to create something worthwhile. I have a degree in Geology and Environmental Science. I also spend a large amount of my time sketching and animating. To get myself outdoors, I love to play rugby and go hiking.

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